Muhammad Ali’s Legacy -- Revisited

08.09.06 - By W. Gregory Guedel: While the pantheon of history’s great athletes is crowded with illustrious names, only a select few attain a level of recognition that goes beyond their accomplishments in sport. These rare individuals rise beyond the realm of athletics and become influential in social, political, and/or economic spheres, to the point where they are known equally or perhaps even more for these activities as for their exploits in competition. No modern athlete personifies this transcendence more than the man known to the world as “The Greatest”: Muhammad Ali.

His accomplishments as a boxer are legendary and require no elaboration. Yet to many, Muhammad Ali stands as a heroic figure to a greater extent for his activities outside the ring.

His resistance to the Vietnam War, his outspoken embrace of the Nation of Islam, and his unabashed proclamations to the white-dominated media cast him in the role of political and social reformer. During a period when America was grappling with its uncertainty over difficult issues of race, class, and equality, his very public persona radiated empowerment and potent individualism.

He has been feted by presidents, sought out by global leaders, and lit the Olympic flame before the eyes of the world. Despite the ravages of Parkinson’s Syndrome, he still projects a larger-than-life aura that seems to grow stronger with time. He is viewed with almost saint-like reverence by legions of fans, and the recently-opened Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville will serve as a monument to the man for generations to come.

When reflecting upon persons of such stature, it can be daunting to probe deeper into the myths and conventional wisdom that surround them, and to seek a balanced perspective on their legacy. Many people are fiercely protective of their heroes, and take ferocious offence at the very idea that their role-models may have been flawed. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile endeavor – perhaps even a crucial one – to take a judicious view of public figures and separate history from hype. To refrain from doing so is to facilitate the “cult of personality” phenomenon that has resulted in so much trauma through the ages. To this end, some of Muhammad Ali’s actions outside of the ring and their impact on society warrant review.


In years past, it was not only common for top-level athletes to serve in the military during wartime, it was actually expected. Battling Siki earned the Croix de Guerre as a French soldier in the trenches of World War One, Joe Louis performed morale-boosting tours as a soldier in World War Two, and baseball legend Ted Williams interrupted his Hall of Fame career twice to fly combat missions as a fighter pilot in both World War Two and the Korean War. In contrast, the immortal Jack Dempsey was dogged in the early years of his career by rumors that he avoided service in the First World War -- talk that was only fully put to rest by his efforts in support of Allied troops in WWII. In the modern era, it is almost unthinkable that a professional athlete would forego the luxury life to serve in the military, even in times of national emergency (the noble Pat Tillman perhaps being the exception that proves the rule). The origin of this shift in attitude can be traced back to a specific historical event: Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the armed services in 1967.

Ali’s stated basis for refusing to join the military was two-fold: 1) a conflict with his religious beliefs, and 2) a conflict with his socio-political beliefs. In retrospect, the substance of both issues appears somewhat thin. On the first count, there is little support within the tenets of Islam for the premise that military service is a breach of faith. The Qur’an prohibits neither serving in uniform nor engaging in battle – indeed in some circumstances it commands the Muslim faithful to such action. The U.S. military had recognized conscientious objector status on religious grounds since WWI, and by 1967 had various non-combat duty options for those whose religious beliefs prohibited armed combat. For someone in Ali’s position, there were numerous ways he could have fulfilled his military service without ever firing a shot in anger or otherwise contravening the fundamentals of Islam.

On the second count, one of Ali’s most famous political utterances stands in stark contradiction to his stated religious beliefs. In 1966, as justification for his position against the war, Ali was quoted as saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” Yet based on his religious beliefs, it stands to reason that he should have had a major quarrel with that insurgent group. The Vietcong were the vanguard of a communist regime that imposed atheism on the Vietnamese people and strictly repressed religious expression in all forms. Vietnam had been home to communities of Islamic followers for centuries. The fact that almost nothing is heard of them today is due to their systematic oppression by the communist government. As one who fervently embraced his freedom of religion (and used it to good effect for his own purposes), should not Ali have also vigorously condemned the repression of his Muslim brethren by the forces of North Vietnam? Shouldn’t the Vietnamese people have been entitled to the same religious freedoms Ali enjoyed in America? Given that the freedom of Vietnamese Muslims to worship was under armed threat, the Qur’an directs the faithful to “fight in the cause of Allah those who fight and persecute you…and slay them…fight them until persecution is no more and religion is freely professed for Allah.” Qur’an 2:190-91, 193. It therefore appears that the faith Ali stated as grounds for resisting military service actually mandated a quite a different course.

