Why Ali Has Never Gone Away

By Alex Reid on January 16, 2012
Why Ali Has Never Gone Away
Grasping what Muhammad Ali meant as a social force is the trickiest part of his legacy

Muhammad Ali’s career is marked by undulations, great ups and downs, jarring defeats and comebacks…

“I’m the greatest thing that ever lived.”—Cassius Clay, 1964

Muhammad Ali is the greatest sportsman in history. He’s better than Pele, Michael Jordan, Carl Lewis, Jack Nicklaus—and every other footballer, athlete or synchronised swimmer you care to mention—combined.

That might sound like an overstatement, even on the great man’s 70th birthday, but it’s true. Not because I say so, but because you say so. Pick almost any major poll conducted around 2000 to decide the greatest athlete of the last 100 years and Ali’s name is invariably at the top. More than this, he often won by a startling distance. The BBC asked viewers to name their sportsman of the century. Ali came first, claiming more than half of all votes cast by the British public.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. The magazine I write for, Sport, conducted a survey as recently as 2011 asking readers for the greatest athlete in history. Again, Ali claimed over 50 per cent of the vote. His own tally more than the sum total of any sportsman—or woman—who ever lived.

The curiosity of this is that Muhammad Ali is 70 years old. His last professional contest took place over three decades ago. If you’re in your early thirties and reading this now, you’ll have no personal recollection of Muhammad Ali as an active sportsman. Yet many who consider him their sporting idol are this age or younger. So, why does Ali still hold the world—and a generation completely removed from his own—in such thrall?

The Hype

“Muhammad Ali is someone I’ve been looking up to since I was young,” Amir Khan, the 25-year-old British boxer said when I asked him about a man he calls his idol. “He’s had a great career and he’s a role model in boxing—inside and outside the boxing ring.”

Bearing in mind that Ali was five years retired when Khan was born, was it Ali’s in-ring or outside of the ropes activity that first captured Amir’s attention? “It’s the way he was outside the ring, really,” says Khan. “He was so sharp, so confident. The way he predicted fights was incredible… that was all new in those days. He’d say, ‘I’m going to knock you out in this round’ and then he’d knock them out in that round. It was unheard of at the time. It was the charisma he brought to boxing—the hype.”

It was his personality—his charisma, his quotes, even his iconic looks—that caused Khan to first connect with Ali. Not his boxing skills, social impact or his beliefs. Naturally, as you’d expect, Amir Khan has since watched many of Ali’s great fights and understands better than most the impact he had on the boxing world and beyond. However you can easily make a case that many people are voting for him as the greatest athlete of all time based on not much more than photos, interviews and a few choice quotes. How many people—particularly non-boxing fans—have sat down and watched a large number of his fights? Or truly understand what he stood for outside of the ring in the 1960s and ‘70s?

Famous for Being Famous

“My big concern today is that Ai is famous simply for being famous,” says Thomas Hauser, Ali’s official biographer, who arguably knows the boxer’s life story better than anyone aside from his closest friends and family. “People know that he stood up for his principles, but they really don’t know what his principles were.”

Grasping what Ali meant as a social force is the trickiest part of his legacy. As Hauser explains, “Really, to fully appreciate what he meant you almost had to live through those times—and every day pick up the newspaper and there would be something about this man.” Indeed, while they may come as no surprise to boxing aficionados, some of the beliefs Ali held in his prime would probably shock many who consider him their idol.

He was a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, a brave stance which cost him financial and sporting success (it led to his exile during the prime of his career). It also, in the long run, brought him popularity as public opinion turned against the war. However, in the 1960s, he belonged to the Nation of Islam, which, as Hauser explains, “Is very different from orthodox Islam. It’s a form of American apartheid, where they preached that the white people were devils.” That’s not even to mention the Nation’s belief that UFOs circled the Earth and a scientist, Yacub, created the white race 6,600 years ago. In other words: Muhammad, it’s Tom Cruise on the phone and he says your beliefs are a little out there.

Of course, eventually Ali changed these views, is now an orthodox Muslim and has embraced all people of all colors, but the fact remains that for period at the peak of his career, his stated beliefs would make uncomfortable reading for many today.

The Legacy of a Fighter

Hauser seems equally sure that the majority of younger people who call Ali great might legitimately misunderstand his boxing legacy too. “They hear names like Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier and George Foreman,” he tells me, “but they don’t really understand how formidable those opponents were.” Aside from hardcore boxing fans, how many people who aren’t of Ali’s generation have watched the full 15 rounds of his first fight with Joe Frazier? Or the two Ali vs. Liston contests?

His social impact simplified, his sporting achievements not fully understood, his legacy built mainly on the unending tribute of white-haired experts informing us that he was The Greatest until the masses simply nod in agreement. This seems a poor legacy for someone as vibrant and disruptive as Ali.

Fortunately, there are other reasons. Firstly, the fact he was a boxer. Prizefighters fare well in these ‘best ever’ polls due to the nature of what boxers go through. We’ve all run a race and can picture what Usain Bolt goes through; we’re just a lot slower. Most people have hit a tennis ball and pretend to be Roger Federer; we just don’t have anything like his coordination. But how many people have donned gloves and set foot in a boxing ring to engage in a contest where the ultimate goal is to render their opponent unconscious?

