When Cassius Clay won the gold medal at 1960 Rome Olympics, he was proud of being American. In his characteristic manner, he declared his love: “To make America the greatest is my goal; so I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole. And for the U.S.A. won the medal of Gold; the Greeks said you’re better than the Cassius of Old.”
He was only 18 then and after winning the medal for his country, he was expecting to be treated with love and respect back home. Instead, he continued to face racism and in protest, threw the medal away. Ali recalled, “I went all the way to Italy to represent my country, won a gold medal, and now I come back to America and can’t even get served at a five-and-dime store. I went to a bridge, tore the medal off my neck and threw it into the river. That gold medal didn’t mean a thing to me if my black brothers and sisters were treated wrong in a country I was supposed to represent.”
In a way, 1960 both started and ended boxing as a profession for the three-time heavyweight champion of the world. Boxing became a political tool for Clay, who after rejecting the Olympic glory, chose to identify with America’s most oppressed, the Black Muslims. He declared himself, the world’s “Greatest”: Muhammad Ali.
Norman Mailer called Ali the “first psychologist of the body…the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet.” Ali utilized his raw physicality on unexpected quarters: to denounce white supremacy, to demand for black sovereignty, and to educate the working class about class solidarities. He became everything that the power structure did not want him to become. He refused to go down the history pages merely as a boxing champion. He preferred to champion the causes of the oppressed instead; and his victories over the “Uncle Tom” boxers were elements of his larger scheme. Ali elaborated his scheme in forceful words, “I’m gonna get famous so I can help my people…I am not depending on the white power structure and the boxing game for survival, where they don’t look at fighters to have brains or intelligence. For them, fighters are just brutes that come to entertain the rich, beat up on each other and break each other’s noses, show off like two little monkeys for the crowd, killing each other for the crowd…We’re slaves in that ring. The masters get two of us big ones and let us fight it out while they bet, ‘My slave can beat your slave.’”
True to his scheme, in his days, Muhammad Ali went on to become the most famous person in the world and he used this fame to help his people by raising consciousness about existing of social injustices that were systematically put in place by the ruling structures of the American power to colonize and brutalize peoples of color. It is convenient today for mainstream history textbooks to omit Ali’s political activisms and to reduce him to the stature of a boxer, but by his actions, purpose and declarations, Muhammad Ali stands tall as a true freedom fighter for the black people of America. It equally suits the ruling class narratives to herald Ali solely as a ruthless fighter inside the rings, but he is in fact the most celebrated Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam War. During the turbulent Sixties, it was way easier to release anger within the rings, than to resent American Power as a Black Muslim on the streets. And by daring prison sentence, when Ali refused to be drafted (“I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me Nigger”) he became the highest and the wisest manifestation of that collective indignation.
As an amateur, the young Clay wanted to master boxing so he could knockout the guys who stole his bicycle. He never managed to get his bike back. But soon after winning the gold medal at Rome Olympics, the radicalized Ali knocked the arrogance out of the almighty American power structure and reclaimed Black Pride in ways hitherto unknown. Thus, while receiving Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Award for his “contributions to the cause of human dignity”, Mrs King called him, “a champion of justice, peace and unity”; and civil rights leader Dr Ralph Abernathy said Ali was “the March on Washington all in two fists”.
His two fists continue to inspire peaceniks and boxers alike, for, in times of both peace and war, he remains the Greatest.