Continues to Rise: Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)


Muham­mad Ali’s life could be summed up in a sin­gle state­ment: free­dom is always worth fight­ing for.As a pro­fes­sion­al pugilist, he inspired mil­lions. As a polit­i­cal rad­i­cal, he car­ried this con­vic­tion beyond the ring, fierce­ly denounc­ing racism and impe­ri­al­ism. But these two aspects of his life – the ath­lete and the mil­i­tant – can­not be sep­a­rat­ed. His entire box­ing career was ful­ly polit­i­cal, and his great­est match­es, against Ernie Ter­rell and George Fore­man, saw him wag­ing the strug­gle against white suprema­cy, racism, and col­lab­o­ra­tionism in the box­ing ring itself.

Insights of a Warrior

His ath­let­ic achieve­ments range from an Olympic gold medal in the light-heavy­weight divi­sion in the Rome games of 1960 and becom­ing the world heavy­weight cham­pi­on three times with a reper­toire of some of the most amaz­ing match­es in box­ing his­to­ry. He was so fast, cre­ative, and tac­ti­cal that he even influ­enced the great Bruce Lee, his note­wor­thy peer in Asian mar­tial arts, world fame, and polit­i­cal com­mit­ments. Lee gave Ali the most sin­cere form of flat­tery by adding the latter’s style of foot­work to Jeet Kune Do, his approach to Gung Fu. Leg­endary a box­er though he was, Ali will be remem­bered for the Promethean strug­gle he fought for dig­ni­ty and respect not only as a man but also as one belong­ing to those despised by the coun­try of his birth.

Ali fought, which means he also received his share of punch­es, despite float­ing like a but­ter­fly and sting­ing like a bee (this sig­na­ture-phrase was actu­al­ly penned by his Afro-Jew­ish assis­tant train­er and cor­ner man Drew Bun­di­ni Brown). He was one of a kind, though that didn’t mean there weren’t his ana­logues in oth­er sites of strug­gle for the lib­er­a­tion of those under the heels of white suprema­cy, cap­i­tal­ism, and impe­ri­al­ism. I have already men­tioned Bruce Lee, who, as an Asian Amer­i­can, no doubt appre­ci­at­ed Ali’s coura­geous state­ments of sol­i­dar­i­ty with East Asians dur­ing the U.S. war against Viet­nam. In the strug­gle against Jim Crow, Mal­colm X, his friend whom he had sad­ly lat­er dis­avowed, stood for the same in words and deed in the realm of what Cor­nel West calls prophet­ic protest.

Yet, in terms of spe­cif­ic philo­soph­i­cal loca­tion and strug­gles in and beyond the ring, at least with regard to the basic ques­tion of stand­ing up for what is right and the dig­ni­ty it demands, his affini­ties were with the leg­endary, rev­o­lu­tion­ary philoso­pher psy­chi­a­trist Frantz Fanon. Unlike Ali, how­ev­er, Fanon’s encounter with the real­i­ties of France, his neme­sis-home, was not through an Olympic tri­al but that of the humil­i­a­tion he suf­fered while fight­ing for France in World War II, from which he returned like Ali who wouldn’t be served in a din­er in his home­town as a twice-dec­o­rat­ed hero with con­tin­ued, ques­tioned sta­tus as a human being. Fanon even­tu­al­ly left France, fought for Alger­ian inde­pen­dence, served as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the strug­gle through­out south­ern Africa, and left a pow­er­ful set of writ­ings, all marked by the insights of a war­rior, chal­leng­ing us to fight for a healthy human­i­ty. Though not a health pro­fes­sion­al, Ali shared Fanon’s diag­no­sis of the sit­u­a­tion: bet­ter to be angry fight­ing for free­dom than to be a “hap­py” slave.

What’s in a Name?

Born in Louisville, Ken­tucky, in 1942, he was the son of a sign-mak­er. The sym­bol­ism is evi­dent.   A sign always points to some­thing oth­er than itself, and, true to form, Ali kept ques­tion­ing the world in which he lived. He nev­er accept­ed the stan­dard response to black sub­or­di­na­tion, exem­pli­fied by his father’s point­ing to his skin col­or as the source of the obsta­cles his son faced.   Join­ing crit­i­cal Black thought from over the ages, he in effect respond­ed that he wasn’t the prob­lem it was those who imposed such lim­i­ta­tions on him.  

