“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.”
Muhammed Ali knew the society he lived, perhaps better than many other sports persons. The political awareness helped him to de-construct his own sport. He said “Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.”
A man whose emergence coincided with the civil rights movement in America, always politically understood what it is to be a black in that country.
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise,” Ali said. “But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
He then became the most famous convert to Islam perhaps in recent US history, rejecting his ‘slave’ name and joined the Black Muslim movement in 1964.
His conversion to Islam and his open stand against Vietnam war transcended his image from that of boxer, to a man who understood his time culturally and politically.
His statement during the Vietnam war that “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them,” cost him many things including millions dollars and changed his image for ever. When America was presenting their aggression as an act of national pride, this statement coming as it did from the most famous sports person, was almost blasphemous.
Even the organisation ‘The Nation of Islam that anointed him Muhammad Ali, disapproved his style of resistance. Ali was criticised for disappointing black war veterans because of his open stand against the Vietnam aggression. Perhaps Ali was ahead of his time and was a radically politicised icon.
” The government had a system where rich man’s son went to college and poor man’s son went to war,” was his refrain about this criticism. More than a rhetoric his anti-war stand carried his political conviction.
“I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over,” said Muhammed Ali.
Once asked about his preferred legacy, Ali said: “I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him … who stood up for his beliefs … who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.” And his greatness lied in his humanity, which he acquired not just from the rings but from his understanding of class and race.