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The People’s Diplomat

Muhammad Ali's politics changed throughout the years, but he never apologized for his commitment to peace.

Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr was given his name by his father, a Louisville house painter and musician, who was given the same name by his father, Herman, a son of slaves, as a tribute to Cassius Marcellus Clay, the Kentucky abolitionist.

The white Cassius Clay lived a remarkable life, fought in multiple wars, served in the Kentucky legislature and as ambassador to Russia, and was friends with both Presidents Lincoln and Grant.

He was also widely reviled as a rebel and conceited firebrand. Despite numerous assassination attempts at the hands of pro-slavery zealots, Clay lived to be ninety-two years old.

Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr gave up that name in 1964 a little over a week after he won the heavyweight championship of the world against Sonny Liston.

He announced to the world that he was a member of the Nation of Islam and that his new name would be Muhammad Ali, an honor bestowed on him by the Nation’s leader Elijah Muhammad.

The name Muhammad Ali enraged the entire country. Sportswriters refused to use it. Sonny Liston intentionally mangled it. Former heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson refused to say it and claimed that Ali “might as well have joined the Ku Klux Klan.”

Before his association with the controversial organization, Ali was a loveable heel character in the ring. Once he became Muhammad Ali, he became a political villain. The World Boxing Association even stripped him of his title.

Despite the fact that Muhammad was the most popular name in the entire world, by taking it on as his own Ali was instantly transformed into one of the most important and controversial people alive.

Ali graduated from his high school class at 157 out of 157 students. He scored 78 on an Army IQ test. But when he met Malcolm X, the man who recruited Ali to the Nation of Islam, in 1962, Malcolm says he was drawn to Ali’s intelligence.

Malcolm had no idea that Ali was a famous prizefighter at the time; he considered boxing, like all commercial sport, “the pleasure of the idle rich.” Yet he saw something special in Ali beyond physical ability.

On the eve of Ali’s fight with Liston, Malcolm told George Plimpton that Ali had “as much untapped mental energy as he has physical power. He should be a diplomat . . . He knows how to handle people, to get them functioning.”

Shortly after winning the heavyweight championship of the world, both Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X traveled to the newly independent nation of Ghana, a trip that Malcolm had planned for Ali before he won the title. They would not be traveling together, however.

In the weeks after the Liston fight Malcolm would be cast out of the Nation of Islam and members were forbidden from associating with him. Muhammad Ali turned his back on his former mentor and traveled to Africa without him. While in Ghana, Ali refused to speak with Malcolm, other than to scold him for breaking ranks with the sect.

A far cry from the criticism Ali received in his home country after winning the championship, in Ghana, a place he had never been before, he was welcomed as a hero, cheered by crowds of adoring fans who chanted his name.

Ghana’s new young president, Kwame Nkrumah, declared Ali “a source of inspiration to the youth of the world.” The state-run newspaper wrote that “If there is one man who can assist positively to bring about [Nkrumah’s] cherished aims of projecting the African personality” — an Africa freed from the vestiges of colonialism — and disprove “the superiority complex of the white man, he is Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay).”

Ali returned the embrace he received from the African people. “I am an African, and my proper name is Muhammad Ali,” he said during an interview in Accra. “There is greater dignity in my new name.”

Over the next few years Ali would defend his title nine times. A number of his opponents would refuse to call him by his new name, perhaps as a way to unnerve him and gain an advantage in the ring.

It had the opposite effect. As Ali bloodied Ernie Terrell round after round, he repeatedly yelled out “What’s my name?”.

Ali would find no better reception across the pond. Before his fight with Brian London in the United Kingdom, as Ali stood silently in his corner with his gloves raised and his head bowed in prayer, the British fans booed and howled.

Ali finally lost the heavyweight championship, not by getting knocked out, but as a punishment for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. In refusing induction into the draft, Ali risked far more than his title, he risked his freedom.

He was convicted of a felony and faced a sentence of five years in prison. For him it was a simple matter of conscience. “I’d rather be punished here in this life than the hereafter,” he explained. “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an.”

It seems to be a contradiction that a professional fighter would end up being the world’s most famous conscientious objector. Muhammad Ali was not only the world champion of a violent sport, his entire life was surrounded by episodes of bloodshed and murder.

His father abused Ali’s mother. One year after Ali won the title from Sonny Liston, Malcolm X was gunned down. And all around Ali was the violence of poverty and segregation in America.

But look again at Ali in the ring. Watch him circle Ernie Terrell with his hands at his side, his feet constantly shuffling side to side. When Ali throws he jabs at Terrell’s head, rarely the body. Watch him in the ring with Zora Folley, toe-to-toe, letting Folley throw straight right-hand leads right at his face.

He never takes his eyes off of his opponent, even when being hit. He just jerks his head back to lessen the blow. Watch him with Brian London as he skips around the ring, hands out to his side, daring London to come inside and punch him. When London obliges, Ali bobs and weaves his way out of the line of fire.

Most heavyweight fighters rely on the body blow, wearing their opponents down over time by putting hurt on their lungs, ribs, even their arms.