The punishment a boxer takes—and dishes out—gives them a superhuman quality above many other sportsmen. It’s somehow more impressive than other athletic pursuits—perhaps because the reserves of courage are so unduly and openly taxed. So if we accept that Ali is easily the most famous, the most revered boxer of all time, perhaps it’s no mystery why he sweeps these sporting polls so regularly.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Then there is the narrative arc of Muhammad Ali’s career. It’s an unusual one. Most sportsmen achieve greatness by rising to the top and dominating their sport. Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher and Jack Nicklaus had prolonged periods where they were widely considered the best at what they do. The thing is, total domination can often become somewhat monotonous.

Muhammad Ali is different. During what’s now regarded as his prime in the 1960s, he wasn’t lauded—he was maligned and criticised because of his beliefs, but also for his perceived weaknesses as a boxer. His reliance on speed and movement (as opposed to heavyweight power) disturbed boxing experts. He also spent the prime of his career, from April 1967 to Oct. 1970, unable to compete thanks to the boxing commissions taking away his license. Also, in arguably his two most iconic victories—his title-winning victories over Sonny Liston and George Foreman—Ali was a huge underdog.

Dominance and underdog status do not sit comfortably together. Ali towers over boxing, but unlike many a great athlete, Ali’s career is marked by undulations, great ups and downs, jarring defeats and comebacks. What this does is make the stories of his successes that much more enticing to tell and retell—the drama embellished by the fact that you had one of the most handsome, quotable men in sporting history at the center of an incredible cast of characters. If Ali’s perceived greatness boils down to the fact that the story behind his career is that much more exciting for sports fans of any generation to hear, this is no bad thing at all.

Scripting His Own Legend

Of course, in reality, his achievements—both social and sporting—deserve huge recognition, aside from whether a modern audience fully grasps what they are. He changed boxing as a sport, took it to a new level. He also changed American opinions and views, and therefore took the world to places where it had never been before.

But let’s also give him credit for writing his own legacy. After all, he told everyone he was The Greatest for so long—even if he did with a knowing wink and a smile, as Hauser suggests—that he planted the seed that has borne this mighty reputation.

Take the example of his fellow boxer, Sugar Shane Mosley. His career has been a good one, though not as glorious as it appeared it might become when he was in his unbeaten pomp. At that point, no less an expert than Eddie Futch—the man who trained Joe Frazier for his third fight with Ali and possessor of one of the finest boxing brains in history—said that Mosley could be compared to the Sugar Rays; Leonard and Robinson. That he could perhaps even become the equal of Robinson.

The reason he picked those two fighters, at least in part, was due to Shane’s savvy choice of a nickname. Call yourself Sugar and comparisons—if you are good enough—will come. Plant the idea. Get the debate started and you’re part of the way there. Muhammad Ali told the world he was The Greatest so many times in so many different ways, the message has resonated. At first people laughed at the braggart, then they disagreed with the revolutionary, then as his achievements mounted, people began to agree—to argue the case for his ultimate greatness until the majority were on his side. But Ali put that idea in people’s heads in the beginning, it’s just that the world has stopped mocking him and now sees things the way he always told us we would. Looks like the last laugh lies with the birthday boy after all.

Alex Reid is one half of the Boxing Clever podcast and writes for Sport magazine

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Vivian 09:05pm, 03/27/2012

    This is cool!

  2. pugknows 10:31am, 01/23/2012

    I no longer have any issues with Ali. He was stupid and naïve back then, but his racist words still stung. If you get killed by friendly fire, you still get killed. But anyone who sucked up to his hate –fuelled drivel back then made me sick to my stomach. I did my time honorably and did not seek protection by being a C.O. I did not flee to Mexico, Europe, or Canada. I served along with others who had no choice in the matter.  No one likes to be drafted, but the law was the law. I reckon taking away those years from him was punishment enough, but still I resented at the time what he did. I no longer have much of an issue with it. That was then. This is now. You forgive and forget. And you rejoice with anyone who truly and sincerely is spiritual and I believe Ali is just that.

  3. the thresher 11:39am, 01/20/2012


  4. "Old Yank" Schneider 10:16am, 01/20/2012

    the thresher – A very reasonable “huh”, so I will attempt to clarify. We recently discussed that where Capote, Mailer, Plimpton and other’s were coming from (who they were), often influenced how we received what they wrote. For example, Plimpton was seen by some as a “jock sniffer” and it seemed to influence how Plimpton’s writing was received; Capote a substance abuser; Mailer as an abuser of women was of influence to some as well. Having an interest in who was issuing the opinion (doing the writing) became of almost equal importance to what the opinion was (what was actually being written). Where they were coming from; how they treated woman and treated others and more, all seemed to punctuate a post or two in that discussion. Perhaps it is disingenuous to suggest that who a person is and where he is coming from (and therefore where an opinion originates from) is not an important “read” into what’s being written and how much gravity or credibility is placed on what is being read. It is why I attempted to answer the unasked query “where is he coming from?” when I answered your question about my opinion about whether Ali was a draft-dodger or not. For example, knowing where you come from in resisting quick judgments about people, assists in shaping what to read into an opinion of yours from time to time that centers on a new accusation leveled at someone in boxing. The contextual reality of how to see boxing is therefore influenced by where someone is coming from in the expression of their opinions. i.e. “He sees boxing topic “X” that way because of who he is and where he is coming from.”

  5. the thresher 09:03am, 01/20/2012


  6. "Old Yank" Schneider 08:37am, 01/20/2012

    IMO—The source of one’s feelings lends great substance to his opinions. If one finds the source of opinion to be “hero worship” they might be inclined to view the opinion differently then if they view the source of the opinion to be politically-driven ultra-nationalism. It is the root of the query, “Where did that come from?” Ascertaining the answer can speak volumes to the credibility and gravity of an opinion. But that’s just my opinion. Peace!

