Round Table with Oscar
June 7, 2016

In memory of Ali

” ‘I won’t wear the uniform,’ declared the world heavyweight champion. Of all the rhetoric used to express opposition to the Vietnam war, these words may prove to be the most eloquent as a statement of personal commitment. They are words which should echo among the youth in every ghetto across this land. In taking his stand as a matter of conscience, the world heavyweight champion may be giving up a small fortune, but he has undoubtedly gained the respect and admiration of a very large part of humanity. That after all is the measure of a Man.” Spring 1967, Freedomways Journal.{{more}}

Two features about Muhammad Ali struck me and others too, I am sure. He was a man with a sense of theatre, a stage never far from wherever he appeared. More than that, Ali, a young man at 22 years of age, defended principle. He lost his boxing crown and years of professional activity and earnings, on a moral principle. He was determined not to travel overseas to kill Vietnamese citizens going about their own affairs in their own homeland, and posing no threat to him and his country.


A few years ago, Muhammad Ali visited Cuba and he met with Fidel Castro. The two senior giants spent a moment throwing playful jabs at each other. In the course of the conversation and pleasantries, Ali fainted, causing concern, panic and worry. As his hosts made moves to see about him, Ali opened his eyes, raised his head, smiled and said “Gotch ya”. Relief and laughter broke down the ‘proper’ diplomatic atmosphere. Ali was on stage. During the 20 or so years of his boxing career, Ali’s mouth was almost as busy as his fists. He would proclaim how great he was, “I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” he taunted those who were getting in the boxing ring with him. The ‘Louisville Lip’ was one of the less unflattering names that they gave him at the time. He was the rapper outside the ring and sometimes even inside the ring. ‘Who is the Greatest?’ was a rhetorical refrain, inviting the declaration, ‘Muhammad A_li”. He threw out dismissive names and claims in the media about his opponents Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and others, but he gave of his best as he faced them in the ring. Ali’s use of theatre may have sounded absurd to some, but it was a deadly serious application of mental and moral artillery. For him, his lyrics were the first punches he threw in a fight, before the fight. Since Ali, that theatre art has not been used with so much skill and effect by any other fighter.


“We coloured Americans need the inspiration of Maceo’s memory. In these degenerate days when the gods of our land are silver and gold, instead of liberty and freedom, we need the remembrance of some former deeds of such a hero”. (1898, African Methodist Episcopal Church Review.) Antonio Maceo, 1845-1896, had been a militant for independence and emancipation in the Caribbean Basin. He was killed by the Spanish military in Cuba. Muhammad Ali, known formerly as Cassius Marcellus Clay, was one of thousands of black men and women who, over the centuries, have resisted and rejected the gods of silver and gold. They have inspired the hearts and lit the paths of young and old alike. The death of Ali freshens in us the memory of that day of his defiant refusal to serve an empire spitting out death, terror and discrimination at home and overseas. He reminds us too of others: Sojourner Truth, who stole slaves away to freedom and the militant anti-racist El Shabbaz, popularly known as Malcolm X. In fact, the conviction in Ali’s speech had that quality that I have heard in Malcolm and some other Muslim leaders. ‘In these degenerate days’, as the church leaders said in 1898, we do need to digest lessons from the lives of such heroic persons. Ali was both a person who honed his professional skill to the highest degree, and a person who risked the loss of his profession because he was moved by a principle of human solidarity, love and respect.