The complicated legacy of Muhammad Ali

by Paul West

With the passing of Muhammad Ali, America has lost one of the greatest, most polarizing, and eventually most beloved, icons of the Baby Boomer era. Ali is associated with anti-imperialism, empowerment, confidence, and inspiration; but like the double-edged sword that boxing is in so many ways, Muhammad Ali’s legacy has a duality that people often forget to address.

Muhammad Ali was one of modern America's most complex heroes.
Muhammad Ali was one of modern America’s most complex heroes.

Ali helped set the tone for increased protests against a racist and unjust war in Vietnam, and he inspired a lot of people to further resist American oppression at home and abroad. Ali distinguished himself by publicly issuing statements such as “no Viet Cong ever called me a ni–er” and his observations about the motives behind America’s war in Southeast Asia. He distinguished himself from other prominent African American athletes, entertainers, and even politicians, by stridently opposing the manifestations of American bigotry and imperialism. He stands in stark contrast to unabashed corporate shills like Michael Jordan, whose “Republicans buy sneakers, too” quip was not an aberration but rather representative of how he leveraged his fame. The following quote is a good representation of why Ali is viewed as an inspiration to so many:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.

But Muhammad Ali is also the man who mockingly referred to his darker-skinned opponent, the beleaguered and misrepresented Joe Frazier, as a “gorilla” in full view of the American mainstream press–just as America was in the midst of historic upheavals regarding the matter of civil rights. In the course of his prolonged attempts to humiliate Frazier, Ali personally helped reinvent poor sportsmanship–while fulfilling numerous negative stereotypes about African American athletes as self-caricaturing loudmouths. Frazier despised and resented the man who mocked him, personally insulted him without cause, and simplemindedly urged America to lump him in with the forces of oppression. Ali made his name by publicly humiliating and badmouthing and mislabeling a darker-skinned man whom he called ‘ugly’ and ‘gorilla’ while addressing the very same American press he danced, shimmied and preened for–all while lamenting the shadow of slavery and oppression, and casting aside his “slave name.” Moreover, in the process of rejecting the nomenclature of America’s slave-trading past, Ali adopted a religion which spread across Africa in the middle ages much the same way that christianity spread–which is to say, by the sword. He belonged to an organization which, there’s much reason to believe, had a hand in the murder of Malcolm X. And his “rope a dope” strategy, which had arguable strategic merit but not to the extent to which he used it, was likely a big contributing factor to his cognitive issues later in life.

Ali resisted oppression, though he often reflected racist stereotypes himself.
Ali resisted oppression, though he often reflected racist stereotypes himself.

Returning to a more positive note, Muhammad Ali often spoke of the courage it took to be a champion, and his words inspired many future athletes to overcome their own tribulations. “Suffer now,” he once said, “and live the rest of your life as a champion.” He also said, “the man who has no imagination has no wings,” among countless other gems of wisdom to which his fans so often refer. Ali was eloquent, articulate and poetic, and in many ways his combination of creative wordplay with thoughtful articulation was a precursor to hiphop emceeing. “If you even dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologize” sounds like it could have been penned by Rakim around  1985; and there’s the iconic “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; the hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” The word ‘poet’ is often thrown around patronizingly and far too loosely, but it applies to Muhammad Ali as fittingly as any athlete of his era.

It could be argued that boxing was exactly the sort of sport from which Muhammad Ali would have emerged. The ability to succeed in a boxing ring requires tapping into parts of the human personality which are both destructive and self destructive; yet it also affords its viewers the ability to test one’s resolve in ways other sports can only approach. For this reason, boxing has long been a sport primarily populated by the underclass and/or ethnic minorities, and its champions have often fought their way–literally and figuratively–through circumstances in which countless of their peers have met their demise. Yet at its most precise, “the sweet science” can also showcase the heights of human resilience and grace under pressure. It can also showcase the combination of speed, precision, power, and creativity that Ali so often embodied in his prime. Muhammad Ali’s double-edged presence, and legacy, have shown America what is both beautiful and ugly in its visage. Which is precisely why his impact was so great.




4 thoughts on “The complicated legacy of Muhammad Ali

  1. This was fair, very fair. I believe the media quickly framed his heroics after he passed. There’s two sides to every story & yours showed the verision that revered him but also humanized him as well. I appreciated the perspective here, it was truthful and eloquently stated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks PDub, that was a thought-provoking tribute to the legacy of Ali. He lived and breathed in the space between his mind and his opponents’, so that when he stepped into the ring the mental labor of defeating someone was already done. Could he have gotten into Foreman’s or Frazier’s heads in other ways? Probably. But he also realized that to get the press to pay undivided attention, controversy had to be full-blown. He had them thinking he might say anything at any time, and the cameras were rolling; he used them to create a self-portrait that reflected his time and all the violence and history leading directly through it.

    Liked by 1 person

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