  7. "Old Yank" Schneider 08:12am, 01/20/2012

    the thresher—A fine and reasonable post. The stats were influenced by something “birthed” in the 1960’s—moral ambiguity in finding a difference between cheating a “system” (the military/industrial complex) and cheating an individual. As a result the number of applications was likely skewed to a substantially larger number then in past military active times. However, the stat for the number of CO applications actually granted was alarmingly low by any standard. The appearance is a morally ambiguous political motivation to “cheat” the system by cowardly draft-dodgers and a resulting backlash political motivation to over compensate in rejecting many valid applications. Very interesting discussion and your points were heard and greatly appreciated.

  8. the thresher 07:41am, 01/20/2012

    My final post on this subject. Ali was a CO and not a drat dodger (thousand of whom left to other countries and were never convicted in the US). Draft didgers were cowards to the max. CO’s were not.

    Major diffrence here that impacts the stats.

  9. the thresher 07:37am, 01/20/2012

    No Yank, but then I never did a China Syndrome type post. I’m not interested in your personal life history or personal life with a drea-you type question at the end. . Not one iota. What I am interested in are simple answers to simple questions about Ali being a ‘Draft Dodger,” and your feelings about that. I’m interested in how these things relate to boxing and not how they relate to you.

    It’s all about the article, Ali, and the controversy that swirled around him. And like I have allready pointed out, my religion teached forgivenes so I’m ok with Ali NOW.

    Final point, I asked how you ffelt about it at the time—-not how you feel about it now.

    PS: You da man is not an insult where I come from. It’s a compliment.

  10. "Old Yank" Schneider 05:16am, 01/20/2012

    The Thresher—Has anyone mocked your moral convictions on this site when you express things like your Christian motivations to forgive and to believe in redemption and the like? Have you ever been mocked for your stance to refuse to jump to conclusions to condemn a man? You are too gracious in your comments to me because it is not I but, “You da man! No doubt about it. You da man!”

  11. "Old Yank" Schneider 04:57am, 01/20/2012

    In WW-I over 37,000 applications for conscientious objector status were granted. In WW-II, ACTIVE DUTY men granted conscientious objector status for Christian objectors peaked at 3,400. It is estimated that the Vietnam War saw over 200,000 applications for conscientious objector status made and estimates arr that only about 2,000 were granted. 9,087,000 people served in the US military during the Vietnam Era. By every appearance a political pall covered the CO application process during the Vietnam Era that resulted in far fewer applications being granted then during any other active time in US history. Refusal to grant Co applications looked politically motivated and not constitutionally driven. Ali was a likely pawn to this issue as well.

  12. "Old Yank" Schneider 04:50am, 01/20/2012

    Ali had a lot to say in his 4 years of exile from the ring. Some folks had already made up their mind (read: closed it), and were not interested in what he had to say. Others, more open-minded, recognizing that they could only be driven by emotion and personal belief because they factually did not know who Ali really was, listened and learned and came to see Ali in a different light. I was initially predisposed to see Ali as an unpatriotic draft-dodger and changed my mind as I learned more about who he was and what he had to say. As Churchill’s words went, “The facts have changed and therefore my opinion too; and therein lies the difference between me and you.”  I was ill-equipped to have enough facts to support my initial disposition to condemn Ali. As I gathered facts, my opinion changed.

  13. "Old Yank" Schneider 04:40am, 01/20/2012

    The Thresher—When Ali initially refused induction I was disposed to not support his position. Four years later when he was acquitted I had learned enough about his CO status to concur with the Supreme Court’s observation that his CO status appeared top be real, based on religious conviction and sincere. There is nothing since then that has suggested to me that Ali was not sincere in his beliefs and CO status. In fact, the way Ali has lived lived his life since then appears to be a testament to what a real CO actually looks like.

  14. the thresher 06:16pm, 01/19/2012

    Now then, did you support Ali’s avoidance of the draft?

  15. the thresher 06:10pm, 01/19/2012

    Wow, You da man Yank. No doubt about it. You da man.

  16. "Old Yank" Schneider 04:57pm, 01/19/2012

    the thresher—Thank you for the question—it provides a great opportunity for me to answer it in my own way.

    I support the fairly broad definition of conscientious objector and a man’s Constitutional right to seek protection under it—provided he legitimately fits the definition. All others should face conscription as a duty and honor to serve their nation.

    My father actually served in WW-II as a CO and was deployed in non-combat roles to some of the most God-forsaken places on the planet—he never complained. His final assignment was in Keflavik, Iceland where he eventually met my mother—and she bore him a daughter and son in Reykjavik—thus my European beginnings. He refused to carry a gun and refused to kill another for religious reasons (under every and any circumstance). Although I did not share his CO view, I respected him for having his.

    I never heard him swear in his 91 years of life. I never saw him drink to excess. I never saw him abuse any living thing. He went to church every Sunday. He taught Sunday School for as long as I can remember.

    He opened the door for my mother (and every woman). He rose from his chair when any person joined the table.

    He was as poor as dirt when I was a child and I never went to bed hungry. He never had a debt in his life aside from the small mortgage he needed to build his house—built by his and his brother’s hands. He believed in tithing to his church. Whenever he had more than he needed he gave away the excess.

    He taught me that a grudge is like holding a lump of hot coal in your hand—holding onto it will burn forever; letting it go is the only way to heal. And he taught me to “cast my bread upon the water because it will come back sandwiches”.