Ali wears his opponents down by constantly moving, keeping his hands at his side instead of in front of his face, dodging their punches and letting them tire themselves out, waiting for them to make a mistake and connecting with a hook or a straight right hand lead to the head.

Heavyweight fighters can take a few punches to the head. When you fight Ali, you have to take a ridiculous amount.

The result is a fight that is short on the brutality of trading blows and long on graceful dancing around the ring. For years Ali was called a coward in the ring because he “floated like a butterfly” and avoided slugging it out with his opponent.

His trainer, Angelo Dundee, bristled at the accusation.

A lot of people criticized Ali for not being able to take a punch. That’s why he danced around the ring, they thought. Those guys didn’t know what they were talking about. Ask any fighter and he’ll tell you, you don’t get hit because it’s fun. You get hit because you can’t avoid it. And if you can avoid it, more power to you.

Ali danced, but time and again he won. He won against the tomato cans. He won against the “great white hopes.” He won against the former champions. He won against the up-and-comers.

It seemed no matter who Ali fought, he was the underdog, if for no other reason than everyone from Frank Sinatra to the head of the NAACP was rooting against him. But Ali kept winning.

Nine times he would defend his title, and nine times he would win. Until the government finally took it away. The combination of state punishment and public derision over his articulation of his closest-held beliefs took a toll on him no prizefighter could ever exact.

“I’ve caught so much hell from the white power structure and the boxing authorities when I said I had no quarrel with Vietnam,” he told the Black Scholar in 1970 while he was fighting his suspension from boxing and his conviction for refusing induction.

I was moderate then. But I’m not fighting now. It’s all over now. I was determined to be the one nigger that the white man didn’t get . . . One nigger you ain’t going to get. That was when I was fighting and still moderate. But I’m not fighting anymore. And I can really raise hell now. I’ve got some ideas, and they haven’t seen anything like they’re going to see now.

Eventually Ali’s restrictions would be lifted, his conviction overturned by the Supreme Court, and he would return to professional boxing after a three-year absence. He found himself older, heavier, and slower than before. He had to adjust his style.

When he won the title for a second time against George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” a larger-than-life fight in Zaire, he famously employed a “rope-a-dope” strategy: covering himself up and letting Foreman beat on him until Foreman tired himself out.

No longer spry enough to float like a butterfly, Ali was still able to find victory in non-aggression. What could be more appropriate?

Not even six months later, before his first title defense against a thirty-six-year-old white boxer named Chuck Wepner, Ali held a press conference at the Plaza in New York City.

“This idea come on me sudden,” he said before a phalanx of cameras and microphones. “Ali, you got enough. You got no right to more.”

He said he was moved by a recent trip to Gary, Indiana. He was shocked by the extreme poverty he saw, all of it suffered disproportionately by African Americans.

“From this fight on all of my fights will be free. I won’t accept one dollar. All the profits . . . will be given away,” Ali told the bemused journalists. He pledged to put the money towards development in the black communities where his fights were held.

“Why should all these people from the ghetto who pay to come and see my fights making me rich and the promoters rich, and don’t get nothing back?” He called on black entertainers to follow his lead and called several out by name, including the Jackson 5, who were there at the press conference with him, caught off guard, and enraging some like Sammy Davis, Jr., who responded that charity “should be a private matter.”

It wasn’t Ali’s first time calling out black entertainers for not giving back to the black community. Years earlier he had said:

We black people could become free sooner than you think, if all the athletes and entertainers just took a stand — the famous ball players and the rock and roll artists, the big ones — took a walk through the ghetto one day and told the white man, “we’re with these people and we ain’t going to sell out anymore.”

Ali would hold the title until 1978, when he lost it in a split decision with the much-younger fighter Leon Spinks. Many believed the loss signaled the end of his long and accomplished boxing career.

An editorial in the Nation called for Ali to run for Congress, saying it was high time that Congress had a Muslim member. But more than that, the editorial argued, “Ali could be a full time ‘ambassador of peace’ in the best sense of the term.”

Ali had just returned from a twelve-day visit to the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Soviet Ambassador to the United States to promote the upcoming Moscow Olympics. Ali prayed in Uzbekistan with Soviet Muslims. He sparred with Soviet heavyweights in training for the Olympics. He met with Brezhnev at the Kremlin.

When he returned to the United States he reported back that “they give a man free medical and hospital care, low rent and a job . . . I never felt so free of being robbed.” He expressed disbelief that so many Americans were afraid of war with the Soviet Union. “It’s hard to believe that such a peaceful country wants war.”

Once again Ali found himself in hot water in the United States, this time accused of being used as a pawn of the enemy.

Ali was used to it by then, and he’d face similar accusations over the rest of his life, most notably when working to secure the release of American prisoners before the Gulf War in 1990. His politics would bob and weave from left to right over the course of those years, but he never apologized for his commitment to peace.

Throughout his career Muhammad Ali received thousands of letters, many from admirers from all over the world. The most hateful ones, however, came mainly during the years right after he refused to fight in Vietnam.

He kept those in a box, tucked safely away. “When I’m ninety years old, they’ll be something to show my great-grandson. I’ll tell him, ‘Boy, here’s a letter your great-grandaddy got when he fought the draft way back when they had wars.’”