Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

Boxing Legend Mohammed Ali is Dead at 74

"The Greatest" Boxer Rose from Poverty to become the World's Most Admired Man

 

He was known as the Greatest

Update 6/5: Muhammed Ali shared his name with the Prophet of Islam, so he asked that his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame be up on a wall, not on the ground. It would have been disrespectful for people to step on the Prophet's name, so he made that request.

Muhammad Ali has died of respiratory failure brought on by Parkinson's disease, an illness he battled for 3 decades. He died at Scottsdale Osborne Hospital near Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded by his nine children, grandchildren and friends.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., January 17, 1942, Ali was an American former professional boxer, generally considered among the greatest heavyweights in the history of the sport. A controversial and polarizing figure during his early career, Ali is now remembered for the skills he displayed in the ring plus the values he exemplified outside of it: religious freedom, racial justice and the triumph of principle over expedience. He is one of the most recognized sports figures of the past 100 years, crowned "Sportsman of the Century" by Sports Illustrated and "Sports Personality of the Century" by the BBC. He also wrote several best-selling books about his career, including The Greatest: My Own Story and The Soul of a Butterfly.

Ali, originally known as Cassius Clay, began training at 12 years old and at the age of 22 won the world heavyweight championship in 1964 from Sonny Liston in a stunning upset. Shortly after that bout, Ali joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name. He converted to Sunni Islam in 1975, and 30 years later began adhering to Sufism.

In 1967, three years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali refused to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing title. He did not fight again for nearly four years-losing a time of peak performance in an athlete's career. Ali's appeal worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1971 his conviction was overturned. Ali's actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.

Ali remains the only three-time lineal world heavyweight champion; he won the title in 1964, 1974, and 1978. Between February 25, 1964 and September 19, 1964 Muhammad Ali reigned as the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion.

He had a way with words that other Americans tried to imitate, describing his fight with George Foreman in the Philippines, as "A Thrilla in Manilla with a guerrilla," and describing his style of boxing as, "I float like a butterfly, but sting like a bee."

Nicknamed "The Greatest", Ali was involved in several historic boxing matches. Notable among these were the first Liston fight, three with rival Joe Frazier, and one with George Foreman, in which he regained titles he had been stripped of seven years earlier.

At a time when most fighters let their managers do the talking, Ali, inspired by professional wrestler "Gorgeous" George Wagner, thrived in-and indeed craved-the spotlight, where he was often provocative and outlandish. He controlled most press conferences and interviews, and spoke freely about issues unrelated to boxing.[14][15] Ali transformed the role and image of the African American athlete in America by his embrace of racial pride and his willingness to antagonize the white establishment in doing so.

In the words of writer Joyce Carol Oates, he was one of the few athletes in any sport to "define the terms of his public reputation".

He passed away on June 3, 2016, it was said of him that he transcended sports, race and even time. The funeral will be held Sunday in his hometown of Louisville, KY. It will be live streamed.

Commentary: What made Muhammad Ali ‘unforgivably' black | Reuters

Muhammad Ali’s Black Power activism may not fit neatly into the outpouring of grief, respect and reflection in the coming days and weeks after his death Friday at age 74. But its one of the most crucial and enduring parts of a legacy that shaped the world.

By the late 1960s, Ali’s unforgiveable blackness helped him emerge as a transcendent and global figure of black liberation. He became more “black” than James Brown, the godfather of soul, who shouted to the world that he was “proud” to be black. He possessed more charisma than his friend Stokely Carmichael, who tutored the heavyweight champion on the nuances of his own groundbreaking anti-war activism. He proved more accessible than Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, who gave Ali his name as part of a successful effort to pry the young champion from the grips of his most important mentor, Malcolm X.

Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X were, like the title of the recent electrifying history of their friendship, Blood Brothers, whose shared reputations as trouble-makers hid profound intellectual energies and supple understanding of politics.

