Muhammad Ali was black and bold. And beautiful. Not only in the ring but outside of it too, standing up and fighting for his rights and for the rights of the Black community.
That Ali took to the sport to “whup” the thief who stole his bicycle almost 60 years ago in Louisville, Kentucky is now part of boxing legend. But many still remember the “greatest” boxer – who died on Friday aged 74 – as a passionate activist who refused to serve the US army.
Ali’s emergence coincided with the American civil rights movement and his persona offered young Blacks something they did not get from Martin Luther King and other leaders of the era.
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise,” Ali said. “But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
The one-time Christian Baptist became the most famous convert to Islam in American history when he announced he had joined the Black Muslim movement in 1964 under the guidance of Malcolm X shortly after he first became champion.
He eventually rejected his “white” and “slave” name and became Muhammad Ali but split from Malcolm X during a power struggle within the movement.
Ali had already encountered racism. On boxing trips, he and his amateur teammates would have to stay in the car while someone else bought them hamburgers.
When he returned to Louisville with a gold medal in the light heavyweight competition at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the Chamber of Commerce presented him a citation but said it didn’t have time to co-sponsor a dinner.
In his autobiography, “The Greatest”, Ali wrote that he tossed the medal into the Ohio River after a fight with a white motorcycle gang, which started when he and a friend were refused service at a Louisville restaurant.
The story may be apocryphal, and Ali later told friends he simply misplaced the medal. Regardless, he had made his point.
The US Army twice rejected Ali for service after measuring his IQ at 78 but eventually declared him fit for service. When he was drafted on April 28, 1967, he refused induction and the next day was stripped of his title by the World Boxing Association.
In June that year he was found guilty of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in jail.
“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger,” Ali said in a famous off-the-cuff statement, which also spoke of the racism he faced in the US.
He never went to jail while his case was on appeal and in 1971 the US Supreme Court overturned the conviction. Still, Ali’s career was at a standstill for almost 3-1/2 years because boxing officials would not give him licenses to fight.
Ali did not have to be in a boxing ring to command the world stage.
In 1990, a few months after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein held dozens of foreigners hostages in hopes of averting an invasion of his country. Ali flew to Baghdad, met Saddam and left with 14 American hostages.
In November 2002 he went to Afghanistan on a goodwill visit after being appointed a UN “messenger of peace”.
Years ago, in 1984, he made one his most famous statements on the condition of the Black community in the US.
“People say I talk so slow today. That’s no surprise. I calculated I’ve taken 29,000 punches. But I earned $57 million and I saved half of it. So I took a few hard knocks. Do you know how many black men are killed every year by guns and knives without a penny to their names? I may talk slow, but my mind is OK,” he said in Seattle for a benefit for Sugar Ray Seales, legally blind because of detached retinas suffered while boxing.
He once also mocked the US Army’s measure of his 78 IQ.
In his autobiography he said, “I only said I was the greatest, not the smartest.”
Not many question his wisdom now.