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Ali, Muhammad.

By:
Jeff Diamant
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Ali, Muhammad.

(b. 1942),

American boxer, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. A major figure in both sports history and Muslim-American history, he ranks high among the greatest boxers of the twentieth century and among the most renowned athletes of all time. His legacies as a boxer and as a Muslim are intertwined due to the timing of his acknowledgment of his conversion, just days after winning the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston in 1964. He remained an important figure within the Nation of Islam for over a decade due to his outsized persona, which reflected his prestige as a boxer, his bravado at press conferences, and political stances that shook white mainstream political sensibilities. In 1967, Ali was arrested, stripped of his heavyweight title, and banned from boxing for three years for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army, but in 1970 he began another decade of glory in the ring, winning the heavyweight title two more times. During and after that decade he played active roles in the Nation of Islam’s successor organizations that were led by Imam Wallace Muhammad. Ali has also become a respected elder statesman in the United States, lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, raising money for research for Parkinson’s Syndrome, from which he suffers, and winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.

Career and Conversion.

Born on January 17, 1942, into a Baptist family in Louisville, Kentucky, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., as he was named at birth, began learning how to box at age twelve, after wanting to ‘whup’ the person who had stolen his bicycle. He earned multiple Golden Gloves awards before winning the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

It was in 1964 that he gained international renown, first by upsetting Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title, and then by mentioning, in the days afterward at press conferences, that he had converted to Islam. Though he had attended numerous Nation of Islam events since 1961, this was the first time he had spoken publicly about his conversion. The day after he defeated Liston, when a reporter asked if he was a card-carrying member of the Nation of Islam, he responded by affirming his belief in Allah, saying he was no longer a Christian, and rejecting the liberal integrationist goals of the civil-rights movement. “I don’t try to move into white neighborhoods,” he said, reflecting NOI ideals. “I don’t want to marry a white woman.” The following morning he elaborated, saying the media should avoid the term ‘black Muslims’ and that he was one of the 750 million practitioners of the religion of Islam. “I ain’t no Christian,” he said. “I can’t be, when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blowed up. They get hit by stones and chewed by dogs and they blow up a Negro church and don’t find the killers.” He also said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I am free to be who I want.” (Hauser, 1992)

In articulating doubt over integration, Clay seemed an excellent youth-recruitment tool for the Nation of Islam, especially as Malcolm X was preparing, at the time, to leave the organization due to internal disputes with Elijah Muhammad and others. Though Clay was close at the time to both Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, he publicly sided with Elijah Muhammad, whose newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, frequently showcased Clay’s loyalty to him. Elijah Muhammad honored him by changing the boxer’s name to Muhammad Ali.

The fighter’s conversion and defense of the Nation of Islam drew criticism from mainstream newspapers, as well as from his boxing opponent Floyd Patterson, who, before a fight against Ali in 1965, called the Nation of Islam “a menace to the U.S. and a menace to the Negro race,” and likened the organization to the Ku Klux Klan. After his refusal to be inducted into the Army in 1967, Ali was charged with draft evasion, stripped of his heavyweight title, and banned from boxing for three years. His stated reasoning for opposing the war—“I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong”—reflected NOI criticism of American foreign policy. Despite his ban from boxing, he told a college audience, “I would like to say to those of you who think I’ve lost so much, I have gained everything. I have peace of heart; I have a clear free conscience. And I’m proud. I wake up happy. I go to bed happy. And if I go to jail, I’ll go to jail happy. Boys go to war and die for what they believe, so I don’t see why the world is so shook up over me suffering for what I believe.” (Hauser, History Now).

Elijah Muhammad, never enthralled with boxing, which he called a ‘very wicked sport,’ decided in 1969 to suspend Ali from the NOI, formally revoking his Muslim name. It was believed that Elijah Muhammad was upset with Ali’s stated desire, during his suspension, to return to boxing if doing so would be financially lucrative, and that Elijah Muhammad calculated it was unnecessary during the Black Power era to maintain ties to a public figure who did not seem to abide by the NOI’s behavioral strictures. In 1972, though, Elijah Muhammad welcomed Ali back into the NOI as ‘a great spiritual man.’