    We had deep differences at times and I loved him more then he ever knew.

    After lapsing into a coma from a car accident, it was I who executed his wish as his healthcare proxy. So I had all life support removed because in spite of our many differences we shared a mutual spirituality that went deeper than words. He spawned me into this world and I had the honor to sanctify his hospital room and execute his final wish in ushering him along to the next phase of his journey.

    Any more questions about the nature of who I am and where my beliefs come from?

  17. the thresher 02:07pm, 01/19/2012

    Are you supportive of Draft Doodgers, Old Yank? Particularly the thousands who fled to other countries?

  18. "Old Yank" Schneider 01:00pm, 01/19/2012

    Oops—this was supposed to be added to the response to Jack: Draft offenders from 1964 to 1975 numbered nearly 500,000 but less than 10,000 were convicted or imprisoned for draft violations. Ali is one of the 98% (490,000) who were once listed as draft offenders but got off. Any notion that Ali got away with something others did not get away with simply cannot be supported by the facts.

  19. "Old Yank" Schneider 12:22pm, 01/19/2012

    At the request of The Thresher—Response to Jack: At the peak of Conscientious Objector status during WW-II, there were about 3,400 Christians listed in CO roles.  The number of applications for CO status during the Vietnam War skyrocketed. Applications were only kept for 90 days – a deferral was either granted or rejected. Since accurate records were not kept, one can only speculate about the total number of CO applications granted to Mennonites, Quakers and other Christian sects during the Vietnam Era. Estimates are all over the place but few estimate that the number of CO applications granted were fewer than 2,000. Any assertion that Ali was unique in being able to ask for and essentially obtain CO status cannot be supported by the facts. The notion that a Muslim is not entitled to the same treatment as a Christian sounds a bit unfair to me (if not outright unconstitutional). Note that the Draft Lottery was ushered in (late in the Vietnam Era) largely as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. It was in response to the irrational disproportion of Blacks being drafted compared to Whites. Prior to the lottery, while approximately 11% of the US population was Black, nearly 15% of draftees for Vietnam were Black. No mater the Civil Rights issues, Muhammad Ali was not unique (as you suggest) in using CO status to avoid service during the Vietnam War.

  20. "Old Yank" Schneider 11:37am, 01/19/2012

    Is it just for public opinion to condemn Ali for “draft evasion” (a conviction that was overturned by nothing less than the Supreme Court of the USA) while ignoring the irrational disproportion of young Black American men drafted compared to White Americans during the Vietnam War period? Opinion can be a convenient mechanism—remembering only the slices of evidence necessary to support an opinion. I don’t have the answers to so many, many complex questions, but I strongly believe that asking them is necessary.

  21. "Old Yank" Schneider 11:17am, 01/19/2012

    Blaming a shackled man, shackled for the crime of being black, for lashing out in a tumultuous time is not universally seen as fair. The crimes of humanity delivered against Black Americans in the years of Ali’s life leading up to his tumultuous and outspoken era are far too numerous to list here. Note that John Adams represented British soldiers arrested for the Boston Massacre – all were acquitted due to the circumstances of the violent mob that threatened them. At the time, White America represented a violent mob to much of Black America for just reason. If British Soldiers can be found innocent of murder then perhaps one can find Ali innocent and forgive him for lashing out.

  22. "Old Yank" Schneider 11:09am, 01/19/2012

    For the record (and material to use to win a trivia contest): On June 28, 1971 the Supreme Court of the USA unanimously overturned Ali’s 4-year-old draft conviction.  In their published opinion The Supreme Court stated that Ali’s claims as a conscientious objector were based on his religious beliefs and were sincere. However, they based their decision on the fact that Ali’s petition for conscientious objector status had been rejected without grounds for the rejection being stated (one or more of three possible grounds for rejection) by the Appeals Board and therefore the conviction must be overturned. Although the Supreme Court made mention of that a prerequisite that religious beliefs of a conscientious objector must be a universal decry of war under all circumstances, it also asserted that Ali MET the criteria. Nevertheless, by all scholarly accounts, Ali’s conviction was overturned on a technicality. Here is a link to the actual published opinion of the Supreme Court in the matter: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=search&court=US&case;=/us/403/698.html

  23. the thresher 10:45am, 01/19/2012

    Better spaced post as follows:

    I think you need to respond to Jack’s posts. I did.

    Those who sucked up to him at the time were the same suck-ups who attached themselves to the likes of Crazy Joey Gallo and other unsavory types. Later John Gotti became one. It was topical and cool, but they were nothing but despicable sycophants and self-proclaimed intellectuals who would align themselves with someone who said at that particular time, “Black Is Best,” “No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters”,“white folks are devils”—even though most of the sycophants were white folks. These are uncontroverted facts and when you combine comments like these with his posture on the Viet Nam War, it becomes very difficult to sympathize with him.


    The following quotes from Ayn Rand fit those who aligned themselves with Ali when he was raging about the “white devil.”


    The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody had decided not to see.


    There is a level of cowardice lower than that of the conformist: the fashionable non-conformist.

    When man learns to understand and control his own behavior as well as he is learning to understand and control the behavior of crop plants and domestic animals, he may be justified in believing that he has become civilized.


    And then this from a mellowed out Ali:


    A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.


    We have one life; it soon will be past; what we do for God is all that will last.


    And from Hauser:


    Rather than cultivate historical amnesia, we should cherish the memory of Ali as a warrior and as a gleaming symbol of defiance against an unjust social order when he was young


    Judge for your self. My religion teaches me to forgive what I perceive to be wrong.