Bar­ri­ers, the pre­co­cious lad under­stood, should be torn down. Like many free­dom fight­ers before him, he resolved to do so in a path from ini­tial lit­er­a­cy to fists of resis­tance and then to polit­i­cal speech. Pol­i­tics, after all, is about pow­er, a rela­tion­ship to which racist soci­eties demand noth­ing beyond silence from those it dom­i­nates. Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, for instance, fought for his free­dom first through learn­ing to read, then match­ing fists with the slave-break­er Rev­erend Cov­ey before mov­ing to the North and then engaged in abo­li­tion activism in which his pow­ers of speech were leg­endary.  

Ali, who in his youth was Cas­sius Mar­cel­lus Clay, Jr., took a sim­i­lar path through ama­teur box­ing and then on to the Olympics and then pro­fes­sion­al box­ing. His acco­lades ear­ly on includ­ed win­ning the Gold­en Glove. His deter­mi­na­tion through­out made it clear that some­thing burned deep with­in him. He once remarked that he nev­er start­ed count­ing when doing sit-up exer­cis­es until after his abdomen began to hurt. Pain for him was a reminder of what he had to over­come.  As I some­times remind read­ers, it wasn’t lib­er­a­tion strug­gles that brought vio­lence into Fanon’s life; as a colo­nial sub­ject, he was born into vio­lence. So was Ali, who was smart enough to under­stand that no phys­i­cal blow matched those offered by the legal sys­tem, dou­ble-stan­dard soci­ety, and con­stant vio­lence of an ide­ol­o­gy of con­tin­ued degra­da­tion in print, the radio waves, cin­e­ma, and tele­vi­sion. Those forces, even at the spir­i­tu­al lev­el, made their mes­sages clear: the world was sup­pos­ed­ly bet­ter with­out peo­ple like him, regard­less of their achieve­ment. He had a healthy response: there’s some­thing wrong with that world, not the peo­ple it per­se­cut­ed.

Chang­ing that world meant for Ali a bat­tle on inner as well as out­er fronts. He already waged war on the out­er, where he knocked down oppo­nents of many kinds, includ­ing, to the cha­grin of racist audi­ences, white ones. For the inner, he sought the coun­sel of the Nation of Islam, which led not only to his con­ver­sion but also his birth (for him, a form of being made whole by tear­ing asun­der the effects of enslave­ment) as Muham­mad Ali.

Inter­est­ing­ly enough, the “slave name” he dis­card­ed was in hon­or of Cas­sius Mar­cel­lus Clay (1810–1903), a white abo­li­tion­ist who, among his many claims to fame, fought off assas­sins who had shot him point blank in the chest in one instance and a group that had stabbed him on anoth­er occa­sion. It was, along with Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, Clay who had insist­ed that Pres­i­dent Lin­coln issue a procla­ma­tion for the eman­ci­pa­tion of enslaved peo­ple in the U.S. South. The reach of a sign is, we should remem­ber, always beyond itself.

Every­thing about Muham­mad Ali was poet­ic and thus sym­bol­ic. His move­ment from his dis­avowed slave name (despite its not being from an enslaver) to his anoint­ed one (cho­sen by the Hon­or­able Eli­jah Muham­mad) is about tran­scend­ing the soil: clay, after all, is an earth­ly per­me­able sub­stance, and “Ali” is Ara­bic for high, or, as he cor­rect­ly added, “most high.” “Muham­mad” means “praise­wor­thy.” There is no doubt that Muham­mad Ali’s life met the chal­lenge of his name. I sus­pect as well that Clay would under­stand the impor­tance of Ali’s choice: true free­dom requires sur­pass­ing even those who fought for our eman­ci­pa­tion.

Politics in the Ring

The ques­tion of Ali’s name occa­sioned what is no doubt his most remem­bered, sym­bol­ic fight.  First, how­ev­er, con­sid­er the prover­bial lead up.

