remember the Ali who no one liked. Well, not exactly no one, but
certainly the establishment. How dare he change his name from
Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, we were told! How dare he consort with
the likes of Malcolm X? How dare he join the Nation of Islam? How
dare he refuse to fight on the side of the US war of aggression in
Indochina? How dare he proclaim himself “the greatest”?
we loved him.
I never had any great interest in boxing, but I loved Muhammad Ali.
I loved what he did in the ring. I was amazed by his speed and
audacity. And each punch he threw, no matter who the opponent, I
felt that he threw it on our behalf.
We watched him mature,
becoming an outspoken proponent of social justice and an unapologetic
Muslim. And we also watched Parkinson’s disease ravage him,
first slowly silencing him, like the declining volume of a piece of
great jazz coming to the end, until finally he was taken from us.
his passing it appears that something remarkable - but far from
unusual - is now at play. Muhammad Ali has become the target of
praise from all quarters, including those who, only a few decades
ago, mocked and vilified him.
gained the love, indeed the adoration, of so many people, black and
non-black, only in part because of his outstanding performances in
the boxing ring and the boxing industry. Without question he was an
amazing athlete but as opposed to, for instance, Jesse Owens, the
great track star of the 1936 Olympics, it was not enough for Ali to
demonstrate through his existence his excellence and the repudiation
of the system of white supremacy. Ali used the platform that he won
though his amazing boxing in order to address the injustices facing
the oppressed, including but not limited to African Americans.
has become quite common that with the passing of years following a
major progressive victory, the movement in question and its leaders
are awarded praise by the establishment; an establishment that, in
many cases, fought them tooth and nail, opposing all for which they
stood. Martin Luther King, certainly one of the greatest labor,
civil rights and international justice leaders of the 20th century,
was being dismissed as irrelevant and an irritant by the
establishment mere months prior to his assassination. Yet, following
his murder, a sanitized Dr. King was created and sold to the US
public to be worshiped rather than studied and emulated.
Ali’s voice was quieted by illness, and now with his tragic and
untimely death, we have seen the same sort of process unfold. The
establishment will tell us how great he was, and indeed he was GREAT,
but they will focus us away from his anti-imperialism, his faith and
his commitment to social justice, and more towards his general
audacity and outstanding boxing. There will be little in the way of
self-criticism by the political elites, or even from many in the
boxing industry, who did their best to defame and destroy Ali when he
was at his height. Thus, it is up to us, as it has always been, to
hold high the actual portrait of our fallen hero, not turning him
into a saint or a paragon of virtue, but reminding ourselves and
generations to come that, indeed, he was our fighter, he was “the
greatest,” and we shall never let him go.