It’s hard to believe that in this day of global connectivity that, arguably, the world’s most famous person ever achieved fame without the help of the Internet, social media or cable/satellite television.
Muhammad Ali was a force of nature and change agent. He was handsome (or, as he put it, pretty,) tall and chiseled. Eyes were drawn to him. And he commanded the spotlight as no athlete had ever done before. Although he basked in that spotlight, he also used it to expose racial inequities he saw in the United States. When he converted to Islam, he became the only Muslim many Americans knew. Ali said he would not go to war, and lost his prime money-making years by for his principled stand. Only Ali could be polarizing and unifying at the same time. He became the champion of the underdog.
In October 1974, few Americans could find Zaire on a map. But after Ali knocked out George Foreman to win the heavyweight title, the “Rumble in the Jungle” cemented Ali’s status as a global icon.
So much has been written about Ali since his death late Friday. But the thread that runs throughout is how he used his influence as a fighter for peace and equality.
Muhammad Ali: Never the White Man’s Negro
Joyce Carol Oates – The New York Times
White male anxieties were, evidently, greatly roiled by the spectacle of the strong black man, and had to be assuaged. The greater the black boxer (Joe Louis, Archie Moore, Ezzard Charles), the more urgent that he assume a public role of caution and restraint. Kindly white men who advised their black charges to be a “credit to their race” were not speaking ironically.
And yet, the young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali refused to play this emasculating role. He would not be the “white man’s Negro” — he would not be anything of the white man’s at all….
The heart of the champion is this: One never repudiates one’s deepest values, one never gives in.
Muhammad Ali Became a Big Brother to Me — and to All African-Americans
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Time
Muhammad’s influence on me in those formative years, from when I was 13 to when I met him on Hollywood Boulevard, wasn’t just related to athletics. He had not only conquered the boxing world through his undeniable dominance in the ring, but he had mastered the art of self-promotion unlike anyone since P.T. Barnum, who once said, “Without promotion, something terrible happens … nothing!” Muhammad cannily ensured that something would happen by playing the court jester. He bragged relentlessly and shamelessly—and in verse! He riled up some white folk so much that they would pay anything to see this uppity young boy put back in his place.
That place, for blacks of the time, was wherever they were told. Sure, athletes and entertainers were invited to sit at the adult table, but for everyone else, the struggle was still in its infancy. Once at the table, opportunities for blacks opened up everywhere. So if you were smart and wanted to maintain a successful career, you kept your dark head down, mouth shut, and occasionally confirmed how grateful and blessed you felt.
Muhammad Ali: Why They Called Him ‘The Greatest’ and Why I Called Him My Friend
Jerry Izenberg – The Star-Ledger
It didn’t take long for Holmes to exploit the difference. Ali had no answer to Holmes’ jab or the left hooks he threw off of it….
As Muhammad absorbed more and more punishment, A-list celebrities and high rollers at ringside shared the suffering with the everyday blue-collar people in the top tiers. He was a battered shell of the champion we had once known….
[M]y strongest memory of that night applies to a bitter-sweet epitaph offered by an elderly Afro-American men’s room attendant at 4 a.m. as he handed me a towel.
“Did you bet the fight?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I bet on Ali.”
“Pardon me for asking, but why?”
“Why? Why? Because he’s Muhammad Ali, that’s why. Mister, I’m 72 years old. I owe the man for giving me my dignity.”
Muhammad Ali Shaped My Life
Walter Mosley – The New York Times
I remember the day I became aware of the Champ. My mother was driving me to school after he won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston. At a crosswalk a black man passing in front of our car suddenly turned and, raising his fists into the air, announced loudly, “I am the greatest!” I was frightened by the man’s violent outburst,
but even then I heard the pride and hurt, the dashed ambition and the shard of hope that cut through him. Cassius Clay’s declaration had become his own. The Black Pride movement was on, and one of its pillars were these four words.
Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World
Keith Olbermann – The Ringer
Somehow, he was at the Los Angeles Marathon in 1990, which I was co-anchoring on radio, and for some inexplicable reason, those he was with decided to bring him to us for an interview even though he couldn’t really talk. In the moments before we got on the air, as he struggled to whisper incomplete consonants and fractured vowels, I asked him if he was sure he wanted to go through with it. He looked offended by my question. “I know you,” he said, as if speaking through a wet towel. “You just repeat what I say. I trust you.” We did at least five minutes with me acting in essence as translator for each of his eloquent but eerily distant answers. His handlers soon moved to break off the conversation. He smiled reproachfully at them and encouragingly at me, and we continued. I would sometimes strain to capture and repeat what he said, and in the reverse of the traditional nodding practice you see every television interviewer undertake, it was Ali doing the nodding to tell me I was doing well enough. And then he squinted briefly and I knew he had tired himself out; we wrapped it up and I got the two-handed handshake and a brief embrace. I had to restrain my tears, not because of the pathos of his hindered speech, but because of the intensity of his refusal to recalculate what he wanted to do or what he wanted to convey or who he wanted to be, just because that part of his brain didn’t work very well anymore. He had exhausted both of us, on a level of communication I didn’t understand.
How the Olympics Shaped Muhammad Ali
Randy Roberts & Johnny Smith – The Wall Street Journal
When not training or sleeping, he prowled the Olympic Village trading national insignia pins. Clay excelled at the practice, engaging athletes from Africa, Asia, Australia, South America, and Europe, assuming that if he spoke English loud enough he could make himself understood….
The trinkets were his introduction to the world. In the Olympic Village, there were no separations based on class, religion, or race. It must have felt like he was a citizen of a brave new world. In the American quarters, it seemed to Clay as if the natural racial order had undergone a dizzying topsy-turvy. The leaders of the U.S. team were black and the likes of decathlete Rafer Johnson, sprinter Wilma Rudolph, and Clay himself glided through the Village as gracefully as royalty.
After Rome, he increasingly thought in global terms. In the next three years, during his conversion to the Nation of Islam, he began challenging the myths of American democracy. As the most outspoken black athlete in America, he openly questioned integration, nonviolence, and Christianity. Although many black Americans disagreed with his religious views, many identified with his politics of self-determination. Black people admired him for many reasons—his racial pride, his outspokenness, his independent attitude. Above all, he insisted on being free.