Ali was well known for his boast­ing and fiery rhetoric. What his crit­ics didn’t real­ize is what many peo­ple of col­or who cel­e­brat­ed him across the world under­stood. The sup­pos­ed­ly req­ui­site need for white recog­ni­tion is degrad­ing. Ali refused to be patron­ized. Like Frantz Fanon and Mal­colm X, whose words irri­tat­ed and often fright­ened white audi­ences, Ali’s chal­lenged antiblack racists who by def­i­n­i­tion reject­ed the idea that any per­son of African descent deserved respect. Even worse, the idea of pub­licly acknowl­edg­ing his self-respect meant that his spir­it was not crushed and his refusal to let such ever hap­pen. His naysay­ers didn’t under­stand that Ali’s use of the pro­noun “I” was nev­er real­ly sin­gu­lar in its des­ig­na­tion. He knew they reject­ed him in his indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, which meant his dec­la­ra­tion spread across a peo­ple. He was announc­ing dur­ing the Civ­il Rights Strug­gle that Blacks were fight­ing for their right to exist and to flour­ish. That he won the heavy­weight cham­pi­onship against Son­ny Lis­ton in 1964, the year of the Civ­il Rights Act out­law­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion on the basis of race, col­or, reli­gion, sex, or nation­al ori­gin speaks for itself.

Ali’s jaunts and taunts were unfor­giv­ing, how­ev­er, to those whom Mal­colm X called “house Negroes” or “Uncle Toms.” Every racist soci­ety has some ver­sion of this fig­ure. The French, for instance, have le Bon Nègre. Such fig­ures were guid­ed by a sin­gle creed: nev­er, ever, upset whites. They no doubt rep­re­sent­ed for Ali the threat from with­in, which by exten­sion applied not only to what he purged from his own soul but also what jeop­ar­dized lib­er­a­tion move­ments for all.

The World Box­ing Asso­ci­a­tion (WBA) had stripped Ali of his title when he joined the Nation of Islam (now The World Com­mu­ni­ty of Al-Islam), which the Fed­er­al Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tions had clas­si­fied as a hate group and a threat to nation­al secu­ri­ty. The open­ing left Ernie Ter­rell as the WBA cham­pi­on. The stage was set for Ter­rell to rep­re­sent the House Negro who could please white mas­ters by putting the upstart Ali in his sup­posed “place.” To make mat­ters worse, the Louisville draft board reclas­si­fied Ali to make him eli­gi­ble for the draft. His famous response, “I ain’t got noth­ing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong nev­er called me nig­ger,” made him a hero among the down­trod­den and those liv­ing in what was then called the  Third World, in addi­tion to crit­ics of the war, and a more intense object of white hatred. As the fight approached, Ter­rell kept refer­ring to Ali by his dis­avowed slave name of Cas­sius Clay. Bear in mind that these events unfold­ed dur­ing 1966, when the Title IV propos­ing non-dis­crim­i­na­tion in hous­ing was defeat­ed in the U.S. Con­gress; the tides, in oth­er words, were already turn­ing against the gains from 1964. It was no small mat­ter that his for­mer friend, Mal­colm X, was assas­si­nat­ed in 1965. State-sanc­tioned destruc­tion of those who defied colo­nial­ism and racism was, as the expres­sion goes, busi­ness as usu­al.

Ali and Ter­rell had their epic bat­tle on the Feb­ru­ary 6, 1967. It was a bru­tal, fif­teen-round fight in which Ali, upon land­ing each punch, added, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom … what’s my name?” To per­haps the judge’s, and most cer­tain­ly the major­i­ty white audience’s, cha­grin, the deci­sion of Ali’s vic­to­ry was unan­i­mous.  

