Muhammad Ali — The making of a global hero

All belongs to the world, because in Ali sport for once fulfilled its promise to defy national boundaries and speak to a common humanity.

There was less flair, though more physical courage, than in the early days, but as always, Ali dominated because of the intelligence and imagination he brought to the ring.   -  AP

Across the world, in poll after poll, Muhammad Ali is being honoured as the sports star of the century. No other North American athlete, and possibly no athlete anywhere, can claim his global reach. When he first won the heavyweight title from Sonny Listen in February 1964, the 22-year-old Cassius Clay brashly declared himself "King of the world." But the 'world' he was talking about then was a relatively small one — the 'world' in 'world heavyweight champion.' Today, his kingdom is a much larger one, and he is revered by millions who care little for boxing, and in countries where boxing ranks beneath volleyball or professional wrestling as a popular attraction.

Of course, had his performances in the ring not been as outstanding, and frequently astounding, as they were, he would never have caught the public eye. He vanquished Sonny Listen, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman and Joe Frazier, heavyweight champions who would have dominated other eras. In the first phase of his career, between his Olympic victory in 1960 and his exile form the ring in 1967, he fought with a speed, agility and grace which has not been seen in the heavyweight division before or since. During the three and half years he was banned from the ring, he would have been at his physical peak. Boxing fans can only muse regretfully over what they might have missed, but — along with so many others — they will be grateful for what they received in compensation: the Ali who returned to the ring in 1970 to scale even greater heights.

In 1974, Ali reclaimed his title from George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, and in 1975 he established his supremacy over Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila. In this phase, a slower, more cautious Ali triumphed over boxers who were younger and stronger than him, time and again overcoming the odds by drawing on unique inner resources, the fortitude and patience cultivated during his exclusion from the ring.

There was less flair, though more physical courage, than in the early days, but as always, Ali dominated because of the intelligence and imagination he brought to the ring. However, Ali would be remembered today as only one of many examples of sporting excellence had he not also applied that intelligence and imagination outside the ring, by turns appalling and delighting a growing public.

The morning after his unexpected victory over Listen, the new heavyweight champ met the sports writers — who in those days were exclusively white and male — and announced: "I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want." It seems a simple statement in retrospect, but at the time it was earth-shaking, not least because what the new heavyweight champ wanted to be was a member of the separatist Nation of Islam, at the time the most reviled organisation in the USA, and at his side was Malcolm X, the most demonised individual in the USA.

In joining the Nation of Islam, Clay was repudiating Christianity, in a predominantly Christian country. He was repudiating the integrationist ideal of the civil rights movement, then at the zenith of popular approval, and thus antagonising liberals, both black and white. Above all, he was repudiating his American national identity in favour of another national identity — the Nation of Islam, or "the Lost Pound Nation of Islam in the wilderness of North America," as their leader, Elijah Muhammad called it. Two weeks later, Elijah awarded his new acolyte an "original name," and Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.

Joining the Nation of Islam closed a lot of doors to the new heavyweight champion. There were no sponsorship deals and Columbia Records even withdrew copies of his LP "The Greatest" from record stores. But it also opened doors, initially the doors to Africa and the Islamic world, and ultimately, to an even wider world than that.

One of All's first breaks with orthodoxy as the new champion was to visit Africa. Until then, no American sports star had even noticed the existence of the continent. The trip was largely uncovered by the American media, but it caused a sensation in a region only just emerging from colonial domination. In Ghana, Ali was received as an honoured guest by President Kwame Nkrumah. The great Pan-Africanist and leader of the Non-Aligned Movement thus became the first head of state to embrace Ali, but by no means the last. (It was to be more than a decade before a U. S. head of state deigned to shake Ali's hand.)

But more important than meeting Nkrumah (and later Nasser) were Ali's encounters with the African crowds. Huge numbers came out to greet him with an enthusiasm that overwhelmed the young champion. Here, for the first time, he heard his new name – his "original name" — chanted by thousands. The Africans who cheered Ali spoke little English and in those days had no access to television, but they understood what it meant to be the world heavyweight champion. More importantly, they understood what it meant to have the world heavyweight champion, a black American, adopt an Islamic name and embrace his African patrimony. They sensed that something new had come into the world, and they were right — when legions of American media pundits were wrong.

It was through his interaction with the African masses that, one observer said, “Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali... became something he hadn't been before." The spontaneous warmth of the reception helped transform Ali's perception of his role in a turbulent world; it deepened and widened his sense of responsibility.

The evolution of Ali as a global figure only makes sense if we re-insert him in his era, an era of mass social movements in every continent. Events far removed from the world of boxing were to pose unprecedented challenges to the young fighter, and to elicit unprecedented responses.

With the escalation of the American war in Vietnam, the draft call-up was expanded and in February 1966 the heavyweight champion learned that he had been reclassified 1-A, eligible for military service. Pressed by reporters for a reaction, Ali came out with the immortal wisecrack: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong." As a result, he was branded a coward and traitor, and in the months that followed became the most reviled figure in the history of American sport. At this time, no mainstream politicians or black leaders had spoken out against the Vietnam war, which was still supported in the editorial columns of all the country's major newspapers. The number one hit song was Barry Sadler's jingoistic Ballad of the Green Berets.


Ali may have seemed out of step with the temper of the times, but he was to prove more in touch with underlying currents than his critics. Buried away in the New York Times report on that historic day in Ali's training camp is a little-noticed statement that goes a long way to explaining Ali's reaction to the draft and his subsequent evolution: "Boxing is nothing, just satisfying to some bloodthirsty people. I'm no longer a Cassius Clay, a Negro from Kentucky, I belong to the world, the black world. I'll always have a home in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Ethiopia. This is more than money."

