The Greatest: Changing Perceptions of Muhammad Ali
This essay was written in 2014 during my third year in Trinity College Dublin for the History module ‘American Politics and Culture, 1939-1989’
In this essay I write about three time heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali and the perceptions of him held by commentators, and the public, at various stages of his career. This piece focuses mainly, but not exclusively, on the period between Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the US Armed Forces in 1966 and his fight against George Foreman on 30 October 1974 and its aftermath. The primary ‘texts’ consulted for, and discussed in, this essay consist of the words of Muhammad Ali during the time being studied, as well as commentaries on Ali written during this period. In addition, relevant secondary sources have been drawn upon. My aim is for this piece to be considered an impartial history essay and in writing it I striven to be fully objective, despite the personal admiration for Muhammad Ali which I have.
While certainly not a narrative account, this piece is written largely in chronological order. I start by briefly drawing attention to attitudes to, and perceptions of, Ali before he first won the World Heavyweight Title in 1964 and his subsequent conversion to the Nation of Islam. Following on from this, I analyse how these changed in light of his conversion and go on to consider the period between 1967 and 1970 when Ali was banned from boxing due to his refusal to enter the armed forces during the Vietnam War. I look at what was written across this period as well as the words of Ali himself. Finally I consider Ali’s return to boxing in 1970, his reclamation of the World Heavyweight Title in 1974, and the shifting consensus among commentators towards him.
An outspoken figure, Ali divided opinion due to his interrelated religious and political views. However, the combination of his charisma, sporting prowess and pride in his own race led to him becoming an idol to many African-Americans. When writing his approved biography of the man, Thomas Hauser would assert that ‘with the exception of Martin Luther King, no black American had more influence than Ali during the years when Ali was in his prime.’
The New Kid on the Block
From his birth in Louisville Kentucky on 17 January 1942 to the publicising of his conversion to the Nation of Islam in the aftermath of his first World Title fight with Sonny Liston in February 1964, Muhammad Ali was known as Cassius Clay Jr. Indeed this name would continue to be used by many in the first few years after he changed his name. His conversion would mark the first of many turning points in relation to perceptions of Muhammad Ali.
Before his conversion, while always vociferous (he was nicknamed the ‘Louisville Lip’), Ali was not the outspoken symbol of black pride which he would become. In March 1963, he had been called “a blast furnace of racial pride” by the African-American magazine Ebony. This however was solely due to his sporting success. This sporting success was something similarly admired by white commentators at the time. Ali (Clay at the time) had recently won an Olympic Gold medal for amateur boxing in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Rome Olympiad. This, coupled with his good looks, charisma, wit and confidence, endeared him to the public at the time. Before Ali won the World title ‘it seemed as though almost everything Cassius Clay did, fit within the context of establishment white values.’ This would all change with Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam and his subsequent opposition to the Vietnam War.
“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”
In early 1966 the US Armed Forced qualifying exams were recalibrated. This meant that the previously ineligible (due to inadequate spelling and writing skills) Ali was now eligible to be drafted. When confronted by reporters questioning him about the issue, Ali uttered probably the most famous phrase of his career, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” This outburst would be later refined when he officially refused to be inducted to the Armed Forces arguing that he was a conscientious objector and that “it is in light of my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted into the armed services.” This resulted in the US government bringing criminal charges against him for draft evasion. On June 20 1967 he was found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment and fined $10,000, a conviction he immediately appealed. In addition, Ali was stripped of the World Heavyweight title he had won three years previously.
This was all before public opinion swayed against the Vietnam War and opinion was initially extremely hostile to Ali’s stance. Murray Robinson of the New York Journal-American wrote that Ali was nothing more than an “adult brat” with an “inflated head” who “squealed like a cornered rat” when confronted with the possibility of serving in the Armed Forces (22 February 1966). The New York Herald Times’ Red Smith likened Ali to student protesters, stating that “Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war” (23 February 1966).
Adding Fuel to the Fire
Perceptions of Ali were further affected negatively after his fight against Ernie Terrell on 6 February 1967. In the lead-up to the fight Terrell had refused to call Ali by his changed name, instead referring to him as Clay, much to Ali’s chagrin. Ali brutally beat Terrell en-route to a fifteen round unanimous decision. The bout is notable for Ali famously shouting at Terrell during exchanges: “Uncle Tom! What’s my name! Uncle Tom! What’s my name!”
The noticeable aggression of Ali during the fight as well as allegations from Terrell that Ali had gouged at his eyes with the thumb of his glove resulted in widespread condemnation of Ali. Arthur Daley of the New York Times decried Ali as a “mean and malicious man whose façade continues to crumble as he gets deeper into the Black Muslim movement” (7 February 1967). Illinois Republican congressman Robert Michel took the opportunity in the aftermath of the fight, and resultant bad press, to label Ali a “symbol of draft evasion” (21 February 1967).
