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Put the Ali story in context

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali

The other Ali

Muhammad Ali not only rocked the boat in the early days of his career, he turned it on its side.

Upon his recent death, the media has portrayed Ali as “The Greatest” and the “People’s Champ,” but the perception of those who witnessed Ali’s rise in the 1960s saw another view. It’s all a matter of perception. To some, Ali’s story is one of redemption.

This is important, especially this week as services for Ali begin, because a majority of journalists covering the death of Muhammad Ali were not alive during his rise to fame. Although most reports about Ali’s past do a decent job of documenting his actions, they don’t put them into perspective for those times. As objective reporters, it’s important that we place Ali’s impact into a proper perspective, not just state that his stands were controversial.


My 10-year-old daughter and I were watching a report about Ali on the CBS Evening News last night. The report featured Ali’s poetry. As the video showed him in all his brash glory, my daughter asked, “Why does he brag so much?”

As the segment ended, she said, “He’s so weird. Creepy.”

As a young child, I was not impressed with Ali’s outrageous, loud and boastful nature either. In fact, he was a little scary. My reaction was much like my young daughter’s some 50 years later.

Cassis Clay vs. Sonny Liston, 1964

Flash back to 1964. I was a young child sitting around the radio with my father as we listened to the live broadcast of a young fighter named Cassius Clay fighting world champion Sonny Liston. I didn’t know much about boxing, but my father had been talking about the match so I joined him to listen. We were both shocked when Clay won the match as Liston did not come out of his corner for the seventh round. The radio coverage provided an exciting but often chaotic description of the fight. What many don’t know about is the rumor that Listen was winded and didn’t want to answer the bell in the seventh because he knew he had a rematch clause with Clay.

Sports and news reports were filled with stories about Cassius Clay for weeks following the fight. A rematch with Liston was held in 1965 and Ali won with a first round technical knockout. Again, few remember that although Liston was knocked to the ground, he arose as the referee stopped counting amid confusion in the ring. The official timer and a journalist at ringside were both waving their arms and the referee thought the timer shouted that the count had ended, that the match was over. In fact, both boxers resumed fighting again and had to be stopped. The controversial victory further propelled Ali into the spotlight. Meanwhile, Ali provided the media with an abundance of colorful quotes and outrageous interviews, the likes of which had never been seen or heard before.

Brash, arrogant, unsportsmanlike

He would tease reporters and taunt his opponents. His poetry was entertaining, but he continuously boasted about his own prowess and belittled other boxers. Boxing is a violent sport so a bit of brashness from the brutish participants is expected, but an abundance of constant braggadocio was highly distasteful for the times.

Keep in mind that most adults in the early 1960s had survived World War II. Many were combatants in that war, used to either giving orders or taking orders in the military. Once the war ended and they had the gift of living a normal life, well, that’s all they wanted. They were grateful to live a normal life in peace. Conformity was the preferred lifestyle.

They taught their children respect and sportsmanship. Keep in mind, the common male haircut of the early 1960s was a crew cut. Everything was conservative; don’t make waves.

Along comes Cassius Clay, a loud, boastful negro (in the terminology of the day). To top it off, this boxer had the nerve to call himself “pretty.” So this is our heavyweight champ? Imagine the reaction. Most Americans didn’t know what to think of this guy. Most didn’t understand his nature and many were not prepared to accept him.

In addition, the media’s extensive coverage of his fights, press conferences and interviews ignited a rash of boastful posturing and trash talk that is epidemic in sports today, even at the junior level. He wasn’t the first athlete to exhibit such behavior, but his actions were the most widely covered by the media, and soon became widely mimicked.

Did he throw his gold medal into a river?

At the Rome Olympics in 1960 Cassius Clay became the fourth U.S. athlete in history to win a gold medal in light heavyweight boxing. Shortly after he returned to the States he reportedly attended a small dinner party at a whites-only restaurant where he and a friend were refused service due to their race. According to his 1975 autobiography, he became so angry that he walked out and threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River. However, this claim was denied by a few close to the champ. They said that he lost the medal a year after he won it. The issue continues to be debated to this day. Nevertheless, he was given a replacement medal during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

He changed his religion and name

Shortly after winning the heavyweight championship, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali due to his acceptance into the Nation of Islam, also known as the Black Muslims. The Nation of Islam was known as a “hate religion” at the time, even by many African Americans.

Not only was changing a religion unheard of during those days, it rattled the general public that the world heavyweight champ joined a radical Muslim sect. Children regularly stayed with the religion of their parents out of respect for their parents, if not for their own beliefs. Adding to the outrage was the champ’s statement that “Cassius Clay is my slave name.”

He dodged the draft

Muhammad Ali was drafted into the armed forces of the United States during the Vietnam War, but in 1966 he refused to be inducted, which was a felony offense. He was stripped of his boxing license by every state and did not fight again until 1970. Ali claimed to be a conscientious objector. “Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he said.

Ali was found guilty in 1967, and an Appeals Court later upheld the conviction. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971. Ali missed more than three years of boxing during his prime, and many say his stance on the war and his refusal to be inducted was a show of courage. They reason that he personally put his career on the line; that he risked his athletic future, the prize money, endorsement cash, even facing prison.

But many common citizens of the time saw Ali’s stance in another light. After all, normal citizens who were drafted had little choice but to go forward during induction, and face their fate in the military during war time. Ali had the resources to fight the draft. He had money, he had advisors, he had fame. Yes, by being inducted he faced a threat to his career, losing millions by not being able to accept pro matches, and he risked death if he were to face combat.

But many saw Ali’s stance as a way to avoid doing his service to the country. Maybe he was avoiding the military because of his lust for more prize money from big matches. Most fans assumed Ali was merely trying to protect his career. Or maybe it was cowardice. Yes, he was the world champion, but that didn’t exclude him from his duties to serve his country as every other young man was expected.

How did the ordinary young men feel about having their lives interrupted to serve, to leave their loved ones and face danger? How did their loved ones react when Ali tried to avoid the military? How did the parents of those who lost their son in combat feel about Ali trying to evade the draft? No, his actions were not universally accepted.

Racist remarks

Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali fought their third match in 1975 in Manila, Philippines. During the workup to the match, Ali nicknamed Joe Frazier the “Gorilla.” At pre-fight promotions Ali would chant, “It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the Gorilla in Manila.” He did this while punching a small rubber toy gorilla. Today, anyone referring to a black athlete, or any black person, using the terms monkey, gorilla, ape or banana would cause a tremendous backlash and condemnation for their horrendous racist comments. But apparently Ali was immune to such criticism.

During the times of social injustice and the Civil Rights Movement, Ali made this statement regarding integration: "We who follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad don't want to be forced to integrate. Integration is wrong. We don't want to live with the white man; that's all.”

While speaking about his opposition to his involvement in the Vietnam War he said, "My enemy is the white people, not the Vietcong.”

During his time away from boxing while he awaited appeal hearings regarding his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. military, Ali would sometimes be asked to speak at universities across the country. At Howard University, Ali delivered what is known as his “Black Is Best” speech.

In his career’s early years, Ali was anything but politically correct. In the late 1960s and most of the 1970s the world was in turmoil and the culture was changing painfully. It was a time of unrest and there were many, many groups and individuals gaining headlines for their actions and beliefs, but Ali was the one who got the most publicity. He was the one individual who commanded the most press.

Redemption story

This may be an unpopular story in today’s climate. This article might appear to be a hit piece, but it’s an important perspective for today’s journalists who endeavor to be objective, especially the younger ones who didn’t grow up in the 1960s or 1970s during Ali’s rise in popularity. Yes, it’s simple to assume Ali was a hero of the people today. But it’s better to research his background and fully understand the culture at the time of his rise. After all, he was just a man. A man who had faults like other men.

“The more we help others, the more we help ourselves.”

— Muhammad Ali

He was also a man capable of change. In his later life Ali wisely did not make everything about himself and his pretty face. He matured, and with maturity came the realization that everyone’s actions have consequences — some can be counterproductive, hurtful and incite hatred. Perhaps having children helped Ali learn that the world did not revolve around him. In fact, he used his world wide celebratory status to do much good. He mastered boxing, he mastered the media, and he mastered self-improvement. Ali was quoted as saying, “The more we help others, the more we help ourselves.”

Ali always displayed great discipline in training for his sport. Furthermore, Ali followed his convictions. Are there photos of Ali at nightclubs boozing it up, like many pro athletes? Were there ever any reports of Ali assaulting someone outside the ring, or being involved in a shooting? No. Instead, there are photos of Ali practicing his religion. There are photos of Ali meeting world leaders.

In 1981 Ali talked a suicidal man down from a window ledge. He served as an emissary for the United States on many occasions. He visited Africa, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Israel and India. In 1990 Ali went to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein in a successful negotiation for the release of U.S. hostages before the Gulf War. In 2002 he visited Afghanistan as a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Ali continued to make public appearances after retiring from boxing even throughout his bout with Parkinson’s Syndrome. He received countless honors including an honorary doctorate in humanities from Princeton University, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold, the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.

No arguing that he was the greatest

Ali’s achievements in the boxing ring are unmatched. He won 56 professional heavyweight bouts and lost five. He is the only professional heavyweight boxer to be the lineal heavyweight champion three times.

It seems those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s knew Muhammad Ali almost on a personal level. It couldn’t be avoided. The media put Ali everywhere. Aside from his comments and poetry, the memories of his superior boxing skills are the best. Watching video of this man bouncing around the ring, landing relentless lightning-quick jabs reminds us how slick and graceful a fighter he was for a heavyweight. Ali’s style revolutionized boxing. His own “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” description of his tactics was not only accurate, it became a style to ponder, a philosophy of life.


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