A powerful, dangerous political force
MUHAMMAD Ali’s saga is without parallel: the cham pion boxer who was the most famous draft resister in history; a man whose phone was bugged by the Johnson and Nixon administrations yet who later was invited to the White House of Gerald Ford; a prodigal son whom his hometown city council in Louisville, Ky., condemned, but who a few years later had a main street renamed in his honor and today has a museum that bears his name.
His life was one of polarization and reconciliation, anger and love, and a ferocious, uncompromising commitment to nonviolence, all delivered through the scandalously dirty vessel of corruption known as boxing. Few have ever walked so confidently and casually from man to myth, and that journey was well earned. As football great Jim Brown said to me last year: “It was unbelievable, the courage he had. He wasn’t just a championship athlete. He was a champion who fought for his people…. The man used his athletic ability as a platform to project himself right up there with world leaders … going after things that very few people have the courage to go after. From the standpoint of his ability to perform and his ability to be involved with the world, Ali was the most important sports figure in history.” To this day it is awe-inspiring that he once bellowed ‘God damn the white man’s money’ at a time when such words were more than shocking - they were sacrilege.
Or, as Bill Russell said in 1967 in supporting Ali’s decision to risk five years in prison for resisting the draft: “I envy Muhammad Ali .... He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people possess: He has absolute and sincere faith. I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I’m worried about is the rest of us.” Ali’s death, however, should be an opportunity to remember what made him so dangerous in the first place. The best place to start would be to recall the part of him that died decades ago: his voice. No athlete, no politician, no preacher ever had a voice quite like his or used it as effectively as he did. Ali’s voice was playful, lilting, with a rhythm that matched his otherworldly footwork in the boxing ring. It’s a voice that forced you to listen lest you miss a joke, a gibe or a flash of joy.
Retired New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte said to me, “Before everything else, what I’ll remember about the young Ali was that he was so much fun.” And that his voice had a physical beauty that “beat you to death with his attractiveness.” With that voice, face and body, the man Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. could have been Michael Jordan before Jordan: an icon of ungodly wealth and conspicuous consumption. But Cassius Clay chose to be Muhammad Ali and do something different with that voice. He used it to speak out from a hyperexalted sports platform to change the world. He joined the Nation of Islam in frustration with the pace and demands of the civil rights movement. He was willing to go to jail in opposition to the war in Vietnam. But one has to hear the voice, and read the words, to understand what exactly made it so dangerous and, by extension, made it all matter.
Imagine not only an athlete but a public figure telling these kinds of unvarnished truths. To this day it is awe-inspiring that he once bellowed “God damn the white man’s money” at a time when such words were more than shocking - they were sacrilege.
Political courage might seem to be in short supply, but it was inside a young boxer from Louisville who dreamed about being King of the World. Goodbye, Champ. Rest in power and peace. — Courtesy: Los Angeles Times