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Ali found icon status in blending politics, activism, sports


    In this Feb. 18, 1964, file photo, boxer Muhammad Ali, or Cassius Clay at the time, beats his chest in triumph after toppling Britain’s Beatles at his training camp in Miami Beach, Fla. The Beatles, left to right: Paul McCartney; John Lennon; George Harrison and Ringo Starr, were on vacation in the resort after their American tour.

NEW YORK >> During the Beatles’ first visit to the United States in 1964, clever publicity agents arranged a meeting with Cassius Clay, then training for the bout that would make him heavyweight champion. The result was a memorable photo of a whooping Ali standing astride four “knockout victims.”

Two emerging cultural forces who were beginning their path to global fame.

But as popular as the Beatles became, it was Muhammad Ali who went on to become the most recognized person in the world. That picture was among the first to show him growing into that persona alongside the major cultural, political and entertainment figures of the era.

For a generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, Ali was far more than a boxer. With a personality that could deftly dance and connect politics and entertainment, activism and athletics, his identity blended boundaries. He was an entertainer, a man at the center of swirling political and cultural change, a hero — and a villain — to many for his brash self-assuredness.

“Part of Muhammad’s greatness was his ability to be different things to different people,” retired basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote on Facebook Saturday.

“To sports fans he was an unparalleled champion of the world, faster and smarter than any heavyweight before. To athletes, he was a model of physical perfection and shrewd business acumen. To the anti-establishment youth of the 1960s, he was a defiant voice against the Vietnam War and the draft. To the Muslim community, he was a pious pioneer testing America’s purported religious tolerance. To the African-American community, he was a black man who faced overwhelming bigotry the way he faced every opponent in the ring: fearlessly.”

The stoic generation that had fought World War II returned home to raise children who became defined by rebelliousness, impatience, an unwillingness to accept things the way they were. Few people embodied that spirit quite like Ali.

To his job, he brought a joy and brutal efficiency. Ali didn’t just beat opponents; he predicted which round he’d deliver the whuppin’. He spouted poetry while mugging for the camera.

Ali talked trash before the phrase was even invented. “This might shock and amaze ya, but I’m going to destroy Joe Frazier,” he said. Much of it was good-natured, although his battles with Frazier later became ugly and personal.

Ali wasn’t simply a loudmouth, since his beauty and grace within the ring delivered on the promises. He was like Michael Jordan became in another era, an athlete whose excellence could be appreciated by close and casual followers of his sport. But even Jordan, at the height of his fame, couldn’t reach the profile that Ali did.

Outside the ring, the court fight over Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War cost him three years at the peak of his career, but earned him respect among the growing number of people turning against the war. His conversion to Islam, with his abandonment of the birth name Cassius Clay, tested the deepness of Americans’ support for religious freedom, five decades before a presidential candidate talked openly about banning Muslims from coming to the United States.

It all made Ali the subject of countless arguments in playgrounds, bars, living rooms and offices. Everyone took sides when Ali returned from his suspension for refusing to join the military to fight Frazier. Whether or not you rooted for Ali often had little to do with boxing.

And think of it: When’s the last time you argued with anyone about a heavyweight championship boxing match?

In a civil rights era when many Americans still denied the very humanity of black men, Ali became one of the most recognizable people on Earth.

“One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that black people were able to overcome their fear,” HBO host Bryant Gumbel told Ali biographer Thomas Hauser. “And I honestly believe that, for many black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.”

Ali’s transcendent force — his comic bravado, physical beauty and insistence on being the master of his own story — made him the athlete most favored by singers, intellectuals, filmmakers and other artists and entertainers. He socialized with Sam Cooke, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. Ali’s verbal sparring with sportscaster Howard Cosell helped make the latter’s career. When Ali traveled to Zaire in 1974 for his “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman, he was joined by James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba and other top musicians.

His legacy is captured in songs and prose that span decades. Author David Maraniss, who wrote about Ali in “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World,” called him a “gift to writers because he offered so many themes. Bravery. Pride. Humor. Blackness. Universality.

“He was complex and contradictory yet simple and clear in what he said and what he represented,” Maraniss told the AP.

Ali’s fight against Foreman, and the odd conditions under which it was fought, became the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, “When We Were Kings.” In 2001, actor Will Smith starred in a Hollywood story of the boxer’s life, “Ali.”

