Ali: The Right Person at the Right Time

mohammed ali23.01.07 - By Ted Sares: The progressive jump in athletics for African Americans that went from the Negro Baseball League to Jackie Robinson (who provided hope and heroism) to Lary Doby to Jim Brown culminated with a new breed of active and responsible African American athletes who began to pave the way more quickly for others. People like Wilma Rudolph, Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood, quarterback Doug Williams, golfers Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder, Mohammed Ali, Tiger Woods and, of course, the 41st Super Bowl in which both head coaches are African Americans. The evolution has been spectacular, but far too long in coming. Mohammed Ali’s considerable contributions to this time line will remain part of his legacy. But other things will also be a part of that legacy

Ali made his socio-political statements during the 60’s and 70’s, though universal consensus on his motives and positive impact remains slightly less than 100%.

Many other black athletes spoke out, including Bill Russell and track and field's Tommie Smith and John Carlos. But the mercurial and self-proclaimed “greatest” commanded center stage in the very volatile decade of the 60's. Maybe constantly reminding everyone that "I am the greatest!” convinced people that he was in fact the greatest, but there was far more to Ali than the self-proclamations, intuitive poems, shuffle, and Rope-a-Dope.

Now criticizing icons is not popular and when one targets the "Greatest," sacred and inviolate ground may be involved. But how could Ali turn on his former friend, Joe Frazier, who to this day remains deeply wounded about how Ali turned his own people against him? "It's gonna be a chilla, and a killa, and a thrilla, when I get the Gorilla in Manila," said Ali, but those insults may have said more about him than it did Joe. He cruelly taunted Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell. After the Terrell fight, Tex Maule wrote, "It was a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty." However, his worse treatment was reserved for ‘Smokin’ Joe, who became an "Uncle Tom" and "The White Man's Champion" thanks to Ali reminding of this at every turn. The plain fact was Joe was from a hard scrabble beginning while Clay ironically emerged from a relatively sheltered environment in Louisville.

Of course, a part of his legacy must include the beginning of trash talking and maybe that involved, in part, his way of standing up to the establishment. Calling opponents "bums" and "chumps" and predicting the round of their demise was something very new to the fans, and what gave this behavior credibility was that his predictions frequently proved accurate.

Along more serious grounds, however, his stand against the Vietnam War was never fully viewed as being intellectually compelling. "I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…" he asserted. Maybe so, but neither did thousands of other Americans who were drafted and did their duty without claiming they had become ministers. Exemptions on religious grounds were available to qualifying conscientious objectors who were opposed to war in any form. However, Ali was not granted such an exemption because he acknowledged that he would be willing to participate in an Islamic holy war. Specifically, he said, "War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur'an. I'm not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don't take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers."

None of this seemed to square with logic. Indeed, given what would have happened had he in fact “served” (and fought exhibition boxing matches in the manner of Joe Louis during the second World War) the long range risk-reward equation did not seem all that precarious. In the end, those who seemed to have garnered the most benefit were the Nation of Islam and its "Messenger," which suggests at least the possibility that Ali may have been used as a pawn.

Also bothersome was his departure from Malcolm X in favor of the cult-like and powerful Elijah Muhammad during his early years with the movement. He had become close friends with Malcolm, the Nation of Islam’s best-known spokesman, seeking his guidance. They met several times and it was Malcolm who likely played the key role in Ali's conversion.

However, after Elijah suspended Malcolm X (for clearly becoming too popular), Cassius X, perhaps showing a politically pragmatic side, remained loyal to Elijah Muhammad and was given the name “Muhammad Ali” by "The Messenger.” In short, Ali chose to disassociate himself from his friend and mentor and went so far as to verbally admonishes Malcolm for not following The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Elijah's eldest son, Herbert Muhammad, was then appointed Ali’s new manager.

After his suspension, Malcolm X, disillusioned by the hypocrisy he believed was rampant in the Chicago based Nation Of Islam, went to Mecca and moved towards a more Orthodox --"five pillars"-- form of Islam. He assumed a new name, El-Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz. In 1965, he was officially denounced by the Nation of Islam. Shortly thereafter on February 21, 1965 he was assassinated while giving a speech in New York City.

How much fear played in Ali’s behavior throughout all of this only he knows. He has never discussed it openly, but like Malcolm X, he later left the Nation of Islam and joined a more orthodox mainstream Islam.

Maybe Ali was a visionary or saint, but I‘d prefer to treat that premise with a more balanced perspective. There are myths about Ali that are rarely demystified, and maybe that’s because he is perceived to walk on sacred ground. Despicably, the politically fashionable and assorted sycophants attached themselves to his racial invective as if it were the wisdom of a prophet, but as novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand once said, “there is a level of cowardice lower than that of the conformist: the fashionable non-conformist.” If anyone was a prophet, it was Malcolm X…at least in my opinion.

Nevertheless, while I refuse to romanticize Ali, the contributions he made to the African-American community cannot be denied. First as a center stage radical voice and much later while active on the college lecture circuit. The timing of his opposition to the Vietnam War was in perfect sync with the volatility of the 60’s and his involvement with and conversion to the Nation of Islam enhanced his persona as a countercultural hero. That he made a hugh difference as a change agent cannot be denied; that his perceived cultural legacy should place him on a pedestal of respect cannot be denied; and that he lead the sports world in radicalism at a time when radicalism arguably was necessary cannot be denied. In short, he was the right person to come along at just the right time and rightly or wrongly, represented courage, individualism, conviction and tenacity to his adoring fans and generated political activism and love. He was a boxer whose life transcended boxing and there probably will never be another.

Reportedly, at a recent Parkinson's Disease fund-raiser in Houston, Ali sat quietly at the podium. After receiving an award, he smiled and flashed mischievous eyes, but his daughter spoke to the gathering. As he was being escorted away, he noticed a wheelchair-bound elderly lady. He stopped, bowed and kissed her head.

Perhaps on balance, he indeed should be remembered as the “THE GREATEST."

Article posted on 24.01.2007

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