FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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

July 08, 2020
Laura Carlsen
Lopez Obrador’s Visit to Trump is a Betrayal of the U.S. and Mexican People
Melvin Goodman
Afghanistan: What is to be Done?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
The End of the American Newspaper
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Merits of Medicare for All Have Been Proven by This Pandemic
David Rosen
It’s Now Ghislaine Maxwell’s Turn
Nicolas J S Davies
Key U.S. Ally Indicted for Organ Trade Murder Scheme
Bob Lord
Welcome to Hectobillionaire Land
Laura Flanders
The Great American Lie
John Kendall Hawkins
Van Gogh’s Literary Influences
Marc Norton
Reopening vs. Lockdown is a False Dichotomy
Joel Schlosberg
“All the Credit He Gave Us:” Time to Drop Hamilton’s Economics
John Feffer
The US is Now the Global Public Health Emergency
Nick Licata
Three Books on the 2020 Presidential Election and Their Relevance to the Black Live Matter Protests
Elliot Sperber
The Breonna Taylor Bridge
July 07, 2020
Richard Eskow
The War on Logic: Contradictions and Absurdities in the House’s Military Spending Bill
Daniel Beaumont
Gimme Shelter: the Brief And Strange History of CHOP (AKA CHAZ)
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s War
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Racism May be Blatant, But the Culture He Defends Comes Out of the Civil War and Goes Well Beyond Racial Division
Andrew Stewart
Can We Compare the George Floyd Protests to the Vietnam War Protests? Maybe, But the Analogy is Imperfect
Walden Bello
The Racist Underpinnings of the American Way of War
Nyla Ali Khan
Fallacious Arguments Employed to Justify the Revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s Autonomy and Its Bifurcation
Don Fitz
A Statue of Hatuey
Dean Baker
Unemployment Benefits Should Depend on the Pandemic
Ramzy Baroud – Romana Rubeo
Will the ICC Investigation Bring Justice for Palestine?
Sam Pizzigati
Social Distancing for Mega-Million Fun and Profit
Dave Lindorff
Private: Why the High Dudgeon over Alleged Russian Bounties for Taliban Slaying of US Troops
George Wuerthner
Of Fire and Fish
Binoy Kampmark
Killing Koalas: the Promise of Extinction Down Under
Parth M.N.
Back to School in Rural India: Digital Divide to Digital Partition
Ed Sanders
The Burning of Newgate Prison: a Glyph
July 06, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Foreign Election Interference: Who is to Blame?
JoAnn Wypijewski
On Disposability and Rebellion: Insights From a Rank-and-File Insurgency
Marshall Auerback – Jan Frel
There’s a Hidden Economic Trendline That is Shattering the Global Trade System
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A Just and Talented Government for Our Hazardous Age
Manuel García, Jr.
Biosphere Warming in Numbers
Ron Jacobs
Kidnapping Kids: As American as the Fourth of July
Tasha Jones
Pyramids. Plantations. Projects. Penitentiaries
Binoy Kampmark
Criminalising Journalism: Australia’s National Security Craze
Eve Ottenberg
Re-Organizing Labor
Mike Garrity
How We Stopped Trump From Trashing a Critical Montana Roadless Area in Grizzly Habitat
Nino Pagliccia
The Meaning of the 1811 Independence for Today’s Venezuela
Michael Galant
We Need a Global Green New Deal
Jill Richardson
Learning Not to Look Away
Marshall Sahlins
Donald Trump at 130,000 and Rising
Weekend Edition
July 03, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Peter Linebaugh
Police and the Wealth of Nations: Déjà Vu or Unfinished Business?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail