The Importance Of A Fighter

More than anyone else of his generation, Muhammad Ali belongs to the world. He encouraged millions of people to believe in themselves, raise their aspirations and accomplish things that might not have been done without him. He wasn’t just a standard messenger for black Americans. He stood up for everyone.

I studied all the great heavyweights, but Muhammad Ali was always my hero. Watching his fights on TV, he showed me the beautiful science of the sport, he showed me how important it was to be fast and nimble on your feet, but he also showed me that you had to walk the walk if you talked the talk, and how brilliantly he did it.

A few days after his passing, I overheard a conversation between two woman in a local coffeehouse. They were comparing Ali to a “gorilla” and calling boxing an insane, barbaric sport. They clearly didn’t understand that gorillas don’t know how to box. A gorilla would easily smack up a human and kill them, but they wouldn’t do so through boxing. If you don’t think what Ali accomplished was impressive, I’d like to see YOU try to take up boxing and see how easy it is.

Boxing is pretty sane. There’s nothing barbaric about a competitive combat sport that is regulated by safety rules, is performed by athletes who fight in the ring willingly and the aim isn’t to kill anyone. Is it so wrong for people to want to take up boxing, knowing the risks it can have on their body? I think it’s pretty admirable that these people are willing to put their bodies on the line for the sake of competition. There are far worse things they could be doing.

But that is not all…

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Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., as Muhammad Ali was once known, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942—a time when blacks were the servant class in Louisville. They held jobs such as tending the backstretch at Churchill Downs (the famous race track where the Kentucky Derby is held) and cleaning other people’s homes. In Louisville in the 1940s, the highest career goal that most black people could realistically set for their children was that they join the clergy or teach at an all-black public school.

When Clay was twelve years old, his bike was stolen. That led him to take up boxing under the gaurdianship of a Louisville policeman named Joe Martin. Clay advanced through the amateur ranks, won a gold medal at the age of eighteen at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and turned professional under the guidance of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, a syndicate comprised of eleven wealthy white men.

Ali dominated boxing as thoroughly and magnificently as any fighter ever. But outside the ring, his persona was being sculpted in ways that were even more important.

On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of refusing induction into the United States Armed Forces and sentenced to five years in prison. Ali didn’t have to contribute as much as he did to the community, but he did so anyway. A lot of other athletes, especially at that time, certainly did not.
His refusal to go to Vietnam was inspirational for a lot of people at that time and caused a lot of people to refuse to go as well. When he refused induction into the United States Army, he stood up to armies everywhere in support of the proposition that, “Unless you have a very good reason to kill, war is wrong.”

It was a violent, turbulent, almost indecipherable time in America, and Ali was in all of those fires at once, in addition to being heavyweight champion of the world.

When Ali appeared on the scene, it was popular among those in the vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement to take the “safe” path. That path was unsafe for those who participated in the struggle. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, and other courageous men and women were subjected to violence, economic assaults and death when they carried the struggle “too far.” But the road they traveled was designed to be as non-threatening as possible for white America.

Then along came Ali, preaching not “white American values,” but freedom and equality of a kind rarely seen anywhere in the world. And as if that wasn’t threatening enough, Ali attacked the status quo from outside of politics and the accepted strategies of the Civil Rights Movement.

Ali the man, not Ali the boxer, traveled the globe bringing people together in times when the world seemingly fought over religious and racial differences. He traveled the world, lending his name and presence to hunger and poverty relief, supporting education efforts of all kinds, promoting adoption and encouraging people to respect and better understand one another. It is estimated that he has helped to provide more than 22 million meals to feed the hungry.

That is impossible to ignore.

Those who call Muhammad Ali racist, don’t seem to know much about our history.

I wouldn’t call Muhammad Ali racist for his remark on interracial relationships. Prejudice maybe, but I would say that his view point is subconsciously influenced on how society did treat black people (as much as he consciously claims his beliefs are based on his beliefs, but then again, religion is based on cultural attitudes. The holy scriptures also spoke about slavery). Institutionalized racism (and sexism) forced people apart, segregated us and still is, it has even caused internalized racism amoungst some groups. The reality is, what makes us different is our environmental developments, we adapted to the climate we lived, and some groups have different exposures and communities to different illnesses, bacteria or viruses, but we’re still the same species. Institutionalized racism has trained us to believe that a ‘race’ is like another species, when it’s not.

I wonder if people who seem to criticize his comments realize he grew up in a time were people lynched people who looked like him. How it wasn’t just institutionalized but full blown, in your face racism. Easy to talk about him being no better than a gorilla or a monkey when you don’t have to watch out for that burning cross. The man was a hero to young black kids not just because he could get in a ring an perform, but because he stood up and fought for what he believed in. He fought the current; he swam against the tide. He stood for something, stayed with it, and prevailed.

He refused to go to Vietnam and kill.

Many boxers were more famous but very few fought the U.S. Government and won.

As far as his social activism go, his refusal to go to Vietnam is a pretty big deal. Of course, you could find a lot of dirt on numerous important thinkers, (Immanuel Kant for example) but that doesn’t make their accomplishments any less notable. All the things that Ali has done right in his life far outweigh the mistakes of his past. And the rough edges of his early years have long since been forgiven or forgotten. I definitely think Ali should be considered the greatest sportsman of all time because of what he achieved, putting boxing on a global platform, and then having the impact on society that he has had outside the ring.

As a boxer, Ali was the most beloved and most hated athlete in sports. In retirement, he probably was the most popular person on the planet who was worshiped by millions of people.

There was a time that Ali’s power no longer resided in his fists. It came from his conscience. His legacy will forever live in the hearts of those who truly knew him and what he stood for.

 

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