The world mourned Muhammad Ali’s death with headlines such as these:
The Telegraph UK – Muhammad Ali dead at 74: tributes to the greatest of all time
The New York Times – Muhammad Ali Dies at 74: Titan of Boxing and the 20th Century
The Wall Street Journal – Muhammad Ali, the Greatest, Dies at 74
The legendary boxer leaves a legacy unmatched in sports—a charismatic champion of free speech and civil change.
It wasn’t always like this. This is a lesson for us journalists. People of my generation remember when Muhammad Ali at the peak of his career was mocked, hated and generally pissed on by the then largely White media. This might be an opportune moment to bring into context for this generation of young Indians that Ali’s life was not a comfortable ride to greatness and at the top of his career, he was more controversial than what is acknowledged today. It is about how hypocritical the media can be. So pay attention. Headlines such as “All-Time Great” now are a sharp contrast to “Mr. Swellhead Bigmouth Poet” or “Gaseous Cassius”.
Ali faced racism and derision of the worst kind from sports commentators, sports writers and the American public at large. If you watch Ali’s early fights, he was most often booed when he entered the boxing ring. Ali did not play easily into the White man’s game. He embraced his Blackness. Ali’s attitude was new and unusual. After winning an Olympic gold medal in 1960, he was so disheartened and disgusted by the racism he faced on his return to America that he threw his gold medal in the Ohio River.
But, Ali’s wit, his fake boasting, his poetry, his fight against racists, his press conferences were pure entertainment laced with political, anti-racist statements. Often, this was said in what can only be called pop poetry, possibly a precursor to today’s rap. Hated and despised, yes, but Ali garnered more attention than any fighter boxer before.
You have to understand the mahaul of the 60s.
Young people were demonstrating against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
They were questioning middle-class morality and propagating free love with multiple partners.
And they were living in hippie communes.
All this led to deep divisions in American society. Even within families, one son would be volunteering for the US army, while others in the same family would be protesting against the war. Many parts of the South were still segregated. There were separate schools, churches, movie theatres, drinking fountains, clubs, restaurants and businesses.
In 1963, President Kennedy ordered National Armed Guards to escort three African-American students into the University of Alabama when Governor George Wallace stood there blocking their entrance, saying, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. The students were spat upon and jeered.
Muhammad Ali, then named Cassius Clay, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, in the thick of racism and segregation. Ali’s mother cleaned toilets in White homes. He was educated into the ways of White America when he saw her being refused a drink of water after work. Ali was deeply disturbed by pictures of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was pulled out of his bed in his Chicago home on August 28, 1955, his face mutilated beyond recognition, he was shot and thrown in the Kentucky river by White men. Why? Because he allegedly “eyeballed” a White cashier and called her “baby”. Life magazine carried the pictures that affected Ali deeply.
Of course, there were the Martin Luther King-led Gandhian type protests, politely asking White Americans to treat them better.
But, on the other hand, African-American youth were increasingly restless. There was rage and frustration. Then appeared the Black Panthers.
It was the antithesis of King’s movement. The Panthers formed armed citizens’ patrols to monitor the behaviour and brutality of police officers in Oakland, California.
They created community breakfast programmes and health clinics. In sharp contrast to King’s followers, in their Sunday church clothes with bow ties and hats, the Panthers in black t-shirts, black jeans, carrying guns, raising their fists in Black Power salutes, were menacing. They made the White world afraid and the Black youth loved them.
Ali was attracted to the Nation of Islam sect, led by Elijah Muhammad. The Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam contributed to transforming African-Americans on how they perceived themselves. They were now Proud to be Black. Elijah Muhammad preached a religion of peace but he was aggressive and unapologetic in threatening the White Man and not politely asking for equality. He changed what he called his slave name Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. To irritate Ali, sports commentators provocatively called him Cassius Clay. In what became known as the What’s My Name fight against Ernie Terrell on February 7, 1967, Ali taunted Terrell with “What’s my name?” in the eighth round before each jab. Terrell had deliberately and persistently called him Cassius Clay.
At that time, young American eligible men were drafted into the US army to fight in Vietnam. When Ali was drafted, he refused to serve in the US forces in Vietnam, saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong. Why would I kill poor women and children in the mud?”
On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years.
He stayed out of prison as his case was appealed. He lost all his titles, his passport was taken away, he was not allowed to travel outside the US to fight, and he was not allowed to fight in America. He had no income for three years and made paltry amounts at speaking engagements to survive. Ali was broke and got little support from the American media. On June 28, 1970, the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction for evading the draft.
Muhammad Ali was torn to bits by the American media at that time, called a traitor to his country and was not a popular figure at all. How did he then become the greatest fighter and athlete of the century 40 years later?
America changed. African-Americans fought for the change. And all them were responsible for that change including Muhammad Ali who sacrificed the peak of his career, short-lived for any athlete, for what he believed in. And, today, as we shower abuse on social media platforms on those who do not conform to the norm – even as the media brings people down because that is the mahaul of the time – we have to remind ourselves and remember to think for ourselves and of the consequences of what we do to people.
I want to remind my journalist friends how Amitabh Bachchan was condemned as guilty in the Bofors case and had no work. Twenty-five years later he was exonerated. Where are those journalists who wrote against him? Did they apologise? No, of course not. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but we must wield the sword with caution. Who we make a traitor today, becomes a hero tomorrow. By the same sword.