Ali and his name were vic­to­ri­ous, but retal­i­a­tion came in a famil­iar pat­tern as unleashed on those such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robe­son before him; he was stripped again of his titles, with the addi­tion of his box­ing license and pass­port tak­en away. Unable to leave the coun­try, he spent 1967 to 1970 appeal­ing his con­vic­tion for draft eva­sion despite being a con­sci­en­tious objec­tor, while find­ing alter­na­tive means of earn­ing an income. His license was rein­stat­ed in 1970 and his con­vic­tion over­turned in 1971. His return to pro­fes­sion­al box­ing led to some of the great­est show­downs, the most mem­o­rable of which, in ath­let­ic terms, were his loss and then vic­to­ry against Joe Fra­zier. His last great, polit­i­cal­ly sym­bol­ic fight, how­ev­er, was against George Fore­man, against whom he used his famous “rope-a-dope” tech­nique of absorb­ing punch­es until his oppo­nent was tired out.  

Fore­man was an Olympic gold medal­ist at the 1968 Mex­i­co games in which Tom­mie Smith and John Car­los made their his­toric, raised black-gloved cov­ered fists of protest. Fore­man coun­tered their defi­ance by wav­ing the U.S. flag at the moment of his vic­to­ry. Though a much beloved celebri­ty today, what many peo­ple of col­or across the globe saw in 1968 was the return of the repul­sive, sub­servient fig­ure against whom lib­er­a­tionists such as Ali fought. Tak­ing place in the then Repub­lic of Zaire (now known as the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of the Con­go), it was the event in which Ali reclaimed his title as heavy­weight cham­pi­on through defeat­ing an oppo­nent whom audi­ences of col­or saw as com­plic­it in the dom­i­na­tion of his fel­low oppressed peo­ples. The vic­to­ry sym­bol­ized Africa, and indeed the then Third World, fight­ing back.

The need to reassert white dom­i­nance nev­er aban­doned Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture. The 1976 film Rocky effec­tive­ly tapped into the white suprema­cist dream of the Great White Hope through pit­ting Rocky Bal­boa (based on the white box­er Chuck Wep­n­er, who in 1975 almost went fif­teen rounds against Ali before los­ing by a knock­out) against the Ali-inspired Apol­lo Creed. It is no sur­prise that in cin­e­ma, where fan­ta­sy rules, so, too, white suprema­cy found solace. Review­ing Rocky II in 1979 in con­ver­sa­tion with crit­ic Roger Ebert, Ali said: “For the black man to come out supe­ri­or would be against America’s teach­ings. I have been so great in box­ing they had to cre­ate an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to coun­ter­act my image in the ring. Amer­i­ca has to have its white images, no mat­ter where it gets them. Jesus, Won­der Woman, Tarzan and Rocky.”

After regain­ing the heavy­weight title in 1974, Ali, at age 32, was already get­ting old for his pro­fes­sion. Sub­se­quent defeat and retire­ment a decade lat­er were inevitable, and in terms of his body, the onset of Parkin­son dis­ease led to a trag­ic strug­gle, with signs of dig­ni­ty char­ac­ter­is­tic of the man, for the rest of his life. His two great­est weapons against his sub­or­di­na­tion, his phys­i­cal prowess and his gift of speech, were com­pro­mised.  Ali, how­ev­er, was nev­er defeat­ed.  One could imag­ine how many thoughts, how many moments of reflex­ive mus­cu­lar poise, remind­ed him of lim­i­ta­tions that made him seem his own pris­on­er. Yet, Ali nev­er lost sight of what was ulti­mate­ly greater than him­self. His faith (which led to his tak­ing the Hajj to Mecca/Makkah in 1972), after all, taught him that being the great­est among men nev­er meant being greater than The Most High, the Great­est of the Great­est.  His com­mit­ment, then, meant assert­ing per­haps his great­est virtue his human­i­ty. One could imag­ine how, freed from his afflic­tion, he would have spo­ken in sol­i­dar­i­ty with #Black­Lives­Mat­ter, against Islam­o­pho­bia, and for glob­al sol­i­dar­i­ty against the many forms of degra­da­tion beset­ting the world today.

Ali’s remains return to Louisville on June 10. Though his death returns him to the soil (yes, to clay), we all know in our hearts that we remem­ber him, Ali, because he, as poet Maya Angelou would remind us, con­tin­ues to rise.

Author of the article

is an Afro-Jewish philosopher, political thinker, educator, and musician, who was born on the island of Jamaica and grew up in the Bronx, New York. He is the author of numerous books, including What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought.