If the words of Muhammad Ali are, these days, more often recognised as clichés than those of a political activist locking horns with the American government, that isn’t entirely surprising. While there’s not a boxing gym in the world that doesn’t have Ali’s poetry scrawled across its walls, motivating kids to pick up their first pair of 16oz gloves, for more than a few years he was just as likely to be found in an ad for Apple products than as inspiration for young political minds. How to reconcile the image of the man spruiking Pizza Hut with the story of how the nice Christian boy, sponsored by a syndicate of Louisville millionaires, won his first world championship against Sonny Liston in 1964 and announced his conversion to the Nation of Islam the very next day? It was a wholesale rejection of white America and everything it stood for, and the emergence of a political identity that would reverberate through Black America and around the world.
Ali called himself ‘The Greatest’; the title was owned, not bestowed. He proclaimed himself to be ‘the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring today’ and even that ego was political: it was a flagrant repudiation of the expectation of careful deference that burdened so many ‘representative’ Black men like Paul Robeson and Joe Louis before him.
Ironically, while much of the world agrees with this self-assessment now, that likely has more to do with the public rehabilitation and reappropriation of his image, which could be epitomised by his presence at the 1996 Olympics, and the release of Leon Gast’s long-time-coming documentary When We Were Kings on Ali’s 1974 win in the former Zaire over heavyweight champion George Foreman. The film, like so much media at the time, slid over his associations with the likes of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad; Ali’s claim that he had thrown his gold medal from the Rome Olympics into the Ohio River after a racist encounter was rebutted by several of his friends and biographers, and he was given a replacement at Atlanta.
Ali was as much a performer out of the ring as he was inside it. Joyce Carol Oates once wrote that he ‘brought to the deadly serious sport of boxing an unexpected ecstatic joy that had nothing to do with, and may in fact have been contrary to, his political/religious mission.’ The ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ was considered a sure loss by bookies; Norman Mailer’s The Fight articulates the absurdity of an out-of-shape but nevertheless supremely confident and nigh-unflappable Ali who would turn up to press conferences and refuse to answer questions, but recite poetry instead, to the constant refrain of Ali bomaye! – literally ‘Ali kill him!’ – all the more ironic given his politics of peace and his steadfast refusal to become an organ of the United States’ military advance into Vietnam. (As if the corporatisation of Ali could not become more absurd, the Ali bomaye! chant was once co-opted by Microsoft in an employees’ meeting to become the frankly baffling victory chant ‘Microsoft bomaye!’)
The sanitised Ali, the one that even Donald Trump can bring himself to call ‘a wonderful guy’ is, in the words of Mike Marqusee in his remarkable biography Redemption Song, ‘a complex and contradictory reality [that] has been homogenised and repackaged for sale in an ever-burgeoning marketplace for commodities.’ This reappropriation of Ali by corporate America is just as important a story as Ali’s wholesale rejection of it in the sixties. If ever there was a case for the rehabilitation of a radical public identity, Ali is it.
Ali once said, ‘Boxing was nothing. It wasn’t important to me at all. Boxing was just a means to introduce me to the world.’ But to take the boxing out of Muhammad Ali is to misunderstand the nature of the sport, what boxing represents in American culture, and the significance of the Black man within it – and of this Black man in particular. It ignores what the sport itself allowed him to do, and what it did to him in return.
Indeed, as the tributes began rolling in over the weekend, there was a strong tendency to talk about how Ali ‘transcended’ sport, race or religion; how he was so much more than his sport. His influence was indeed profound, and what he represents for multiple generations of Black men and women should not be underestimated. But to me, the significance of Ali and his ‘complex and contradictory reality’ is all the more evident in his life in boxing. It is not simply that the cultural and political reverberations of his words and acts outside the ring could not have been possible without boxing, but that the cultural figure that is Muhammad Ali is bound up in the politics of this highly contentious sport, which attracts both kings and paupers, while embodying, quite literally, the great continuing disparities of class and race in America. It is a sport which embraces some of the most unsettling elements of humanity: a profound confrontation with the politics of race, money and the reality and imminence of death in a 24-foot ring. There is nothing clean or undemanding about such a game, or indeed about a career lived in the shadow of the words, ‘I don’t have to be what you want me to be.’