Boxing legend Muhammad Ali died Friday, June 3, at age 74, according to multiple news reports. Below is a remembrance of the three-time heavyweight champion.
First, remember that his country once hated him.
Back when Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay, he boasted and preened and improvised ridiculous poems. He violated all the conventions that the US expected of its athletes. White Americans laughed him off as a gregarious goofball. But in 1964, he beat the heavily favored Sonny Liston and became the champion of the world. We invested that position with massive significance. In the 1960s, the heavyweight division was the stage for a morality play on race, with black boxers in all the starring roles. Floyd Patterson was the Good Negro, a well-meaning integrationist. Sonny Liston was the Dark Menace, a terrifying ex-con with connections to the mob. But who the hell was Cassius Clay?
“I am the greatest!” he proclaimed from inside the ring, as microphones poked close to his mouth. “I shook up the world! I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned 22 years old. I must be the greatest! I showed the world! I talk to God every day! I’m the king of the world!”
The next morning, he confirmed that he had joined the Nation of Islam. Within weeks, he claimed the name of Muhammad Ali. Most whites perceived his religion as a vile, sinister sect. Sportswriters fretted that he was a terrible role model, calling him a wicked mouthpiece for racist hate. They kept referring to him as Cassius Clay. Before a 1965 bout between the two men, Floyd Patterson claimed that he would bring “the title back to America.” Ali beat him, trash-talking throughout the rout: “Come on America! Come on white America!”
In 1967, Ali refused induction into the Vietnam War. “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he said in a famous off-hand remark. Politicians now branded him an unpatriotic disgrace. The FBI kept him under surveillance. The State Department rescinded his passport. Boxing authorities stripped him of his title. The broad swath of white middle America failed to understand him as a man of principle, just as they failed to understand the forces roiling within Black America. They made flawed assumptions about race and religion, and they hated him.
Remember that he was beautiful.
More than his perfect proportions and striking features, Ali toyed with our conventions of masculinity. He was the greatest fighter in the world, the ultimate symbol of manhood, and he called himself “pretty.”
He was a beautiful boxer. It is a brutal sport, by definition, but one that demands technical precision and artistic creativity. Ali possessed all the necessary skills, along with an unprecedented combination of size, speed, and grace. When he was exiled, he was at the height of his powers, with a 29-0 record. Like other black athletes of his era–Jim Brown in football, Bill Russell in basketball, Curt Flood in baseball–he altered his sport’s expectations of what was possible.
He had a beautiful spirit, too. He was not perfect. But he lit up around people. He told jokes, recited poems, teased adults, and kissed children. Just hours after the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, when he managed an extraordinary triumph over George Foreman, Ali was back at his rural training compound in N’Sele, sitting on the front stoop, performing magic tricks for a group of adoring children. Ali was just as happy as the kids. There was something pure about him, and he touched something inside us.
In the end, remember that he was beloved.
Wilfred Sheed once wrote that the heavyweight champion is a “King without a country.” Ali embodied that notion. He was a champion of human freedom. You did not have to be in the Nation of Islam to love his challenge to racial hypocrisy, his fearless beauty. That appeal stretched across national borders. When Ali toured Ghana, Nigeria, and Egypt in 1964, throngs of admirers chanted his name. When he refused to serve in Vietnam, he represented a bigger struggle against militarism and colonialism.
While banned from boxing, he lectured on college campuses, winning the adoration of Baby Boomers. When public opinion turned against the Vietnam War, Ali seemed a voice of truth. Black pride shaped the sports world, symbolized by Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics. Ali was celebrated as a pioneer. In 1971, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction, and his exile was over.
Ali’s second act in boxing was more flawed, more human, more amazing, more tragic. He had lost his dancing grace, but he displayed astonishing toughness, weathering punches and surviving on guile. In their first bout, Ken Norton broke his jaw, but Ali triumphed in two close rematches. He reclaimed his title by outfoxing Foreman in Zaire with the “rope-a-dope” strategy, taking punches until Foreman tired, than waging a furious onslaught. He fought an epic trilogy against Joe Frazier, climaxing with his victory in the 1975 “Thrilla in Manila,” a gruesome and glorious test of human will. He kept answering the bell, and in the beautiful blood sport of boxing, that courage won respect.
By the end of his boxing career, his body was battered. He suffered a string of losses to inferiors. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome. And yet the man once derided as a fanatical, racist draft-dodger won universal affection. He became a global icon of goodwill, a transformation completed by his dramatic lighting of the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. His trembling silence was broken by lightning flashes of the old magnetism. He let us see the best of ourselves in him.