  24. the thresher 10:42am, 01/19/2012

    I think you need to respond to Jack’s posts. I did.

    Those who sucked up to him at the time were the same suck-ups who attached themselves to the likes of Crazy Joey Gallo and other unsavory types. Later John Gotti became one. It was topical and cool, but they were nothing but despicable sycophants and self-proclaimed intellectuals who would align themselves with someone who said at that particular time, “Black Is Best,” “No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters”,“white folks are devils”—even though most of the sycophants were white folks. These are uncontroverted facts and when you combine comments like these with his posture on the Viet Nam War, it becomes very difficult to sympathize with him.

    The following quotes from Ayn Rand fit those who aligned themselves with Ali when he was raging about the “white devil.”

    The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody had decided not to see.

    There is a level of cowardice lower than that of the conformist: the fashionable non-conformist.

    When man learns to understand and control his own behavior as well as he is learning to understand and control the behavior of crop plants and domestic animals, he may be justified in believing that he has become civilized.

    And then this from a mellowed out Ali:

    A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.

    We have one life; it soon will be past; what we do for God is all that will last.

    And from Hauser:

    “And since then there has been a determined effort to rewrite history. In order to take advantage of Ali’s economic potential, it has been deemed desirable to ‘sanitise’ him. And, as a result, all the ‘rough edges’ are being filed away from Ali’s life story.”

    Rather than cultivate historical amnesia, we should cherish the memory of Ali as a warrior and as a gleaming symbol of defiance against an unjust social order when he was young

    Judge for your self. My religion teaches me to forgive what I perceive to be wrong.

  25. "Old Yank" Schneider 09:02am, 01/19/2012

    The thresher—I agree! Ali was used by the Nation of Islam and by Elijah Muhammad as a pawn in a complex organized religion, political propaganda game. Malcolm X was such a threat to Elijah Muhammad that it cost Malcolm X his life. All of this rings true. And strong feelings existed then and now about what membership in the Nation of Islam means in terms of hate and intolerance. And very strong feelings existed then and now about what being a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War was all about. And it remains true that those strong feelings have influenced the paint strokes of those who intend to paint their version of history—on both sides of those feelings. Within the Nation of Islam (a place where Ali chose to be), Elijah Muhammad was a charismatic – a charismatic with a strong hold on Ali. How outsiders saw him is a different matter. Ultimately I credit Ali for finding his heart and being led by it – a process that brought about great reflection on Ali’s part for things he eventually denounced and clearly regrets. Some people are little more than swept along with the pages of history and others influence history. I’ve no doubt which one Ali is. He might end up remembered by history as a pawn who became king – king over his own principles (no matter how flawed he might be).

  26. the thresher 08:23am, 01/19/2012

    Here are some interesting reference points:

    Mark Kram, Ghosts of Manila, (HarperCollins Publisher, June 2001).

    Muhammad Ali Biography, undated,

    Hamid. “Muhammad Ali in Islam.” Undated.

  27. the thresher 08:02am, 01/19/2012

    Ali was not much more than a pawn during the early years of his calling himself “The Greatest.” Guys like the poster Jack below see him as a draft dodger and as non-patriotic. Ali’s verbal non-complelling diatribes back then certainly give credibility to Kack’s feelings.. But during this stage, he was being used because he didn’t have the brains to realize otherwise.

    It wasn’t until much later and after he was badly disabled that he began to see the light. He became a different Ali and his actions then and up to now may have been such as to redeem him in the yes of those who hold to Jack’s position.

    As for X, he was never a foot soldier in my view. And that fact is what led to his untimely death.

    And Elijah Muhammad was never really charismatic—at least not to most Chicagoans who viewed him as a fraud..

  28. "Old Yank" Schneider 04:46am, 01/19/2012

    As Alex Reid, the author of this article points out, “Grasping what Ali meant as a social force is the trickiest part of his legacy.” What makes it so tricky is that his controversial acts lend themselves to being twisted when recounted by some people. And it is obvious that membership in the Nation of Islam is objectionable to some as was opposition to the draft and opposition to the Vietnam War. In an effort to clear the record for those who saw Muhammad Ali as a betrayer of Malcolm X, I offer up again the following historical facts and explanations in cronological order. February 25, 1964: Ali/Liston #1. February 26, 1964: Cassius Clay announces that he’s converted to the Nation of Islam and has taken the name Cassius X. March 7, 1964: The self-proclaimed messenger of God and spiritual leader to Cassius X, Elijah Muhammad announces that he’s given Cassius X a new name, Muhammad Ali—a name Ali will keep for the remainder of his life. Two weeks later (still in March of 1964), Malcolm X announces his departure from the Nation of Islam. Any reporting that Ali’s failure to follow Malcom X in departing the Nation of Islam was a betrayal of Malcolm X needs to be supported with proof. In the absence of such proof it is clear that Ali could not follow Malcolm X out the back door of the Nation of Islam because two to three weeks earlier he’d just proclaimed to the world his membership in the Nation of Islam and had just accepted the honor of receiving his name, Muhammad Ali from the leader of the Nation of Islam. To follow Malcolm X at this juncture would have been tantamount to announcing his membership in the Nation of Islam and the changing of his name to Muhammad Ali was a farce. If anyone has evidence that refutes this chronology of events and why the events unfolded the way they did, let him offer up proof so we can have a civil discussion about it. There is no attempt at someone’s derisive notions of “hero worship” going on here. It is a direct attempt to address the authors sentiment that Ali’s social legacy is tricky—and it is tricky because much gets said that has no basis in fact and when that happens, historians and others with correcting information have an obligation to come forward.