Amid the furore over his comment on the Vietcong, the reigning heavyweight champion found himself effectively prohibited from fighting in his native land. Ironically, in banning him at home, and forcing him to fight abroad, the American establishment inadvertently helped transform Ali into the world figure he is today. Over the next year, he defended his title in Toronto, Frankfurt, and twice in London, and through these fights consolidated a huge fan base beyond America's borders. In the course of 1966-67, which witnessed the escalation of international protests against America's war in Vietnam. Muhammad Ali became the single American individual most closely identified in the global public mind with opposition to that war.

Back in the USA, Ali faced pressure that no other sporting figure had ever known. The military was determined to draft him. The justice department was determined to prosecute him. The media were determined to get out the message that he was a thoroughly rotten example for young Americans. Martin Luther King, however, disagreed. In early 1967, after a period of equivocation which he later described as a "betrayal," King began speaking out forcefully against the Vietnam war. As a pacifist and adherent of non-violent civil disobedience, he urged young men to resist the draft, and looking around America he found one man to single out as a role model' — Muhammad Ali. In so doing King became the first major figure (after Malcolm X) to make a claim for Ali that was considered outrageous at the time, but is today a commonplace.

The choice facing Ali was a daunting one. The military made it clear to his lawyers that if he allowed himself to be drafted he would not have to fight; he could tour Europe, box exhibitions, keep his title, and even keep the proceeds of the fights. But Ali spurned the offer: "It would be no trouble for me to go into the armed services, boxing exhibitions and travelling the country at the expense of the government or living the easy life and not having to get out in the mud and fight and shoot. If it wasn't against my conscience to do it, I would easily do it."


Having turned his back on the soft option, Ali's future appeared bleak. If he persisted in defying the draft, he would certainty lose his title, his livelihood, and millions of dollars, and would probably spend years in prison. Like other assertive black individuals who had placed loyalty to their people above loyalty to the U. S. government (notably Paul Robeson) he was likely to end a broken and forgotten man.

When he refused to cross the yellow line painted on the floor of the induction centre in Houston, Texas, in April 1967, Ali made a huge leap into the unknown — he moved from the expression of outrageous but harmless opinion to an act of solidarity. He put his body on the line in the interests of people he didn't know, not least people in a foreign land with a foreign culture. He put conscience before country and before personal convenience; he placed responsibility to his global constituency before the dictates of national loyalty.

In Ali's career, this was the transformative moment, after which his presence inside or outside the ring could never mean the same thing again. In a recent issue of the American magazine Newsweek, Ali himself explains: "The greatest fight I ever had was the Thrilla in Manila against Joe Frazier in 1975. But the greatest thing I ever did was not going to Vietnam."

Ali was indicted for draft evasion and his passport was confiscated. Though as yet unconvicted of any offence, he was stripped of his title by boxing authorities across the USA and in the UK. It seemed the world champion was no longer the world champion because he disagreed with the policy of one particular country. Meanwhile, outside the USA, public opinion was running overwhelmingly against Washington's policy in Vietnam, and support for Ali was expressed in demonstrations in London, Cairo, Guyana. Karachi and elsewhere.

In 1967, no sane person would have bet that Muhammad Ali would re-enter the ring, recapture his title, and become the most affectionately revered figure in sports, both inside and outside the USA. And that was because in 1967, no one predicted the rising tide of protest against the Vietnam war; no one predicted that one of the consequences of the social ferment in America's lower depths would be the radical recasting of the role of the black sports star.

At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos used the global stage provided by their 200 metre triumph to make a powerful protest against discrimination and poverty in their native land. They wore black socks without shoes, black gloves and raised clenched fists — and were consequently expelled from the Olympic Village and denounced in the American media. Number one on their list of demands — even before a boycott of sport with apartheid South Africa — was the restoration to Muhammad Ali of his heavyweight title.

At the same Olympics, George Foreman won the heavyweight gold medal and at the instigation of the FBI waved a little American flag in the ring — a riposte to Smith and Carlos. Foreman had no idea what he was setting himself up for — the role of the fall guy, the villain, the representative of the American establishment in Muhammad Ali's definitive morality play, the 'Rumble in the Jungle' staged in the Congo in 1974.

Shortly before the fight, Ali looked into one of the film cameras recording the proceedings and said: "I'm fighting for God and for my people. I'm not fighting for fame and money. I'm not fighting for me. I'm fighting for the black people on welfare, the black people who have no future, black people who are wineheads and dope addicts. I am a politician for Allah."

It's easy to talk this kind of talk, but because Ali had risked everything in defying the draft, it was much more than talk. Because of his stand on Vietnam, his embrace of Africa and the African diaspora, his fashioning of a proud and independent black identity, because he married style with substance, millions of people around the world - of all colours - felt they had a share in his marvellous upset victory over Foreman. They felt Ali's victory as in part their own, and, for a moment at least, they felt their sufferings redeemed, and their allegiances vindicated.

Of course, this was also the moment when the American establishment began, finally, to embrace the global hero. It was to be a long rehabilitation, climaxing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when a Parkinson's-stricken Ali lit the Olympic flame, and the US media, politicians and corporations at last claimed him as one of their own, a "Great American." But as new generations rediscover the Ali saga in all its twists and turns, its years of sacrifice and sudden shafts of glory, that claim will seem hollow. Ali belongs to the world, because in Ali sport for once fulfilled its promise to defy national boundaries and speak to a common humanity.

(This article first appeared in Sportstar's special edition issue dated January 1, 2000)

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