Muhammad Ali was left of center, larger than life and louder than bombs. Actually, by the 70s, Ali was so prominent on radio and television that he had become a sort of urban myth.
Within the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #537 (2007), J. Michael Straczynski wrote an inspired monologue for Captain America that has now become a call to arms for the star-spangled avenger and parallels the life of Muhammad Ali in a myriad of ways:
“Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — “No, you move.”
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Cassius, who painted billboards and signs, and Odessa, a household domestic, the silver-tongued pugilist competed in 61 fights over a professional career lasting 21 years with 56 wins, including 37 knockouts. How he entered the ring to begin with is the stuff of legends: When he was 12, his bicycle was stolen off the street, and a police officer (who moonlighted as a boxing coach) overheard the fuming future legend threatening bodily injury if he ever discovered the thief and the cop advised that he learn to box.
With an amateur record of 100-5, Clay would go on to win six state Golden Gloves titles and two national titles, before travelling to the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, where he attained the Light Heavyweight gold medal. The victory ensured a professional career and upon meeting trainer Angelo Dundee, he went pro in October 1960. Three years later, he was undefeated with 15 of his 19 wins by knockout. These victories granted him the opportunity to take on Sonny Liston as the top contender for the World Heavyweight Championship title.
Taking place on February 25th, 1964, in Miami, FL, the event (one of two) was one of the most anticipated and most watched fights in sports history, with Clay being the underdog at 7-1. However, the loquacious showman relished the thought of breaking the spirit of negativity against him, and in an effort of self-aggrandizement, boasted relentlessly that he would triumph, stating that he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Clay even recited a poem, the first of many that would be come a trademark for those brave enough to step into the ring with him: “Yes the crowd did not dream, when they put up the money/ That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
As fate would have it, he did. After six rounds, TKO declared Clay the winner when Liston didn’t answer the bell. At the time, this made Clay, 22, the youngest fighter to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champ – a record that would be broken in 1986 by 20-year-old Mike Tyson.
According to an exposé by The Pittsburgh Press dated Feb. 7, 1964, three weeks before the big fight, the Miami Herald published an article quoting Cassius Clay Sr. as saying that his son had been “brainwashed” into joining the Nation of Islam since he started attending meetings in 1961, shortly after he appeared at the Olympics. His brother and sparring partner Rudolph Valentino Clay also joined. At first, the fast-talking prizefighter froze up at allegations, with the press targeting the boxer as a possible member of the anti-establishment “white-hating Black Muslim sect.” Bill MacDonald, the main promoter of the fight with Liston threatened to terminate the big fight unless Clay publicly disassociated himself from the Detroit-based African-American Islamic religious movement altogether, but the fighter refused. It was human rights icon Malcolm X, who had served as his spiritual advisor that agreed to keep a low profile from the press if the fight were reinstated.
The day after the fight, at the annual Nation of Islam Savior’s Day celebration, Clay would confirm his association with the controversial group that was charged with black supremacy and holding an anti-integrationist dogma. Shortly thereafter, the sect’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, personally rechristened the boxer Muhammad Ali (for a brief period he was Cassius X). Although the mainstream white sports commenters ridiculed him for the nom de plume, “Muhammad Ali” became a household name and intercontinental icon for the ages.
While Malcolm X was in seated in the V.I.P. section on the night of Ali’s fight with Liston, weeks later Malcolm was estranged with the Nation of Islam, and Ali ended their friendship. Throughout his life, Ali expressed that this move was among his biggest regrets. Three members of the Nation of Islam would later assassinate Malcolm X, one of the greatest Civil Rights activists and progenitors of Pan Africanism, on Feb. 21, 1965, one month after Ali’s 23rd birthday.
Ali would defend his title multiple times, winning a controversial rematch against Sonny Liston in May 1965: Midway through the first round, Liston was knocked out by a imperceptible sucker punch in which the press dubbed a “phantom punch.” Controversially, ” Ali called it “the anchor punch,” a technique he learned from blackface comedian and film actor Stepin Fetchit, who learned it from Ali’s greatest inspiration, Jack Johnson. The contest lasted all of two minutes and the result led many to believe the fight was fixed.
According to the Our Great Future website, “The two bouts launched one man and ruined the other. For Ali, this was the beginning of the Ali mystique: the people’s hero confronting seeming impossible odds and insurmountable foes (both inside and outside the ring) only to triumph through his wit, integrity, courage and talent. For Liston, the fights left his reputation in tatters.” In a legendary bout, Ali later beat by Floyd Patterson T.K.O. and agreed to Ali and then-WBA heavyweight champion boxer Ernie Terrell had agreed to spar at an event in Chicago on March 29, 1966, but fate had other plans.
One month prior, Ali was reclassified by the Louisville draft board as 1-A (unrestricted military service) from 1-Y (qualified only in case of war or national emergency), due to the army lowering its standards to permit soldiers above the 15th percentile. According to ESPN reporter, he scored a 78 on a United States Army IQ test in 1964. This classification doomed Ali for eligibility to be enlisted into the Vietnam War. Citing his religious attitudes and opposition to U.S. involvement in combat, Ali was eventually detained, found guilty of draft evasion and stripped of his boxing titles. After nearly four years—failing to fight during a period of peak performance as an athlete—, Ali effectively appealed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971 by an 8-0 vote.
It was during this time that he became a cultural icon of the 1960s counterculture generation. Ali’s position as a conscientious objector became emblematic when he famously said he would not serve in the Vietnam War because “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger.” The statement was indicative of something that American politics were not willing to confront: the U.S. was fighting for freedom on the other side of the globe, while African-American citizens were denied basic human rights.
Little did they know, this decision to punish Ali was the match that lit the gasoline rainbow of his superhero origins: He congregated with other civil rights activists and spoke out about injustice and celebrated black pride. Over the course of his career, he would be crowed World Heavyweight Champion a record-breaking three lineal times and accomplished 31 consecutive victories before he was defeated in a unanimous decision by fellow boxing legend Joe Frazier, an Olympic gold medalist and undisputed world heavyweight champion, in the highly anticipated “Fight of the Century” in 1971.
Ali returned with a vengeance in legendary bouts with Jerry Ellis, Ken Norton and Leon Spinks. In October 1974, pitted against undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman in the coveted “The Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire, Ali prevailed in what has been called “arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century” by Grantland writer Jay Capsian King. A year later, Ali faced-off against Joe Frazier for a third and final boxing match in Cubao, Quezon City, Philippines, for the fabled “Thrilla in Manila” contest, with Ali reigning supreme, winning two of the conflicts in a three-bout rivalry.
In 1978, DC Comics published a 72-page oversize comic book with the heavyweight boxing champion in a tag team with Superman to combat an alien invasion on Earth. The year prior, Ali had his own Saturday morning cartoon broadcast on NBC: I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali; however, the short-lived series was cancelled after just 13 weeks. (Nevertheless, that forgotten tchotchke of the Hanna-Barbera era would inspire another fellow heavy weight champion to create the cult favorite animated series Mike Tyson Mysteries.) Ali was winning, that is until he was forced to leave the world of boxing after losing terribly in a bout with Canadian boxer Trevor Berbick in 1981.
By then his hands began trembling and eloquent speaking voice began stuttering uncontrollably. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, a progressive neurological disorder that stripped him of his corporeal nimbleness. His fight with Larry Holmes in 1980 was said to have contributed to the disease. He would suffer for 32 years.
Many born long after Ali’s last fight in the ring may only recall the boxer’s glory days as shown in Ali, a 2001 film directed by Michael Mann, that garnered Will Smith critical acclaim and his first Oscar nomination. President Barrack Obama says his life and memory were more riverting than any Hollywood biopic. Noting that he has a pair of Ali’s boxing gloves on display in his private study off of the Oval Office, Mr. Obama said Ali “fought for us” in statement issued by the White House. Mind you, this was the first black POTUS speaking to black Americans on one of America’s most unapologetically black champions.
“He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t. His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today,” the President said.
Feature Illustration by Michael White