  29. the thresher 09:41am, 01/18/2012

    If the shoe fits…...

  30. "Old Yank" Schneider 09:15am, 01/18/2012

    There is no need for hero worship. But there is always a need for role models. And in order to identify role models of the past it is important to describe their roles as accurately as possible. There is no evidence that Ali jumped any rails of allegiance from a loyalty to Malcolm X to what has been described below as the “more cult-like” Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X had invested nearly 3 years in convincing Ali to become a member of the Nation of Islam and to pledge his allegiance to the messenger Elijah Muhammad. Ali did not switch allegiance to the “more cult-like” Elijah Muhammad. It simply did not unfold that way and there is no hero worship necessary in reflecting the truth about what unfolded. At the time, Malcolm X, in the eyes of loyal followers of the messenger Elijah Muhammad, had betrayed the Nation of Islam and the messenger. Ali had been swept into allegiance to the messenger by the man who the nation had labeled a betrayer of the Nation – Malcolm X. Ali’s allegiance was already established with Elijah Muhammad and to the nation of Islam and he was not of a mind to follow Malcolm X, a man labeled a betrayer to the Nation of Islam by the messenger, out the back door at that point in history. I’m genuinely attempting to simply reveal the truth behind what unfolded. In my view suggesting that Ali “betrayed” Malcolm X is the polar opposite of hero worship and reflects a desire to taint Ali as a betrayer when that is simply not how things unfolded. Do I personally believe that Ali’s loyalty to the Nation of Islam and to Elijah Muhammad was misplaced loyalty? ABSOLUTELY I DO! And it took Ali more than a decade to arrive at the same conclusion.

  31. the thresher 04:46pm, 01/17/2012

    While I refuse to romanticize Ali, I cannot deny the tears that welled up in my eyes when, along with an estimated 3 billion or so other television viewers, I watched him open the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 wearing that white gym suit, his free arm trembling from the effects of Parkinson’s.

    Nor can I deny the contributions he made to the African-American community, first, as a pivotal radical voice, and much later while he was active on the lecture circuit. The timing of his opposition to the Vietnam War was in perfect sync with the unrest and volatility of the 1960s, and his involvement with and conversion to the Nation of Islam enhanced his persona as a countercultural hero during a time of counterculturalism. That he made a huge difference as a change agent cannot be denied; that his perceived cultural legacy should place him on a pedestal of respect cannot be denied; and that he led the sports world in radicalism at a time when radicalism arguably was necessary cannot be denied. In short, he was the right person to come along at just the right time and, rightly or wrongly, he represented courage, individualism, and conviction to his adoring fans. Manifestly, he was a boxer whose life transcended boxing, and there probably will never be another like him.

    On balance, my feeling about Ali are about as ambivalent as my feelings about boxing in general, but what that means is that maybe I really do believe he was THE GREATEST.”

    But I shall never engage in hero worship just because it seems topical.

  32. "Old Yank" Schneider 02:15pm, 01/17/2012

    There is much evidence that Malcolm X attempted to then “turn” Ali away from “the true messenger”. But too much attention, politics and potential belief system energy had already been expended in developing Ali’s loyalty to Elijah Muhammad for Ali to be able to be “turned”. And potent forces were counseling Ali to remain loyal to the true messenger for the sake of The Nation of Islam. To denounce the true messenger at that stage of the game would be tantamount to denouncing his own new name, Muhammad Ali. After all, this name was “bestowed” upon him by the messenger himself.

  33. "Old Yank" Schneider 02:08pm, 01/17/2012

    Thomas Hauser in his interviews with Ali (and subsequent book and articles) has addressed much of this from what he reported to be Ali’s perspective. And Ali has spoken of these times elsewhere; and in so doing denounced much of where he was coming from in his association with Elijah Muhammad. Ali reflects on much of this in his book (assisted by Hana Yasmeen Ali), titled “Soul of a Butterfly; Reflections on Life’s Journey”. Other contemporaries have spoken out at one time or another as well (including Ali’s ex-wives). I do not see a gap of available information that makes the historical picture impossible to paint without reasonable clarity. But since I’m a product of the 1960’s I can lay no claim to being awake when they happened—as they say, “If you remember the 1960’s then you weren’t really there!” So I rely on Ali’s biographers and Malcolm X’s biographers and others to reveal what associations existed and the timetables and nature of how they unfolded. It seems fairly clear to me that Malcolm X encouraged Ali at the earliest onset of their relationship to place his loyalty with Elijah Muhammad as the true messenger of God. Subsequently Malcolm X broke from the messenger. Friends or not, Ali was disposed by Malcolm X to place his loyalty in the messenger, not in a foot-soldier of the messenger.

  34. "Old Yank" Schneider 01:44pm, 01/17/2012

    It is entirely possible to be devoid of sympathy and arrive at the truth, but it is not possible to arrive at the truth when we do not understand what actually happened.

