Muhammad Ali: boxing legend, human rights activist

Developing Just Leadership

Khadijah Ali

Ramadan 26, 1437 2016-07-01

Main Stories

by Khadijah Ali (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 5, Ramadan, 1437)

Muhammad Ali was not only a world-class boxer, he was also a human rights activist and stood against the immoral Vietnam War and refused to fight there for which the US establishment punished him. In death, however, they eulogized him because he had become an international icon.

The death last month of boxing legend Muhammad Ali has left a huge void in the world. It has done more. Ali died at the relatively young age of 74 — relatively young because people in the West make it well past 90 due to medical advancement — and the world lost a man who was willing to take a stand for principles and even make huge sacrifices to uphold them. Ali’s death has also exposed the manner in which the US establishment operates: it immediately adopted him in death while he was vilified when he took a stand against the immoral war on Vietnam in the 1960s.

In their eyes, Ali was guilty of multiple sins. Unlike other boxers — boxing being a brutal sport that Ali turned into an art — he was articulate. He became a Muslim, took up the cause of the oppressed African-Americans and the worst sin of all, he refused to be drafted into the army to fight for US imperialism in Vietnam.

There are many parallels between the lives of Muhammad Ali and el-Haj Malik Shabazz (aka Malcolm X). Both went to prison, Ali for his convictions, Malcolm for being involved in drugs, a common practice among African Americans at the time because of the extreme racism they faced in the US (they still do even if in more subtle forms). Malcolm became a Muslim while in prison; Ali had become a Muslim before his conviction on refusing to be drafted to fight in Vietnam.

Ali had gained fame as a young boxer when at age 18 he won the gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Less than four years later (February 1964), he would defeat Sonny Liston to clinch the world heavyweight title at 22. From then on, he did not look back. He beat every challenger that confronted him, knocking out most of his opponents.

Boxing is a brutal sport. Before Ali’s emergence on the world scene, it was a slugging match. Ali’s style — agility on his feet, graceful movements in the ring and rapid jabs — turned it into an art. He seldom came out of the ring with puffy eyes or face, something so common in the sport, artfully dodging his opponents’ punches. He also used psychological tactics to disorient opponents. He often taunted them, making them angry and emotional so that they would abandon their fighting strategies.

To get a glimpse into his boxing prowess, out of 61 fights, he won 56 including 37 knockouts. From his triumph over Liston in 1964, Ali went on to win 31 straight fights before being defeated by Joe Frazier in 1971. That defeat occurred following the World Boxing Federation (WBF) stripping him of his title in 1967 for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. He was sentenced to five years in prison, a conviction he fought all the way to the US Supreme Court, which eventually overturned it in 1971, accepting his plea as a conscientious objector.

While his conviction was overturned, the WBF did not restore his title. Instead, he had to fight for it in the ring to regain it. The 1960s were a brutal period in American history. It was the decade of the civil rights movement as well as the Vietnam War and protests. While African Americans were denied basic rights in the US, they were forcibly drafted into the military to fight for that very system!

Ali had joined the Nation of Islam (NOI), a group that advocated a distorted version of Islam but that was the only outlet at the time for most African Americans who faced racism even in churches. There were segregated churches reserved exclusively for whites and blacks. Even 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, many churches remain segregated to this day. Blacks were refused seats in the front of buses that had led to the Rosa Park protest. Blacks were also refused entry into restaurants that led Ali — born Cassius Clay — to embrace Islam even in its distorted form as preached by Elijah Muhammad. This was a way of empowering the African American community against rampant white racism.

What Ali said about refusing to fight in Vietnam is worth quoting again,

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?

When asked whether he would fight in Vietnam, he replied,

No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end… My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? 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. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail!

His defiance of the American establishment infuriated the white racists used to nearly a century of lynching, raping, and burning of black people. Ali had to be punished and silenced. Malcolm X was gunned down in the prime of his life in February 1965; he was barely 39. Ali was sentenced to five years in jail. By now, he was already an international icon because of his prowess in the ring. He could not be physically eliminated. Like Malcolm, Martin Luther King Jr., leader of the US civil rights movement, would also pay the price with his life in April 1968.