Forty-Three Months in the Boxing Wilderness
Writing after Ali’s conviction in 1967, Jackie Robinson (the first black man to play Major League Baseball) praised Ali’s stance. Robinson derided those who he saw as only supporting ‘tame Negroes who “stay in their place”’ and championed Ali for sticking to his convictions. Robinson saw this as being highly commendable due to Ali’s personal beliefs negatively affecting his sporting career. Robinson asserted that ‘by backing up his words with deeds, Clay or Ali has clearly demonstrated where his “place” is – right up there at the top.’
During the three and a half years he was barred from prize fighting Ali toured US university campuses as a guest speaker. His explosive boxing press conference charisma translated well to the lectern with Julian Bond (who would later become NAACP Chairman) commenting that “Ali would have them [the students] in the palm of his hand.” During these lectures Ali would not only voice his opposition to the war but he would highlight the plight of black Americans and the inequalities which they faced. Ali argued that “I’m expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam, and at the same time my people here are being brutalised and mistreated.” Recalling for his biography the support he received during these lectures, Ali reminisced how “black people, the ones with sense, they were saying, “Right on brother; show them honkies!””
As public opinion swayed further and further against the Vietnam War, support for Ali grew exponentially. Ali was seen as one of the figureheads of Vietnam War opposition as well as possibly the main figurehead of black pride. Therefore the US government’s case against him began to be seen negatively and as being unfair. Writing in 1969, Irwin Shaw surmised that ‘to the ordinary American, especially the black American, it must seem that one man has been singled out and hounded down.’ After Ali’s return, Norman Mailer described his stance in these years as being akin to ‘martyrdom.’
In an interview with The Black Scholar journal towards the end of his ban, Ali was commended by the interviewer for having “added a new dimension to the role of a champion.” Ali was now considered as being someone who furthers the black cause in America. He was told by the journal that “you fight for us both outside and inside that ring.”
Ali wholeheartedly agreed with this assessment. He responded by claiming that “my new job is freedom, justice, and equality for black folks, to bring them the knowledge of their true selves.” This sentiment influenced many black sportspeople. Black Grand Slam-winning tennis player and writer Arthur Ashe recalled that “he [Ali] was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of a black athlete’s responsibility to get involved [in race issues].”
Ali stuck rigidly to his convictions and remained defiant throughout his exile. Addressing the white ‘man’ he claimed he was “One nigger you ain’t going to get.” As I have described, this conviction, coupled with public opinion swaying against the Vietnam War, garnered Ali many plaudits. Hauser even goes as far as to say that Ali was possibly ‘the greatest hero to come out of the Vietnam War.’
A Hero’s Return
Ali was granted a boxing license on 12 August 1970 (His conviction would later be overturned by the US Supreme Court on 28 June 1971). His comeback fight against Jerry Quarry on 26 October 1970 was seen as a major event for the black community. Speaking before the bout, Jesse James claimed the fight would be a “blow against the forces of blind patriotism that had tried to railroad [Ali] into jail and break his spirit and body.”
Ali won the fight via a third round technical knock-out after opening a large gash over Quarry’s eye. In the wake of this victory Ali was given the Dr. Martin Luther King Award for his ‘contributions to the cause of human dignity.’ This was awarded to him by King’s widow Coretta who declared Ali “a champion of justice and peace and unity.” King’s best friend and successor as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Ralph Abernathy drew parallels between King and Ali stating that Ali’s fight to return to boxing was “The March on Washington all in two fists.”
Ali’s return saw him embraced and championed by the black community as a hero. Writing in 1971, sports journalist Robert Lipsyte commented that attitudes towards Ali had changed and that he was now seen positively as “the man who stood firm, who was willing to suffer for his convictions.”
The Fight of the Century
Despite all this fanfare, Ali’s comeback would turn sour in his third fight after returning from his long ban. In this fight on 8 March 1971 Ali challenged the Heavyweight World Champion Joe Frazier to try and reclaim the belt which he had not lost in the ring. This fight was dubbed ‘The Fight of the Century’. At that point it was considered by some as ‘the biggest fight in the history of boxing.’ The fight would last the full fifteen rounds however Muhammad Ali lost via a clear unanimous decision, getting knocked down in the process.
Speaking to Sports Illustrated before the fight, Ali had recognised his position as a figurehead of the black community and contended that his fight against Joe Frazier (also a black man) was symbolic of his, and the black community’s, battle with the US government. He stated that: “I’m not just fighting one man. I’m fighting a lot of men, showing them here is one man they couldn’t conquer. Lose this one, and it won’t just be a loss to me. So many millions of faces throughout the world will be sad; they’ll feel like they’ve been defeated” (26 October 1970).
