From Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali: Goodbye to the Greatest
By: Eric Lunger
As a New Year begins, I have been thinking a lot about Muhammad Ali, who passed away last June. I was born two years after Cassius Clay (as he was then) defeated Sonny Liston in Miami to become heavyweight champion of the world. I vaguely remember watching Ali’s last fights on TV, but I didn’t become a serious boxing fan until the 1980s and the emergence of “Iron” Mike Tyson.
I recently read David Remnick’s KING OF THE WORLD, originally published in 1998. Remnick does an excellent job conjuring the reader into the world of the Jim Crow South with its crippling segregation.
However, the strength of Remnick’s book, in my view, is the way it shows how the white boxing media (in those days, mainstream media) delineated the identities of Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. Liston was cast as the villain, the dangerous criminal Black man with shadowy ties to the Mafia, while Patterson was the accommodating, polite, Christian “Negro,” who articulated the slow aspirations of the burgeoning integrationist civil rights movement.
By defeating Liston, converting to Islam and changing his name, and then beating Patterson, Ali exploded both stereotypes. He refused to be a Liston-type villain or a Patterson-type “Uncle Tom,” as Ali later lambasted some of his opponents, notably Joe Frazier. Ali was saying to himself and to America, a Black man can be whoever he wants to be. Ever eloquent, Ali said it best at a press conference: “I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” I am free to be what I want – with that phrase, much more than his ability to dance in the ring and his unprecedented skills, Ali the boxer broke the boundaries of what was expected from an African-American athlete, or any athlete for that matter.
If that were all, Ali would be remembered as a great champion and a great human being. But his opposition to the Vietnam War, so principled and so self-negating, catapulted Ali into a different realm. Again, Ali’s words:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?
Without gratuitous self-aggrandizement, without self-referential praise, Ali articulated the hypocrisy of the war, as he saw it, and the hypocrisy of a segregated Nation. Some fifty years later, it’s easy to underestimate the personal damage that Ali was inflicting on himself. As expected, he was sentenced to prison and fined, stripped of his titles, and barred from boxing. In all, Ali lost more than three years at the peak of his powers, and his reputation was shattered. Eventually vindicated by the Supreme Court, Ali resumed his boxing career in 1970, and the great bouts with Joe Frazier and George Foreman followed. But for many, Ali’s opposition to the draft and his refusal to compromise his principles made him “The Greatest.”
Muhammad Ali died on June 3rd, 2016. He had grown up in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, but when he passed, an African-American was president of the United States. Being a symbol is perhaps too heavy a burden for any human being to carry, and Ali had his faults like all of us. But I still watch Ali’s fights with wonder at his preternatural skill in the ring, and his courage beyond it.