  35. "Old Yank" Schneider 01:40pm, 01/17/2012

    In my understanding, Ali did not “depart” Malcolm X for the more “cult-like” Elijah Muhammad. That is not an accurate representation of history, in my reading and opinion. Elijah Muhammad was Malcolm X’s spiritual leader (and by extension, Ali’s as well); believed at the time by Malcolm X (and Ali) to be a messenger of God. Malcolm X was given his “X” by Elijah Muhammad and was waiting for Elijah Muhammad to give him his first real Black Muslim name. It was Malcolm X who “departed” Elijah Muhammad after becoming disillusioned over the less than spiritual-leader behavior Malcolm X expected of Elijah Muhammad. After separating from Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X left Ali in the position of remaining a follower of Elijah Muhammad (his spiritual leader and not a new cult figure in his life) or follow the break-away Malcolm X. Ali chose to remain loyal to his spiritual leader Elijah Muhammad and not the foot-soldier of his spiritual leader. Ali did not “depart” Malcolm X; Malcolm X declared his separation from the Nation of Islam, leaving Elijah Muhammad and, by extension, Muhammad Ali behind in the process.

  36. the thresher 01:00pm, 01/17/2012

    Also particularly bothersome to me was his departure from Malcolm X in favor of the cult-like Elijah Muhammad during his early years with the movement.

    He had become close friends with Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam’s best-known spokesman, seeking his guidance. They met several times, and it was Malcolm who likely played the key role in Ali’s conversion.

    However, after Muhammad suspended Malcolm X (for becoming too popular and critical of Elijah’s conduct), Cassius X, demonstrating perhaps a politically pragmatic side, remained loyal to Elijah Muhammad and was given the name “Muhammad Ali” by the messenger. Ali chose to disassociate himself from his friend and mentor and went so far as to rebuke Malcolm for not following the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Elijah’s eldest son, Herbert Muhammad, was then appointed Ali’s new manager.

    After his suspension, Malcolm X, disillusioned by the hypocrisy he believed was rampant in the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, went to Mecca and moved toward a more orthodox, Five Pillars form of Islam. He assumed a new name: El-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz. In 1965, he was officially denounced by the Nation of Islam. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated while giving a speech in New York City.

    How much fear may have influenced Ali’s behavior during this period, only he knows. He has never discussed it openly, but, like Malcolm X, he later left the Nation of Islam and joined a more orthodox mainstream Islam; he became a Sunni Islam in 1975. Like Malcom, he embraced a far more liberal perspective toward race.

    Maybe Ali was a visionary or saint, but I’d prefer to treat that premise with a more balanced viewpoint devoid of sympathy. There are myths about Ali that are rarely demystified, but he does not necessarily walk on sacred ground.

    Despicably, the politically fashionable and assorted sycophants attached themselves to his racial invective as if it were the wisdom of a prophet, but if anyone was a prophet back then, it was Malcolm X.

    That is all!!!!!!!

  37. the thresher 12:56pm, 01/17/2012

    Criticizing icons is not popular, and, when one targets the Greatest, sacred and inviolate ground may be involved. But I ask myself, how could Ali turn on his former friend, Joe Frazier, a decent man who considered Ali his friend and who until the day he died felt deeply wounded by the way Ali turned his own people against him? “It’s gonna be a chilla, and a killa, and a thrilla, when I get the
    Gorilla in Manila,” said Ali, but those insults may have said more about him than it did Frazier. He cruelly taunted Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell. After the Terrell fight, Tex Maule wrote, “It was a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty.” However, his worse abuse was aimed at Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who was called an Uncle Tom and “the White Man’s Champion,” thanks to Ali reminding the press of this at every turn. The plain fact was Frazier was from a hardscrabble beginning, while Clay had ironically emerged from a relatively sheltered environment in Louisville.

    Of course, a part of his legacy must include the beginning of trash-talking, and maybe that was, in part, his way of standing up to the establishment. Calling opponents “bums” and “chumps” and predicting the round of their demise was something very new to the fans, and what gave this behavior credibility was that his predictions frequently proved accurate.

    On a more serious note, his stand against the Vietnam War was never fully viewed as intellectually compelling. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” He said. “No Vietcong ever called me ‘Nigger’.”

    In retropect and in light of the social circumstances of that time, these statements made perfectly good sense to him. However, Ali was not granted an exemption to the draft because he acknowledged that he would be willing to participate in an Islamic holy war. Specifically, he said, “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or the messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.”

    Exemptions on religious grounds were available only to qualifying conscientious objectors who were opposed to war in any form. Ali’s opposition was selective in nature.

    None of this seemed to square with logic. Indeed, given what would have happened had he served (and fought exhibition boxing matches in the manner of Joe Louis during World War II) the risk-reward equation would have been 100% in his favor. In the end, those who seemed to have garnered the most benefit were the Nation of Islam and its messenger, which suggests that Ali may have been used as a pawn.

  38. the thresher 12:53pm, 01/17/2012

    The progressive jump in athletics for African-Americans went from the Negro
    Baseball League and Paul Robeson and then to Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and
    Jackie Robinson (who provided hope and heroism). It moved from Larry Doby
    to Althea Gibson and Jim Brown and culminated with a new breed of active African American athletes who began to pave the way for others. Athletes like Wilma Rudolph, Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood, quarterback Doug Williams, golfers Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, leading up to the forty-first Super Bowl in which both head coaches were African-Americans. The evolution has been spectacular, albeit too long in coming. Muhammad Ali’s considerable
    contributions to this progression will remain a major part of his legacy. But other things may also be a part of that legacy.

    Ali made his sociopolitical statements during the 1960s and 1970s, though
    universal consensus on his motives and positive impact remains slightly less than 100 percent. Many other black athletes spoke out, including Bill Russell and track and field’s Tommie Smith and John Carlos. But the mercurial and self-proclaimed “greatest” had center stage in the volatile 1960s. He constantly reminded everyone that “I am the greatest!” and maybe that convinced them that he was, in fact, the greatest but I was not among them.