Malcolm’s own star power helped shape Ali’s introduction to the world following his ascension to heavyweight champion in 1964. The two men conducted a public media tour of sorts, grabbing lunch in Harlem, touring the United Nations and verbally sparring with the large media contingent that trailed their every move.

Privately, Malcolm attempted to school the young Ali on the nuances of the Islamic faith, the contradictions of the Nation of Islam and the burdens of public fame and celebrity. Malcolm taught Ali how to speak truth to power by any means necessary.

This lesson proved fatal in Malcolm’s case, when former colleagues, including Ali himself, shunned him after he left the Nation of Islam. Ali would publicly regret not having stood by his mentor’s side in later years. Tutored by the Black Power Movement’s most revolutionary symbol, however, Ali would find himself unwittingly taking Malcolm’s place as America’s most well-known black Muslim.

Ali’s religious beliefs and Nation of Islam membership sparked a national controversy. White promoters and business interests, who controlled much of the boxing establishment, threatened to cancel future fights. Many journalists defiantly referred to the heavy-weight champ by what he labeled “my slave name” of Cassius Clay. Ali insisted that reporters and boxers “say my name” -- including former champ Floyd Patterson, whom he defeated in humiliating fashion for failing to do so.

In the process, Ali paved the way for a generation of black athletes — most notably Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — to unapologetically embrace their political and religious beliefs and adopt a proud new racial identity.

Black Power radicalism framed Ali’s decision to refuse the draft. Carmichael, who was then chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and friend of Ali, popularized chants of “Hell no, we won’t go!” in explosive speeches around the nation. Martin Luther King Jr. soon followed Ali and Carmichael, lending gravitas to the burgeoning anti-war movement through his April 4, 1967 Riverside Church speech in New York City.

Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the military shortly after turned resistance against the Vietnam War into a movement that transcended boundaries between sports and politics.

In the aftermath of defeating Sonny Liston in 1964, when Ali became heavyweight champion of the world, he famously remarked, “I shook up the world!” Ali’s words anticipated the global response to his anti-war stance, actions that were shaped by his growing participation in the Black Power Movement.

Stripped of his livelihood as a boxer and denied legal protection of being a conscientious objector, Ali went on the offensive. He defiantly confronted the U.S. foreign policy establishment. He outraged U.S. public officials by declaring that the Vietnamese people never “called me a nigger.”

Ali echoed Black Power activists' critique of American hegemony. He challenged the usefulness of the Cold War as an organizing international principle, and stood in solidarity with the “Third World” against foreign intervention.

Ali became the most visible symbol of Black Power’s radical critique of American imperialism, structural racism and white supremacy. Like the early Malcolm X, he used the Nation of Islam’s belief in racial separatism as a shield against the political violence associated with efforts at racial integration. He wielded black history as a sword against white claims of racial inferiority.

Ali embraced the rough edges and the plainer surfaces of black identity in a manner that was unapologetically, at times unforgivably, black. Captivating the student body at Howard University, Ali ridiculed the oppressive breadth of white supremacy in popular culture, noting how “even the King of the Jungle, Tarzan in black Africa is white!” He then quipped that in heaven, black people were in the kitchen fixing the “milk and honey” for their white counterparts to eat.

Black Power shaped Ali’s global political imagination, offering him a framework to link his religious beliefs, athletic gifts, and outspoken personality. His odyssey helped fuel campus protests, emboldened medal-winning black athletes to raise defiant black-gloved fists at the Mexico City Olympics of 1968, brought anti-war sentiment into American living rooms and contoured wider debates over race and democracy that endure to this day.

Ali never rejected his political radicalism; he merely refined it. He incorporated many themes of his youthful activism into his career as a human-rights activist, philanthropist and global ambassador.

In old age, Ali became a universal icon -- one whose legend at times stubbornly resisted the facts of his complicated legacy.

(Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin. His most recent book is Stokely: A Life. He can be followed on Twitter at @PenielJoseph)

 

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