Muhammad Ali’s politics shaped the world

Published by the ipaper (6th June, 2016)

There has been debate recently over whether tennis player Serena Williams is a modern incarnation of ‘The Greatest’. She may have just failed trying to equal Steffi Graf’s total of 22 Grand Slam titles but she has still won the same number as every other woman currently playing in the sport. Williams has also been a victim of racism and sexism throughout her career, while never scared to take a strong political stance on such issues.

Although Williams is an impressive person and arguably the greatest athlete of our era, even she cannot match the wonder that was Muhammad Ali. The wall-to-wall tributes to this fallen star have been riveting, reminding us how he was such an astonishing and brave character. From an impoverished Kentucky background, he played a part in altering the course of history in America. He rose with his fists and those dancing feet, then changed our world with his words.

He was a star that spoke even to me as a white middle-class child growing up in suburban Britain; how much more he must have meant to poor kids growing up in racially-divided America. It seems strange to recall in these days of 24-hour media and instant mass communication that we had so little sport on our three television channels in the seventies. Some of those big fights are etched in my memory, as is seeing this exciting and eloquent man jousting with Michael Parkinson.

He seemed a man of fierce intelligence and integrity. I was surprised to read at the weekend Ali originally failed the draft, declared mentally unfit for duty in 1964 after failing an IQ test, only to be reclassified two years later when the beleaguered US army lowered the bar to find troops for its Vietnam folly. As someone who briefly covered boxing as a local reporter, I found the top names often had a smartness restrained by poor education – making Ali even more of an exception.

This makes his achievements all the more astonishing: to have fought his way to the summit of the world’s toughest sport, then to risk career and liberty to take a stand for peace against his nation’s political and sporting establishment. ‘Man, I ain’t got no trouble with them Vietcong,’ he famously said. ‘They never called me ‘nigger.’ This cost him millions, along with the peak years of his career. But as he also said, ‘the rich man’s son went to college, and the poor man’s son went to war’ – especially if they were black. Even those defending him in public got death threats.

Just weeks after Ali’s declaration of conscientious objection, support for the war fell below 50 per cent. It continued to slide as he took his most important fight – over conviction for draft dodging – to the Supreme Court. It is rare for any sports star to take such a challenging political stand; the Olympic sprinters who gave black power salutes on the podium were crushed for their courage. Golfer Tiger Woods, for instance, was slated for silence on racial issues as he swept up titles; even Andy Murray was attacked over heartfelt support for Scottish independence. And we are yet to see a gay top-level footballer come out publicly.

Perhaps this is why the exploits of ‘The Greatest’ will never be emulated. Not just powering his way three times to the heavyweight title, but playing such pivotal role as a political activist. Today’s modern sports stars are commodities, whose clubs and sponsors would drop them in seconds if they took such a controversial position as Ali when their country was at war. Yet this is another of his legacies—his original fight against Joe Frazier was the first time any sports figures earned more than one million dollars for a single event.

Then there is his religion. After defeating Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion, Ali declared he had ditched his slave name of Cassius Clay and hooked up with the Nation of Islam. Overnight this turned him into a dangerous radical in the eyes of many fellow Americans. Later he embraced Sunni Islam and spoke movingly about faith, the driving force in his life. Even as an atheist, it is hard not to be touched by such simple words of compassion. For all his complexity and undoubted flaws, this was the purest expression of his humanity.

How sad the death of this proud Muslim comes as the Republican Party picks Donald Trump as candidate for president. The vile billionaire, who among many gross deeds has called for Muslims to be banned from entering the US, provided yet more evidence of his grotesque hypocrisy after tweeting a tribute to Ali. In rejoinder to Trump, the former champ himself said last year: ‘We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.’  As obituaries remind us about a boxer’s political bravery, how it contrasts with all those pathetic Republicans falling in line behind a bigot.

There was so much more to this extraordinary man. His love of conversation with anyone, rich and poor alike, contrasts with our age of increasing insularity. His dignity in that cruel final fight against crippling disease. Even his pioneering role in rap – the most revolutionary music form of our time – was praised by the great Gil Scott-Heron. As America’s first black president said, ‘Ali shook up the world – and the world is better for it’.

Farewell to The Greatest. May his courage, his decency, his humanity live on.

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