This loss was seen by some commentators as the effective end of Ali’s career as a top-level boxer. Nevertheless, he was still held in a positive light due to the strength of his personal convictions and his stance against the Vietnam War. Journalist Pete Hamill believed that Ali’s career was over but contended that people were aware of the importance of Ali’s role during his exile. He surmised that ‘we knew we had spent some time in the company of a man of honour.’ Elaborating, he argued that ‘Ali had come along at a point in time when people needed heroes.’ Hamill noted that Ali had become this ‘hero’ for the black community. So much so, that ‘when he challenged the government on a matter of principle it was as if he had done it for all of them.’
The Rumble in the Jungle
Ali’s stock fell further when he was defeated by the largely unheralded Ken Norton on 31 March 1973. Ali would then go on to avenge his defeat against Frazier in a rematch on 28 January 1974 to put himself in line for a shot against the young champion George Foreman. In viciously defeating both Norton and Frazier, Foreman had needed only four rounds and was heavy favourite to win against Ali.
In a massive upset, Muhammad Ali defeated Foreman on 30 October 1974 in Kinshasa Zaire via an eight round knock-out to finally reclaim the World Title. Ali spoke afterwards of his responsibility to his people which went beyond reclaiming the title. He claimed, “Conquering the world with my fists does not bring freedom to my people. I am well aware that I must go beyond this and prepare myself for more. I know that I enter a new arena.”
Chronicling the bout for his book, The Fight (1975), Norman Mailer commented that it was indeed possible for Ali to increase his influence. In response to Ali’s assertion, Mailer wrote excitedly, ‘My God! All of it! He was going after all of it. And why not, given the rate of increase at which he mastered the whole of whatever he was given.’ Mailer went on to surmise that Ali ‘might become the leader of his people’ and described him as a ‘black Kissenger.’
Ali would go on to win a ‘rubber’ match in the Philippines with Joe Frazier the following year in a fight known as ‘Thrilla in Manila.’ He would then lose and reclaim the title in 1978 in successive fights with Leon Spinks before his career petered out with successive losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick in 1980 and 1981 respectively.
Perceptions of Ali varied wildly across his career. When he began his professional career he was seen as a feisty, entertaining, young challenger. This morphed into apprehension when he changed his name and joined the Nation of Islam before turning into widespread hatred when he refused to be enlisted into the Army. Opinions changed as the war progressed and Ali acquired a lot of support for his views and admiration for his determination and personal convictions. Ali returned to boxing amid much positive publicity but his results were mixed and he was seen by many as a has-been until 1974 when he reclaimed the World Title and reasserted himself as the most prominent sportsman on the Planet.
This is not a definitive piece on perceptions of Muhammad Ali and obviously I was unable to include everything that I would have liked to due to the size constraints. The main omission in this piece that I would have liked to have detailed is the black separatist views which Ali put forward throughout this period and the responses they elicited. This however is a sizeable topic which is probably worthy of its own essay.
To conclude, it is clear that the influence of Muhammad Ali went far beyond his sporting prowess. He redefined what it meant to be considered a great sportsman. This view is eloquently and accurately summed up by black sportswriter William Rhoden who recalled in 2013 how:
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, Muhammad, ‘The Black Scholar interview: Muhammad Ali (1970),’ Gerald Early (ed.)
– I’m a Little Special: A Muhammad Ali Reader (New York City, NY, 1998), 83-89.
– Hamill, Pete, ‘The Disintegration of a Folk Hero (1971)’ in Gerald Early (ed.) I’m a Little
Special: A Muhammad Ali Reader (New York City, NY, 1998), 122-4.
– Hauser, Thomas, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (New York City, NY, 1991).
– Lipsyte, Robert, ‘I Don’t Have to Be What You Want Me to Be (1971)’ in Gerald Early (ed.)
– I’m a Little Special: A Muhammad Ali Reader (New York City, NY, 1998), 90-100.
– Mailer, Norman ‘Ego (1971),’ Gerald Early (ed.) I’m a Little Special: A Muhammad Ali
Reader (New York City, NY, 1998), 101-121.
– Mailer, Norman, The Fight (New York City, NY, 1975).
– Rhoden, William, ‘In Ali’s Voice From the Past, a Stand for the Ages,’ New York Times 20
June 2013, (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/sports/in-alis-voice-from-the-past-a-
stand-for-the-ages.html?_r=0) [Accessed: 27 Feb 2014].
– Robinson, Jackie, ‘In Defense of Cassius Clay (1967),’ Gerald Early (ed.) I’m a Little
Special: A Muhammad Ali Reader (New York City, NY, 1998), 71.
– Shaw, Irwin, ‘Muhammad Ali and the Little People (1969),’ Gerald Early (ed.) I’m a Little
Special: A Muhammad Ali Reader (New York City, NY, 1998), 72-80.