By Demola Ojo with agency reports
Muhammad Ali’s record as a boxer was impressive. The record books show that his professional career spanned 21 years, during which he won 56 fights, 37 by way of knockout, and lost five. But he was much more than that
Of utmost importance to Ali was using his high profile to support civil rights. At the time of his first fight with Sonny Liston, Clay was already involved with the Nation of Islam, a religious movement whose stated goals were to improve the spiritual, mental, social, and economic condition of African Americans in the US.
But in contrast to the inclusive approach favoured by civil rights leaders like Dr Martin Luther King, the Nation of Islam called for separate black development and was treated by suspicion by the American public. Ali eventually converted to Islam, ditching what he perceived was his “slave name” and becoming Cassius X and then Muhammad Ali.
Ali was by no means the first black athlete to hammer at the walls of prejudice. Jesse Owens had dealt a mighty blow to the idea of white supremacy at the Berlin Olympics – a timely one, too, given that Hitler had intended the games to showcase Aryan pre-eminence.
And in the 1950s, Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers star who became the first African-American to play major league baseball in the modern era, had broken the sport’s colour bar.
But what set the boxer apart was the way he fused his distinctive voice and outsized personality to the protest movement. That voice was never anything other than loud, eloquent, highly entertaining and controversial. For much of the 1960s, it was also outside the mainstream civil rights movement.
By changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali just two days after claiming the world heavyweight crown, and by embracing the separatist teachings of the Nation of Islam, the boxer placed himself on the radical fringe of the struggle for black equality.
The Nation of Islam, under its leader Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, viewed white men as devils. But even mainstream civil rights figures came to believe that Ali’s religious conversion and outspoken advocacy had an energising effect on the freedom movement as a whole.
Al Sharpton believes that that Ali was a unifying figure, in spite of his separatist ideology. “Malcolm X would openly attack Dr King, Ali would openly embrace physically Dr King,” he said. “He became a unifying force – that is why I think we made a lot of progress.”
Asked how he would like to be remembered, he once said: “As a man who never sold out his people. But if that’s too much, then just a good boxer. I won’t even mind if you don’t mention how pretty I was.”
Ali had been willing to sacrifice the crown and money for his principles when in 1967 he refused to serve in the Vietnam war. That decision was widely criticised by the boxer’s fellow Americans.
Rejecting his claim to be a conscientious objector, a court sentenced Ali to five years in prison.
He was stripped of his boxing titles. Though he did not end up going to jail, he did not fight for three and a half years. In 1971, the US Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction.
At a time when there was still widespread support for the Vietnam War, it was a bold stand to make. It was particularly brave because Ali risked losing everything.
“For the heavyweight champion of the world, who had achieved the highest level of athletic celebrity, to put all of that on the line – the money, the ability to get endorsements – to sacrifice all of that for a cause, gave a whole sense of legitimacy to the movement and the causes with young people that nothing else could have done,” Reverend Al Sharpton said. “That’s another level of leadership and sacrifice.”