FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Muhammad Ali: a Torchbearer of Resistance

If anything the passing of Muhammad Ali bestows even more greatness on the man, knowing that despite all he achieved, everything he went through both in and out the ring, he was mortal just like the rest of us. The mere mention of his name and the words just trip off the tongue – ‘beauty’, ‘poetry’, ‘elegance’, ‘vision’, ‘defiance’, ‘anger’, ‘justice’, ‘rebellion’, ‘determination’, ‘compassion’, ‘grace’, ‘strength’. Ali owned all of these attributes and then some.

Who could have predicted when a young, gangly, loose-limbed boxer from Louisville, Kentucky by the name of Cassius Clay took the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics – dismissed by the major sportswriters of the day as lacking the ability and power to go on and make any impact as a professional – that he would smash his way into global consciousness like a hurricane unleashed when, just four years later, not only did he win the world heavyweight title at just 22 with a performance against the fearsome Sonny Liston that induces wonder to this day, but did it while refusing to know his place as a black athlete in Jim Crow America?

“Uppity negro” is one of the kinder insults thrown his way in a society in which the lived experience of black people was racial oppression, segregation, and injustice.

Prior to that first Liston fight in Miami only those closest to him were aware of the anger, defiance and political and religious consciousness that was bubbling away under the surface of the playful braggadocio and exuberance that so endeared him to the sports pages before he turned.

It was just after that astonishing victory over Liston in which he “shook up the world” that the newly crowned heavyweight champion of the world revealed that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, renamed the Black Muslims by reporters and TV broadcasters looking to court controversy. It was followed by a change of name – first from Cassius Clay to Cassius X, then Muhammad Ali. Overnight this tiny, marginal, fundamentalist religious sect was propelled dragged from the obscurity in which it had existed for years under its diminutive leader, Elijah Muhammad, to the front pages of the nation’s major and not so major newspapers, the subject of TV studio debates, documentaries and establishment hysteria. Ali, meanwhile, suddenly found himself turned into hate figure, widely and roundly excoriated as befitting a young black athlete who refused to demonstrate the requisite gratitude for having been allowed to rise from his station and be used as living proof that America works.

Where the Nation of Islam connected with Ali was in the assertion that not only were blacks equal to whites they were better, producing within him a consciousness responsible for the heavyweight title taking on a political and social significance it had never known previously.

Ali paid a terrible price for his apostasy, subjected to withering columns by sportswriters, commentators, politicians, and even black leaders of the day. People lined up to attack both him and his beliefs, and ticket sales for his fights plummeted. And this was before his stance on the war in Vietnam, when after being reclassified he told a reporter that “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

It was a quote that unleashed the forces of hell, with Ali openly accused of treason in newspapers across the country.

Most men would have buckled under this kind of public animus but Ali only grew in stature, finding new purpose as a torchbearer of resistance to the war and the contradictions it exposed regarding the suppurating sore of racist injustice in America.

For refusing the draft he was stripped of his title and faced prison. Exile from the ring followed and he spent the next three years struggling to make ends meet. But Ali’s shadow continued to loom large over the heavyweight championship, a title cheapened in his absence.

At the beginning of his exile he was hated, but with the civil rights movement building to become the social phenomenon it did, and with the anti-Vietnam War movement doing likewise, three years later Ali was a folk hero, lauded where before he’d been vilified, respected for sticking to his principles no matter the personal cost.

His return to the ring in 1970 against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta was a seminal moment in US sporting and cultural history. Celebrities packed the ringside seats as Ali received the adulation of the thousands in attendance and the millions watching the fight on TV or listening to it on radio across the world.

The legend from that moment on is by now well known. A trilogy of epic fights against his ring nemesis Joe Frazier, the unbelievable victory over George Foreman, fighting most of his first fight against Ken Norton with a broken jaw, and of course the sad decline and slide into Parkinson’s.

Now he’s gone.

Muhammad Ali was more than a boxer and he was more than an icon. He was a man with the moral courage to speak truth to power no matter the consequences and no matter the cost to himself. This alone marks him out as a legend.

“Unhappy is the land that is in need of a hero,” Brecht reminds us. Muhammad Ali lived in just such an unhappy land and he was every inch a hero.

“I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” he once memorably announced.

Yes Muhammad, you certainly did.

More articles by:

John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir – Dreams That Die – published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1

Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail