Don’t let the waves of tears and warm wishes fool you. They never fooled Muhammad Ali, who spent every single one of his remarkable 74 years pile driving the status quo, disrupting those who tried to fit him into their mold, and making the reporters, politicians and establishment figures every bit as nervous as the many, many opponents he knocked out in the ring. Muhammad Ali, who passed away in Phoenix Friday night, was a silver-tongued, python-fisted, blindingly quick champion of both boxing and civil rights who devoted his life to getting the rest of the world on his supremely dope level. We didn’t deserve him.
Ali knocked racism, Islamophobia, jingoism and every other brand of bigotry down so hard they didn’t dare rear their heads around him a second time. He was maddeningly elusive in the ring, dancing around his foes’ jabs like a vapor. But in life, he was immovable as an oak tree, a man who gave up his championship and three years of his prime because he would not go fight in a war he did not believe in. By the time he declared himself The Greatest, it was already obvious to anyone who was paying attention. You could almost call him humble for waiting as long as he did to own up to it. But Ali was more than just the greatest boxer of all time, or even the most important American athlete of all time, although he was both. Muhammad Ali was miraculous.
As an athlete? Well! Cassius Clay was born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. When he was 12, a cop named Joe Martin found him upset about some older boys who had stolen his bike. The officer suggested young Clay learn how to box and if Heaven is real, that police officer is surely in it (and Ali will find him there — Martin would go on to become Ali’s trainer and lifelong friend). Ten years later, Clay went six rounds as a 7-1 underdog with the imposing heavyweight champion Sonny Liston before winning by TKO, becoming the youngest boxer to ever take the title from a champ. It was the beginning of a career that is too incredible to be contained by any book, film or imagination, let alone internet article. He won three lineal world heavyweight champion titles, the only boxer to ever do so. He had an Olympic gold medal, which he claimed he threw away after being refused service at an all-white diner. He had famous rivalries with boxers like Joe Frazier and George Foreman, which resulted in some of the greatest boxing matches the world would ever see. You didn’t have to know a thing about the sport to know you were seeing something special when you watched him fight.
If all Ali had was athleticism, his legacy would be secure. But we’re just getting started! Ali’s mouth was as fast as his fists, and as a trash talker, he was simply without equal. Before, during, and after fights, he’d cut his opponents down to size with ruthless, poetic abandon. He called Frazier “too dumb to be a champion. He said he’d whip Liston “like his daddy did.” Sports writer Paul Gallenger once wrote that “the most brilliant fight strategy in boxing history was devised by a teenager who had graduated 376 in a class of 391.”
But Ali’s fiercest words were saved for the white establishment, particularly the U.S. Government, which called on him to go serve in Vietnam. Ali loudly and publicly refused, arguing that the Qur’an forbid violence and he could not justify fighting for a country that refused to recognize his full equality as a black man and as a Muslim.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” he asked, leaving his many detractors sputtering for a retort. “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Vietcong ever called me n—–.”
You could hate him for this. Many people did, but one thing you could not accuse him of was cowardice. Ali was no draft dodger. He appeared at his scheduled induction, but did not step forward when his name was called. For this, he was arrested, stripped of his titles and his boxing license, and spent three years of his prime trying to appeal the decision. In the meantime, he spoke on college campuses and the country started to come around to his side on the Vietnam War. Ali’s conviction was overturned in 1971, and he returned to the ring.
That’s right. Ali was the greatest despite spending three of his peak years banned from the sport.
Writing for The New York Times, William Rhoden said “Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?” Ali’s words would inspire no less than one Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to condemn the Vietnam War — something he’d been hesitant to do before Ali’s show of resistance. “Before Ali,” says sports sociologists Harry Edwards, ”black athletes were merely 20th-century gladiators in the service of white society.”
But Ali was not only a champion of black rights and conscientious objection, he was an ambassador for religious equality. The day after knocking Liston out, he announced to a room of reporters that he was a Muslim, changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, and threw a haymaker into the likable rags-to-riches Cinderella story the white press was hoping to sell. The country revolted, refusing to call him “Ali” and demanding that this black athlete stay in the lane they’d picked for him as a loudmouthed showman. But the nation was not prepared for a fight against the Greatest, who famously told reporters ”I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” Ali would ultimately win the battle to, as Joyce Carol Oats would write, “define the terms of his public reputation.” Muhammad Ali won almost every fight.
History looks favorably on great men and women, but a 22-year-old Muhammad Ali in 2016 would make white America bristle today the same way it did in 1967. It’s only in retrospect that firebrands and revolutionaries get lauded as the national heroes and “great Americans” they alone knew they were all along. It’s only after men like Ali win the respect of the whole world that the whole world pretends it accepted them from the very beginning. The hate and humiliation they endured from the establishment is forgotten. The bravery they displayed is enshrined; the necessity for it, obscured. Their greatness is becomes their legacy, and their legacy becomes a legend.
And if you’re Muhammad Ali, you finally are seen for what you were from the beginning: miraculous.