    But there was far more to Ali than the self-proclamations, shenanigans,
    intuitive poems, Ali shuffle, and Rope-a-dope.

  39. "Old Yank" Schneider 12:50pm, 01/17/2012

    It was not until 1975 (more than a dozen years after pledging his devotion to Elijah Muhammad and more than a decade after the assassination of Malcolm X), that Ali converted from The Nation of Islam to become a Sunni Muslim (as Malcolm X had done in 1964). Malcolm X had been whispering in Ali’s ear for a relatively brief time (the Ali/Malcolm X association was estimated to begin sometime in 1961 – about 3 years before the 1st Liston bout – and briefly after Ali’s brother began sneaking Ali into meetings for The Nation of Islam)—a time brief enough to fail to convey any mandatory friend-to-friend devotion that others deem was due. Perhaps far too short a relationship for Ali to abandon the man Malcolm X himself had professed for 3 or 4 years to Ali as being the messenger of God, Elijah Muhammad. Few escape the magnetic pull of a powerful charismatic; I credit Ali for being able to do so – even if it took over a decade.

  40. "Old Yank" Schneider 12:11pm, 01/17/2012

    In my view (and shared by some)... Malcolm X presented himself to Cassius Clay as a devoted disciple of Elijah Muhammad. As such he continuously reinforced in Ali the notion that everything coming through him that was worthy, was happening because of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X did such a great job in convincing Ali that Elijah Muhammad was the messenger and Malcolm a lowly disciple that it was natural for Ali to see Malcolm X as the betrayer of Elijah Muhammad rather than he (Ali) as the betrayer of Malcolm X. The Nation at the time portrayed Malcolm X as a jealous betrayer—jealous of Ali receiving his Islamic name directly from Elijah Muhammad before he saw his long-devotion acknowledged by having an Islamic name bestowed on him. I do not see any clear-cut answer to who betrayed who; I do see an easily led and easily impressed Ali as a bit of a pawn in the entire affair at the time. Is it normal for a newcomer to place his devotion in a foot-soldier rather than the leader of a cause? Ali was the newcomer and Malcolm X portrayed himself as a foot-soldier of Elijah Muhammad. I do not fault Ali for being led astray. And I credit him for finding his way home.

  41. the thresher 11:58am, 01/17/2012

    Liston was a terrible actor as he threw that second fiasco. It was an insult to boxing.

  42. the thresher 11:57am, 01/17/2012




  43. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 10:43am, 01/17/2012

    For my part, I favor “less is more” and Liston and Likar Ramos personify this approach…on the other hand Folley did wait until the punches made contact before he flopped face down, not once but twice, before dramatically springing back to life. His double pirouette as the finale was way over the top though. Now, if Sonny or Likar had tried snoring, then their performances would have been overly broad as well. All in all I say that Liston did himself proud!

  44. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 10:07am, 01/17/2012

    The question remains: Was Folley a better actor than Liston?

  45. "Old Yank" Schneider 08:57am, 01/17/2012

    Malcolm X seemed to time his divide from The Nation of Islam with his discovery that Elijah Muhammad had “married” and bedded several girls under the age of 16. Back then, Ali literally struggled to read and write—influences exerted (and caved-in to) on an uneducated man can be great. Ali had no road map; he was charting new territory. I’m of the impression that Ali’s heart eventually served him better than his head. He is an iconic figure and helped shape many lives, mine included.

  46. the thresher 08:03am, 01/17/2012

    Ali was the right man for the times, but the controversy remains. The one thing I dislike the most about him was the way he left Malcolm X in the lurch. But the one thing I liked the most about him was when he moved to the center of his religion as Malcolm had before he was assasinated and became a man of peace. His conversion may have redeemed him in the eyes of many.

  47. the thresher 07:38am, 01/17/2012

    Very timely piece

  48. Jack 06:53am, 01/17/2012

    Lots of wealthy folks avoided service.  Not many other men (regardless of color) would have “gotten away with” refusing to serve once targeted by Uncle Sam.  We all have our opinions.  For the record, I’d love to see Vitali dance around the ring and use his telephone pole jab on his next opponent.  K2 hold Ali in very high regard just so you know.

  49. Jack 05:52am, 01/17/2012

    Ali was a draft dodger and a non-patriotic, non-american in my eyes. Always will be! While his brothers were dying in Vietnam, he was partying it up, making millions. His celebrity status got him out of it. Straight up! No other black man would have gotten away with what he did.

    As for the greatest? LOL! Not even close. Klitschkos for example


    won 56 (KO 37) + lost 5 (KO 1) + drawn 0 = 61
    rounds boxed 549 KO% 60.66


    won 56 (KO 49) + lost 3 (KO 3) + drawn 0 = 59
    rounds boxed 285 KO% 83.05

    and his brother Vitali is catching up (if he wouldn’t had taken a 4 year hiatus for politics)

    won 43 (KO 40) + lost 2 (KO 2) + drawn 0 = 45
    rounds boxed 219 KO% 88.89

  50. Joe 04:56am, 01/17/2012

    Ali is a hero to lots of kids who grew up during that era - including me.  To date we have yet to see a man of his size move with the grace and speed he did and I’m going to keep waiting and watching until another man, especially with all these supersized heavys gets up on his toes and dances around the ring jabbing his guy to death, stopping on a dime and throwing a quick one two three, then lean back to avoid shots, when the other cat attempts to retaliate -all the while talking shit to his opponent.  I might not have enough time to wait.  Happy Birthday to the Champ.

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