Graham Campbell on the life and meaning of The Greatest.
On Friday there was only one news story: the untimely passing of simply The Greatest. It took me a while to get writing – I literally cried all morning on hearing of his death. I have watched the news and heard a whole heap of platitudes from silly hypocrites of the kind who would have opposed everything he stood for. Muhammad Ali was an international political giant of the 20th Century, not just the greatest ever boxer but the greatest ever sportsperson.
Ironically, his development of Parkinson’s Disease may have occurred because of his bravery in the ring – his ability to absorb so many blows ended up depriving us all of much of his easy humour, wit and physical prowess for the last 32 years of his life. But his social activism and visibility as a Parkinson’s sufferer helped millions across the world to embrace their lives whilst living with the condition.
Ali in the 1960s was in many ways a living embodiment of the civil rights movement – its slogan ”I am a Man” loudly proclaimed Black men (and women’s) demand to be free and equal citizens. It cried out to say “Respect Me as an equal”. Ali as the African American world champion become the physical incarnation of that movement’s slogan, of African American pride and self-determination both collectively and individually.
He had different reasons to fight: “I’m not just fighting for me, I am now seriously working for my people”. For the the Black people of America. “All the civil rights leaders are dead and all the white presidents who tried to help got shot. Our people worked hard in all the wars and died building up the country. This thing in boxing is serious – I’m not here just to beat this man in the ring…but to talk to people in Skid Row in Chicago – for one hour with Muhammad Ali our people are feeling righteous – all black people no longer wanna be black”.
He could easily have been the biggest Uncle Tom of all time but as he put it, he boxed for a reason: To represent the field negroes (the poor Black working class majority). “I am going in the fields to represent them even if it means dying. I’m not here fighting for money but I am fighting for my people”. His self-sacrifice was almost Christ-like, but perhaps his bravest decision was not to fight – his refusal to fight and kill in Vietnam when the war was still popular in the US. His conversion to the Nation of Islam in 1964 at Malcolm X’s side saw him hated by mainstream American society.
But what of boxing itself, which carries many overblown concepts of masculinity and manhood? Thanks to Ali, what it meant to be a man in the 1960s and 70s was radically transformed. As a boxer he made a brutal, punishing sport look beautiful. Some have said he made it look like ballet – he ‘floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee’, which is ironic given just how damaging physically and socially boxing can be and indeed was to him personally. Many of us would say that boxing ritualises and sanitises violence in society, but many others would reply that it does so within rules, within a disciplined approach to physical exercise, diet and training regime. That discipline offers so many poor youth across the world an alternative life path that stands them in good stead in many other aspects of life. Until Ali, athletes and sportspeople were merely pawns disrespected by promoters, TV, mobsters, and gambling companies. After Ali, sportspeople were able to run their own careers, write their own narrative and become superstars. So yes he changed sport – all sports not just his own.
He challenged the white establishment of his sport, and the white supremacy ruling his country. By refusing to fight the Vietnamese, he paid the price by being denied the right to box for 4 years (what would probably have been the best years of his boxing life). He took his stance because of his Muslim beliefs and his anti-racist anti-imperialist principles were paramount. He understood that as a peoples’ champion he was a role model – a symbol of the need for Black unity first before unity with the rest of humankind could be countenanced. In this he was an original disciple of Malcolm X who brought him into the Nation of Islam (NOI) under Elijah Muhammad. Sadly, when the NOI isolated Malcolm for his strident anti-imperialist stance, Muhammad stayed with Elijah and never again spoke to his mentor. Yet Ali was to make the same political and spiritual journey as Malcolm did when he himself converted to Sunni Islam in 1975 after a second major split in the NOI. Like Malcolm, whose world view changed with international travel, especially to Britain and Africa, Ali too moved away from the defensive separatism he had been known for and embraced non-racialism in the form of Sunni Islam for the rest of his life.
Ali determined his life’s direction, he defined who he was and how he wished to be represented – including his name. He is the reason why so many of us in Britain changed our own ‘slavery names’. His amazing 1970s visits to Brixton to show solidarity with the Black community, to Newcastle visiting the Yemeni mosque in South Shields, and his support for Bristol bus boycott leader Paul Stephenson, as well as of course his four appearances on 1970s BBC talk show Parkinson, endeared him to the British public as a whole. Ali embraced his role as a global people’s champion. Too numerous to mention are the occasions of his personal generosity of money, time and spirit. As a UN ambassador for peace he was to become one of history’s greatest humanitarians. He is loved because he forwent popularity and fame and stood up for his principles.
As we say in Scotland, Ali was ‘a man o independent mind’. He was a loud, proud and eloquent spokesman for a generation of Black people across the word incensed by racism, inequality and war. We just loved him when he said he was really way too pretty and funny to be a heavyweight boxer. We loved his incredible eccentric personality. His loud brash arrogant style changed the very ways in which sportspeople and Black people were viewed.
Who can ever forget the Rumble in the Jungle making the Lingala chant of ‘Ali-Boomayiye (Ali – kill him!) an international slogan of major Black liberation and the major international Black respect which he helped gain and encouraged within us? He was the epitome of what it meant to be Black in his era. We all walked that bit taller in the playground imitating the Ali shuffle, quoting the lines of a quintessential hip hop artist long before the appropriate musical genre caught up with him. A lot of negative things could and ought to be said about his sometimes appalling treatment of some of the women in his life and his overall male chauvinism in keeping with the teachings of the NOI, although in his support for his four daughters in later life he went some way towards redeeming himself of this particular flaw. He was and is truly a major figure in British Black political history. In an era of racism, segregation and anti-imperialism, Ali demanded the respect he was unarguably due and he made sure he got it. He inspired us as Black people to demand it for ourselves. I for one I am still crying because just that little bit of ourselves has died inside.