In deserved memoriam, news outlets made much of the late heavyweight boxer Muhammed Ali's light-footedness in the ring. Others held forth that it was his prowess as an orator and broker of honesty that really stood out. For myself, a child of those times, it was indeed the latter: his words, more than his fists, floated like butterflies but stung like bees.
On a CBC Sports online discussion thread about the greatest quotes of The Greatest, many keened to Ali's playfulness — like when he tugged at the toupee of sportscaster Howard Cosell, or told golf champion Nick Faldo, "I'm the greatest golfer; I just haven't played yet." Otherwise, folks fondly recalled a man who used his position to highlight important issues, contra "today's athletes who rise to fame because they won't take a position on anything." Someone suggested Ali would have made a great congressman; his addressing of social-justice issues on talk shows was deemed "more powerful than a left hook;" it was noted he commanded respect both from intellectuals like William F. Buckley and spiritual leaders like Reverend Martin Luther King. Then, in reference to possibly his most saccharine anti-war quote — "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" — one respondent, in true Ali fashion, hit it on the chin.
"One of (Ali's) greatest quotes was not poetic. It was simple, honest and ugly, too. In a few words he said volumes about a horrible war, racism in America and why he refused to be drafted whatever the cost... And you airbrushed it. You disrespected Ali and your readers."
I don't blame CBC for not reproducing everything Ali said, but reading this comment turned over the soil of a deep memory.
I've never liked boxing, never watched a fight, and never understood — other than as protest against establishment-aligned Christianity — the fascination with Islam among 1960s black activists. Nevertheless, Muhammed Ali was a towering figure in my childhood. His antics, interviews and references were omnipresent, though I was too young to grok that the boasting, rhyming, and verbal jabbing were all clever entertainment wrapping a deeper message — a Trojan horse of morality and self-empowerment. When Ali refused to participate in the war in Vietnam, however, it was the unavoidable news of the day. Asked repeatedly to clarify his position, the Louisville, Ky. native had plenty to say, none as powerful as a statement he released after being arrested at an army induction centre in Houston, after which he was stripped of his world heavyweight title and banned from boxing for three years:
"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?... I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality... So I'll go to jail. We've been in jail for 400 years."
And then, more pointedly to some reporters: "My conscience won't let me go shoot... some poor hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America... They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father..."
This was a lot for a 10-year-old to parse, but it piqued my pre-adolescent interest. So I asked my parents and teachers to explain. When I understood the answer — that the greatest fighter of all time refused to fight an immoral war against foreign innocents, a war putatively justified to protect freedoms to which he himself wasn't fully privileged — it changed my life. As Dave Zirin wrote in The Nation: "What Muhammad Ali did — in a culture that worships sports and violence as well as a culture that idolizes black athletes while criminalizing black skin — was redefine what it meant to be tough and collectivize the very idea of courage."
I grew up the day Muhammed Ali refused the draft, but until now hadn't realized the debt of gratitude I owed him. So thanks Ali, for the windows opened on truth, ethics and real justice.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.