Ali inspired songs from around the world. John Lennon borrowed Ali’s “I’m the Greatest” catchphrase for a song that he gave to Ringo Starr. The 1977 biopic “The Greatest” was soon forgotten, but not the theme song later immortalized by Whitney Houston, “The Greatest Love of All.” Rappers Jay Z, Kanye West, Nas, Common and Will Smith referenced Ali in their lyrics.

In 1988, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka of Nigerian captured an ailing, but still vital man in “Muhammad Ali at the Ringside, 1985.”

He wrote: “Promoters, handlers, it’s time to throw in the towel. Parkinson’s, polysyllables have failed to tease a rhyme from the once nimble Louisville lips. The camera flees, distressed. But not before the fire of battle flashes in those eyes, rekindled by the moment’s urge to center stage.”

Parkinson’s disease quieted the man himself in his later years. The reception given to a halting Ali as he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996 made it clear he had made the transition from a polarizing to beloved figure.

There may be no more proof of his legacy than in those who remember him. President Obama keeps a pair of boxing gloves worn by Ali in his private study.

“He wasn’t perfect, of course. For all his magic in the ring, he could be careless with his words, and full of contradictions as his faith evolved,” Obama said. “But his wonderful, infectious, even innocent spirit ultimately won him more fans than foes — maybe because in him, we hoped to see something of ourselves.”

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  • I vividly recall his fight to avoid the draft. Congress, in their prudence, when passing the draft legislature made two exception to the draft–religious ministers and themselves, of course. Ali became a minister–perfectly legal–just like Biden and Cheney got exemptions which were later included in the bill–perfectly legal. But consider Rev Jesse, Rev Al, Rev Martin–the Rev gives them status–like a doctor, general, senator–we know where the later come from but where did THEY get it????

    • ?? He was not a draft-dodger, he was a conscientious objector. Moreover, for the five years he spent in federal prison, at the very height of his career, the US Supreme Court, deemed both his incarceration and prosecution, in 1971, as illegal. He was a man of profound conviction and our highest court in the land vindicated his actions– facts, not pithy revisionist platitudes….

      • Boolakanaka get your facts straight. He never spent five seconds in prison let alone five years. He was never classified as a conscientious objector, he was classified 1A. He refused to be drafted which makes him a draft evader. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in federal prison and fined $10,000. He appealed, and during the appeal process, he was out on bail for four years until the Supreme Court overturned his verdict. Was never behind bars at all. Think about this….he refused to serve and somebody else had to take his slot. Maybe that person was killed because Cassius Clay didn’t want to go to Vietnam.

        • Ali WAS a conscientious objector. His CO appeal to his local draft board was denied, and the board’s reason for the denial was never stated. It is impossible to believe that a local draft board in Kentucky in 1966 would grant CO status to a black boxer who loudly confronted racism and injustice. The board’s decision was overturned by the Supreme Court.

      • I repeat boolakanakd, he never spent a day in prison. You say he spent five years. You are very wrong. You seem to be an expert in cut and paste, so cite your source he spent five years behind bars. I’ll be watching.

      • Boola is correct. But I would not go overboard in making a saint out of Ali. He was a brilliant marketer boxer and self-promoter. He was in no way the conscience of a nation as many were calling him. He had many virtues. But a saint? Not even close.

    • I’m certain that there must be a point to your post, I just don’t see it… (When I was a freshman at Berkeley, my first writing teacher (pre-law) had been on Ali’s defense team. We were invited to his home and several people asked him about the trial. He shook his head and said that the government offered Ali many ways out but he was determined to follow the principles he felt were correct. Wouldn’t it have been felicitous if all folks had followed their consciences during that horrible period of our history?

  • All I know is, Ali lived his life how he wanted to, and didn’t let anybody get in his way when doing it. Although he had his critics, pretty much everyone who knew him or was touched by his greatness came away with nothing but love for him. He changed this world in more ways than you can imagine, and that in itself puts him up there with the all time greatest if not the greatest of all time in the history of this planet.

    • A loud, boisterous, egotistical, self promoting boxer as the greatest? In his dream perhaps….In death the world mourn the passing of a better than average boxer and as time goes by his images and lifestyle will morphed into a greater degree enhancement of the man – when in reality he was just a better than average boxer and debatable human being!

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