Despite his sentence, Ali could not be silenced even if he was stripped of his title,

I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here [in America]. 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… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.

He took that stand when barely 25; it takes courage and conviction!

His death on June 3 prompted the usual outpouring of hypocritical rant by American politicians. Not only President Barack Obama, himself of African American origins (although of mixed parentage: his grandmother was white), even the racist and bigot Donald Trump paid tribute to Ali. David Walsh aptly captured this hypocrisy in his article in Global Research on June 6, 2016, “Muhammad Ali, who, in his day, was a symbol of protest and resistance, has prompted the inevitable and instinctive effort by the establishment to appropriate his legacy for their own cynical uses.”

In his statement issued on June 4 after Ali passed away, Obama said, “Like everyone else on the planet, Michelle and I mourn his passing. But we’re also grateful to God for how fortunate we are to have known him, if just for a while; for how fortunate we all are that ‘The Greatest’ chose to grace our time.” He praised Ali’s “wonderful, infectious, even innocent spirit” and said that “he was a fighter in the ring, but a man who fought for what was right.” Obama added, “A man who fought for us. He stood with [Martin Luther] King and [Nelson] Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t.”

Obama deserves credit for his soaring rhetoric but truth be told, as president, he has prosecuted more wars and killed more people than even his rightly reviled predecessor, George W. Bush. While Obama praised Ali for taking a stand “when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t,” his own actions belie his statements. Others also chimed in with praise of Ali including Vice President Joe Biden, Former US President Bill Clinton, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, musician Paul McCartney, boxers Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather, and golfer Tiger Woods.

Perhaps his toughest opponents in the ring, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, paid the best tributes. Foreman, who was beaten by Ali in the “Rumble in the Jungle” on October 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire, said, “Muhammad Ali made you love him.” Ali fought a very intelligent fight against Foreman. Instead of going for a quick knockout as his trainer Angelo Dundee had advised, Ali devised his own strategy. It was a huge gamble but it paid off. He let Foreman exhaust himself by punching Ali repeatedly with body blows. Ali had trained hard to take punches to the stomach, while protecting his face, head, and upper body. By the eighth round, Foreman was exhausted and had lost much of his strength. Ali easily knocked him out. Asked how he would like to be remembered, Ali once said,

As a man who never sold out his people. But if that’s too much, then just a good boxer… I won’t even mind if you don’t mention how pretty I was!

The Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) director Zafar Bangash also had a brief encounter with Muhammad Ali. He recalls that in 1971, the boxing legend was passing through London, England where the ICIT director was a student at University College London. His friend Ghazanfar Ali Gul, currently member of the Pakistan People’s Party, was also a student at the nearby London School of Economics (LSE). When Gul learned about Ali’s presence in London, he found what hotel he was staying in and went there. Gul was a remarkable person: even in London, he used to wear the traditional Pakistani dress shalawar-qamees (baggy trousers and tunic), sherwani (a long black coat) and Jinnah Cap. To complete the picture, Gul also had a long beard! Being the hippy era, beards were in fashion but Gul’s was of a different kind!

When he arrived at the hotel, Ali’s guards would not let him meet the boxer. Gul persisted and eventually managed to meet Ali, inviting him to attend the inaugural meeting of the Islamic Society at LSE, which Gul had set up. To his surprise, Ali immediately agreed and accompanied Gul to LSE where more than a thousand students and faculty were waiting to hear the boxing legend speak!

Muhammad Ali was very much a people’s man. He demonstrated his humanity again in Zaire before the historic fight with Foreman. During his early morning jog, Ali would interact with young African kids. Foreman, on the other hand, had come with his pet dog, seen by Africans as a symbol of white oppression. He did not mix with ordinary people. Even before the fight had taken place, Ali was already the people’s champion. He did not disappoint them in the ring either.

He has now joined the Creator (may his soul rest in peace), but his memory will live on. He was not only a great sportsman but also a very decent human being. May Allah (swt) reward him many times over for all the good he did.

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