Ali’s refusal to join the military seemed to produce one primary beneficiary: himself. The thousands of other African-American men who faced the draft but had neither the money nor the connections to retain high-priced legal counsel certainly did not find their lot improved as a result of Ali’s stand. They were also deprived of the significant boost to morale that would undoubtedly have accrued from knowing that “The Champ” was serving alongside them. One can imagine the chagrin of those young men when they realized that African-Americans of high socio-economic station could escape the risks of military service – just as well-heeled whites had avoided service in the Civil War and other conflicts – but those who were less economically privileged were sent to the battlefields just as they had always been. Ali’s refusal to serve in the armed forces thus resulted in further hardship for many who already carried a heavy burden during troubled times.


One of Muhammad Ali’s best-known tactics as a fighter was to pursue the psychological intimidation of his opponents prior to their bouts. His repertoire included prediction of knockout rounds, composing poems that belittled his adversary’s skills, and old-fashioned name calling. While his pre-fight diatribes could sometimes be hilarious, they could also cross the line into obviously inappropriate territory. This tendency was most evident in his statements toward Joe Frazier.

Although both men share a common ethnicity, Ali enjoyed many cultural advantages that Frazier did not. Frazier grew up with less material comfort and educational opportunities than Ali, and he lacked both the experience and inclination to match Ali’s loquaciousness. Ali took cruel pleasure in hurling barbs at Frazier that were so vicious they make observers cringe even three decades later. With no discernable basis, Ali disparaged Frazier as an “Uncle Tom” and “The White Man’s Champion” prior to their first meeting in 1971. He routinely insulted and dismissed Frazier’s intelligence and verbal abilities, and then proceeded even further into the mud by insulting his physical appearance. In his most infamous tirades leading up to their momentous clash in the Philippines, Ali began referring to Frazier as a “gorilla” and taunting him with a rubber toy resembling King Kong.

If a white fighter (or any other white person) referred to Joe Frazier (or any other person of African heritage) as a “gorilla”, he would be rightfully excoriated by the press and condemned by the public at large. Case in point: Howard Cosell, one of Ali’s biggest supporters and facilitators of his public image, was fired from his post as commentator for Monday Night Football after referring to Washington receiver Alvin Garrett (an African-American) as a “little monkey” during a telecast. If such denigrations are unacceptable from a sports icon like Cosell, how can it be acceptable from Muhammad Ali?

Aside from the inappropriate content of his statements toward Joe Frazier and other opponents, Ali’s braggadocio left behind another unfortunate legacy: trash-talking. Professional athletes once generally spoke respectfully of their opponents before, during, and after competition, letting their performances do the talking. Today, it is almost a reflex for many athletes to engage in a steady stream of insults and self-promotion as long as there is a camera or microphone in front of them. This lack of grace and sportsmanship in athletics has now trickled down to the youth level, condemning additional generations to deal with this juvenile behavior. While Ali was certainly not the first athlete to verbally disparage an opponent, he was without question the one who brought the concept into the cultural mainstream and created a perceived connection between his trash-talk and his success in the ring. The gleam of dignity surrounding boxing and the world of sport in general sustained an enduring tarnish as a result.

No human being is perfect, and no one whose record is scrutinized by contemporary standards can expect to emerge unblemished. It is too much to ask of anyone that they possess no faults or foibles; professional athletes are no exception. Muhammad Ali earned the respect of millions with his actions inside and outside the ring, and is deservedly viewed as a towering figure of both sport and society. Nevertheless, it is a reasonable protocol to at least occasionally engage in open and candid debate regarding the true and complete legacy left by our heroes – positive or otherwise. Given the fortitude Ali demonstrated as a fighter, he can undoubtedly withstand a few jabs at his historical record as well.

Article posted on 08.09.2006

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