“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
This was the answer the newly crowned Heavyweight Champion, Muhammad Ali gave when asked about his philosophy of life. At 50, Muhammad Ali was one of the most revered men throughout the entire world. As an athlete, that reverence was on display four years later in 1996 when the former Olympic Gold Medalist was given the honor of carrying the torch to light the Olympic flame during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Muhammad Ali, in his fifties, was a worldwide goodwill ambassador and was known as such for the rest of his life. A life that ended suddenly on June 3rd of 2016.
Muhammad Ali not only viewed the world differently at 50 than he did at 20, but the world viewed him differently at 50 than it viewed him at 20. By the age of 20, Ali, who was still known as Cassius Clay, was an up and coming heavyweight contender with a flashy style and extremely loud mouth. At age 2o, with his boxing moniker, the “Louisville Lip” was brash, boastful, went out of his way to be heard and seen and brutally taunted opponents into matches against him and most annoyingly WHILE engaged in a match against him. This was the strategy he used to get a match against Sonny Liston, whom everyone assumed would knockout Clay and do it rather quickly. That didn’t happen. Clay beat him and beat him easy. Clay’s skill was his speed, which he used to hit Liston whenever he wanted and avoid every punch thrown at him. At 22, Cassius Clay became the youngest fighter to defeat a reigning champion in boxing history. And history is what happened.
“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”
Back in the early 1960s, Black athletes were not as prevalent as they were today. Yes the likes of Jim Brown, Willie Mays and Bill Russell were becoming stars in their own right, they weren’t anything like we see black athletes today. They certainly had not the sort of prestige and privilege they do today. Muhammad Ali, willfully went against that grain. But you have to put into perspective what he was.
Fact #1: He was Black. The Civil Rights Movement had only begun to get off the ground. Black men and black people in general were still effectively second-class citizens in many ways, if not by law, certainly by expectation. They “had their place”. Some were burgeoning stars, but we’re respectful and we’re consider safe and likeable, much like a Jackie Robinson. Not Ali.
Fact #2: He was arrogant. Muhammad Ali was really good at what he did and he knew it and was not afraid to tell you about it, quickly displacing the given moniker, the “Louisville Lip” with a chosen moniker, “The Greatest”. If mainstream America had their opinions on the place and status of black people, it certainly was made worse with one as proudly boastful as Ali was.
Fact #3: He was Muslim. Not just any typical Muslim, which then had not the same connotation as it does today. But Muhammad Ali, shortly after winning his title had began using the name Muhammad Ali when he joined the Nation of Islam, which was notable for its extremism and militancy. Think what Black Lives Matter is today with the reputation of today’s Klu Klux Klan. That was how the majority felt about the Nation of Islam. Now imagine one of the more popular athletes in American sports joins such a group. How would we react today if Tom Brady or Bryce Harper announced very publicly that they are joining the Aryan Brotherhood. How would America and the World treat these figures in today’s world? That was the position Muhammad Ali was in. The biggest difference is that Bryce Harper and Tom Brady are already accepted and welcomed figures. Muhammad Ali was Black and arrogant and then had the audacity to join Black Separatist, who the nation feared and rejected, to make it even worse.
The aversion to what had become to Muhammad Ali wasn’t just with mainstream White America, but it was also held by many within Black America. Former champions like Joe Louis were shunned by him. Jackie Robinson, the first Black player in the Major Leagues, who was rather universally accepted by most Americans, he would not bring himself to call the Muhammad Ali by his new name. This action was repeated by other fighters like Ernie Terrell and former champion, Floyd Patterson. Patterson, who before facing Ali, said he wanted to beat Ali to “bring the title back to America”. This was Muhammad Ali in 20s. Reviled by White America. Disrespected by Black America. This would be bad enough, but as a militant, arrogant black athlete in the 1960s, he then made it worse.
Fact #4: Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. Across America young men were being drafted to go to war and Ali was expected to do the same. Yet, he refused. He did what thousands of others could not do and would not do. The United States of America was in the mist of stopping the spread of Communism and fighting for the world’s freedom and America’s most notable champion refused that fight. What he did, many across America considered unpatriotic and shameful. But because of his very public personal and religious beliefs, he would not accept being drafted. And he did this at the expense of his career. Not only was Muhammad Ali a champion at the top of his career, in the prime of his career, by his actions and his suspension and facing imprisonment, Muhammad Ali was willing to give up his career for an undetermined length of time. It should have been a matter of months, but it ended up being a matter of years and could have easily been a matter of decades. There was no way to tell but he still refused.
And that’s when things started to change. We saw the toll the war begin to take on our population and specifically, black men who mostly fought it. Not to mention, if there is one thing all Americans can recognize, no matter the guise, is a man that is self-made and a man who gains his own achievements on his own merits. They also recognize when something is unjust and done without order. The American people recognized Muhammad Ali’s skill and his championship he earned and they saw it taken away from him and not because of something he could not do. He did not lose his title. It was taken from him. And just like he did, freely telling crowds about his greatness, he took that same message about his own career. And surprisingly enough, the people started to listen.
Eventually, Ali was able to make it back to boxing. He suffered a setback in his attempt to regain his championship in 1971 against Joe Frazier in the most watched bout in the world. But his star was not diminished. Frazier would receive a savage beating from another Olympic Medalist and Champion, George Foreman. Foreman who was universally feared by the public in general, let alone all other heavyweight boxers, he was challenged by Ali in Zaire, Africa. The Rumble in the Jungle it was called. When Ali arrived in Africa he was celebrated in a way that he wasn’t in America. Crowds flocked to him by the thousands shouting his name, wanting to be with him. Ali would go on to win. Something no one assumed he would do. His next great test came against his greatest rival, Joe Frazier, in yet another part of the world, the Phillipines. Muhammad Ali would not only face insurmountable challenge after insurmountable challenge but he made sure the world was able to see him over come each of these challenges. And as much as he brought his displays of talent to the world at large, he also brought something even more invaluable; himself. An ambassador of Black America and Islam, to a world that is unfamiliar with each.
I talk a lot on politics and society and the world as we see it. Yes, I tend to keep conversations friendly, but one way to get me to shut up about it is to talk boxing. I’m a huge fan of the sport and there’s almost no conversation that does not feature Muhammad Ali. But it’s almost impossible to talk about Muhammad Ali and not talk about the man he had become later in his career and after. Given the circumstances today, where certain presidential candidates have made remarks and criticisms of Islam and Muslims worldwide, recognition of Muhammad Ali and the life he’s lived is critical in bridging the gap of misunderstanding and misconceptions of what Islam actually is. He was probably the world’s most recognizable Muslim and the most visible example of what being a Muslim looks like. Even towards the end of his life when he was no longer able to speak, his actions spoke much louder. In the ring he was the greatest. But outside the ring, in his life, he was much more. For as much as he is known for his skill in the ring, his greatest fights were outside the ring. When he was between ropes with a pair of gloves on he was unquestionably a champion, known as ‘the Greatest”. But to the rest of the world, he wasn’t just “the Greatest”, he was the entire World’s Greatest.
“Live everyday as if it will be your last because some day you’re going to be right.”