Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1940s, at the time of the vicious Jim Crow laws, which enforced a system of racial segregation in the southern US. Ali was 13 when 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
Ali started boxing at an early age after his bicycle was stolen, and he wanted to punish the thief. An ex-police officer and boxing training coach, Joe E. Martin, soon discovered Ali’s talents, and the young fighter began an extraordinary boxing career and won the light-heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Shortly before challenging the much-feared heavyweight champion at that time, Sonny Liston, Ali was drawn to a young black preacher, Malcolm X. Malcolm X realized the potential of Ali and introduced him to the Nation of Islam, an African-American Islamic religious movement. At first, the Nation Of Islam took no real interest in the young fighter, until he beat Liston in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. And it was then Elijah Muhammad himself, the leader of the Nation of Islam, who gave Ali his new name. As black Muslims believed that white slave owners had obliterated the names of their ancestors and given them their own names, adopting African or Arabic names was, therefore, a first step toward liberation.
The Nation of Islam was widely loathed in America in comparison to the Civil Rights Movement, initiated by the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, when an African-American woman, Rosa Parker, was arrested after refusing to abandon her bus seat to a white passenger. A young African-American Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, Jr, led the ensuing bus boycott and growing protest movement, which would transform the face of America, until he was gunned down in 1968.
In 1966, Ali would become the symbol of the civil rights struggle, particularly after he refused to be inducted to the US military, which was embroiled in a vicious war in Vietnam at the time. His famous words, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” instantly made headlines.
Ali was put on trial for draft evasion, and threatened with imprisonment and having his boxing license stripped. Nevertheless, he chose the occasion to highlight the unjust status African-Americans endured in America: “You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Viet Cong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my rights here at home.”
American essayist and a professor of literature, Gerald Early, recalled that moment in 1967 when Ali refused to be drafted. In his essay, “The Wonderboy”, he writes, “When he refused, I felt something greater than pride: I felt as though my honor as a black boy had been defended, my honor as a human being … The day that Ali refused the draft, I cried in my room. I cried for him and for myself, for my future and his, for all our black possibilities.”
It is a move that stripped Ali of his prime years in boxing, trainer Angelo Dundee acknowledged. Ali was barred from boxing for more than three years; when he returned to the ring, he was 29 — quite old for a boxer.
Ali fought about 61 fights during his career, until he chose to retire at a relatively old age, and announced to the world that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Some of these fights, like the first and third fight with his nemesis, Joe Frazier were two of the best boxing matches in heavyweight history. Also unforgettable was his showdown with George Foreman in Kinshassa, Zaire, 1974, where Ali was clearly an underdog and beat Foreman in the eighth round. Yet Ali’s greatest fight was outside the ring, when he waged a battle against a powerful government that launched a smear campaign against him in the media, threatened to jail him and barred him from making a living. It takes great courage and remains a rare act of defiance to stand up to a regime that was killing thousands of innocent lives in Vietnam and refusing to grant African-Americans their rights, for which Ali paid a high price. For this alone, he deserves to be labeled ‘the greatest.’