Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage


This article was written on 05 Jun 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Muhammad Ali: Greatest Of All Time

Don’t let Muhammad Ali’s death blind you to what a radical and transformative figure he was. The people in the newspapers who are writing tributes would mostly have hated him back in the sixties for precisely the things that people loved him for. He stood up to the white establishment and was that most terrifying of things: the politicised black man. His braggadocio turned boxing into something other than it had been and, more importantly, he articulated the simple message that he didn’t want to fight overseas when he was oppressed at home.

Boxing is not a nice sport or even, in the last analysis, a defensible one. It involves hitting someone else until they are unconscious, until they can’t hit you effectively any more or simply more times than they hit you. It’s one that I find compelling, I find myself admitting, guiltily, but I can no more defend my interest than I can defend the fact I eat meat. I enjoy it, but the imposition of outside logic blows it apart. But for Muhammad Ali, growing up in the segregated south, it was just about the only way to change his circumstances.

The story about how he got into boxing has been told and retold and I’m not going to rehash it here, but when he started to make his mark and started to be aware of the world around him, the white Louisville businessmen who had backed him when he turned professional were surplus to requirements. He threw his lot in with the Nation of Islam, as radical a bunch of Muslims as it was possible to find and, ultimately, led by utter charlatans, but he had put down a marker. He was no longer the plaything and toy of white people. His loyalties lay elsewhere. And to mark the transition, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. And it’s by that name he is known to history.

At the zenith of his career, he was drafted. The US forces would likely have offered him favourable terms for completing his supposed service to his country, but Ali had other ideas. He came up, unbidden, with the phrase ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,’ that he expounded on at greater length. He said “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.”

There, in an instant, the history of white power, of suppression of races seen as inferior, is called out for what it is. He was talking about America, which Martin Luther King had wanted to hold to its own promises, but he could just as easily have been talking about France, Great Britain or any other colonial power. To raise your voice in defence of empire, any empire, is to raise your voice in defence of what Ali, simply, eloquently and with massive power, was denouncing. That’s not a side I’d ever want to be on.

White America, predictably, went mad. Ali was roundly denounced by anyone who could hold a microphone and there were calls for unbelievably harsh punishments. Ultimately, he was denied a licence to fight, which robbed him of the best years of his career, but Ali never capitulated and never gave in and played, what he saw correctly, as the white man’s game. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that he was right. How much more courage it must have taken when the whole country was arrayed against him, I can’t imagine.

When he came back, it was against George Foreman in Zaire and Foreman, a hard puncher who was carrying a cross of anger, allowed himself to be depicted with the same kind of dogs that the president, Mobutu Sese Seko, was said to set on his adversaries. Foreman was never as bad as Ali allowed him to be painted, but it was a fundamental mis-step that positioned Ali as the boxer who was against Mobutu, which made the crowd take him to their hearts and, yet again, positioned Ali in absolutely the right place when it came to tyranny.

And I’m not naive enough to think that Ali was perfect. In fact, he had the same flaws that we all have in some way, shape or form. He womanised, he contradicted himself and he was too trusting when it came to following the counsel of people who turned out to be knaves and fools. Because Ali walked a bigger stage, these flaws looked bigger and had bigger consequences. Critical faculties, for instance, should have warned him about the Nation of Islam, but I write this with the benefit of hindsight, with an education that would never have been available to him and, more importantly, without the people who were telling me to behave threatening me with lynching. They were fissile times and he found a suitably fissile solution.

Ultimately, though, he transcended those faults. Not by a little, but by a lot. Such was his strength of spirit that he overcame adversity in the ring, surmounting odds that, such was his narrative, seemed as though they were insurmountable each time, and then took adversity on again in retirement. He became a symbol of human endurance in the face of Parkinson’s, a disease he took on with grace, ever-dwindling strength and good humour. This was one opponent he was never going to beat, which he must have known, but in squaring up to it, he transfigured himself from a sports hero and an activist into something even greater. I don’t think there are words, at least not words I know, that fully compass what that was, but he became an avatar of humanity, flawed but magnificent and, in the fullest possible meaning of the word, beautiful.

For reasons too numerous and tediously personal to go into, I truly, truly loved Muhammad Ali in the way that’s left to you when you never knew someone in person and when your only experience of them is on a screen. That’s second hand love, at best, and may even be wholly illusory. I don’t come from one of the groups that he spoke to most loudly and most clearly, but for whatever this is worth, I love him still. And my faith tells me that he’s gone to a rest that is richly and hugely deserved. To me, and to others, he really is the Greatest Of All Time.

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