Ali had returned to boxing in 1970 and was successful in appealing his conviction for draft evasion. In 1971, he lost in the so-called ‘Fight of the Century,’ a fifteen-round battle awarded unanimously to Joe Frazier. Ali regained the heavyweight title in 1974, upsetting George Foreman (who had defeated Frazier the previous year) in a fight in Kinshasa, Zaire that was dubbed the ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’ Ali knocked Foreman out in the eighth round, benefiting from what he called a ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy, in which he let Foreman land ineffective punches while Ali leaned against the ropes of the ring, leading Foreman to expend his energy. In 1975, in the Philippines, Ali defeated Frazier in a rematch, the so-called ‘Thrilla in Manila,’ and kept the title until Leon Spinks defeated him in February 1978. After defeating Spinks in a rematch in September 1978, Ali retired but came back in 1980, losing to heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. He retired for good after losing a fight in 1981 to Trevor Birbeck.

In 1975, after Elijah Muhammad died, Ali joined his son and successor, Wallace Muhammad, in his rejection of racial separatism and his efforts to move the NOI toward Sunnī Islam. In 1984, Ali criticized Louis Farrakhan, who had parted ways with Wallace Muhammad in favor of the old NOI tenets. Ali said, “What he [Farrakhan] teaches is not at all what we believe in. He represents the time of our struggle in the dark and a time of confusion in us, and we don’t want to be associated with that at all.” (Ezra, 2008)

Life after Boxing.

After Ali’s final retirement in 1981 his celebrity status grew, and he was chosen to light the torch for the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. In 2001, during a two-hour telethon filmed ten days after 9/11, Ali appeared with the entertainer Will Smith and emphasized that the men who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon should not be viewed as representing Islam. “People recognize me as being a boxer, and a man of truth,” he said, shaking from symptoms of Parkinson’s. “I wouldn’t be here representing Islam if it was really like the terrorists made it look. I think that all the people should know the truth and come to recognize the truth because Islam is peace, against killing, [against] murder. And the terrorists and the people doing that in the name of Islam are wrong, and if I had the chance I’d do something about it.” (America: A Tribute to Heroes (documentary video), 2001, Line by Line Productions)

In his later years, Ali embraced Sufism, displaying an attraction to the Indian Ṣūfī teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan. Ali’s daughter, Hana Yasmeen Ali, described her father as being ‘more spiritual now than he is religious.’

His popularity reached such heights that even the Veterans of Foreign Wars supported his selection in 2005 for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, despite his refusal to enter the Army in 1967. “He [refused to serve] for religious principles, and he paid the price,” said Joe Davis, a VFW spokesman, in 2005. “And what he did in his later life, he was an excellent representative of the United States of America.” (Katz, 2005)

In 2001, the journalist Robert Lipsyte, who covered Ali in the 1960s, contended that Ali’s comments about his identity after the 1964 fight against Liston marked the most important turning point in sports history of the twentieth century. “In my mind,” Lipsyte said, “there is an absolute arc from Ali’s declaration of independence, which led to his refusal to be drafted, his being stripped of the heavyweight championship, and today’s incredibly self-indulgent me-athlete. Athletes saw what happened, how you could be struck down.” Lipsyte said Ali never fully recovered from the early reaction against his personal choices, and that he received far fewer sponsorships and endorsements than he otherwise would have. “There’s no question,” Lipsyte said, “in his time he was even more of a world figure than Michael Jordan, yet he never made the same money.” (Lipsyte, 2001)

Bibliography

  • Ali, Muhammad, with Hana Yasmeen Ali. Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
  • Ezra, Michael. “Battles for Control over Muhammad Ali’s Career and image,” in M. Lomax and K. Shropshire, eds., Sports and the Racial Divide: African American and Latino Experience in an Era of Change. (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2008).
  • Hauser, Thomas. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.
  • Hauser, Thomas. “The Importance of Muhammad Ali,” History Now: American History Online. www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/civil-rights-movement/essays/ importance-muhammad-ali
  • Katz, Jonathan M. “Bush Presents Ali with Medal of Freedom,” The Associated Press, Nov. 9, 2005. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/09/ AR2005110901943_pf.html
  • Lipsyte, Robert. “I am the Greatest,” in Events that Shaped the Nation, ed. Richard Phalen, (USA: Pelican Publishing Co., 2001).
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