I hated boxing. I still do. Not even Muhammad Ali could turn me on to the controlled violence, blood and all, that passed for entertainment. Yes I watched some, Muhammad Ali included. Especially Muhammad Ali! How could I have avoided the spectacle and the entertainment that he so effortlessly dispensed?
His pre-fight verbal intimidation of an opponent was almost always a rib-cracker. There was one where he warned the spectators to come on time, quipping that those who came late would miss the fight.
However, I never caught the bug of excitement that afflicted fellow residents of Northcote Hall at Makerere University, who would stay up late to catch live telecasts of men paid millions to pummel each other. I thought then, as I still do, that the bloody sports of boxing and wrestling should be abandoned by modern civilizations.
Yet without boxing, one might not have made the acquaintance of Muhammad Ali. I first heard of him when he was Cassius Clay Jr. I admired him because he was a very brilliant man, with the kind of fast thinking, wit and excellence in debate that we later came to associate with people like Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. With Muhammad Ali, there was no obfuscation, none of the political correctness that leaves many public figures tongue-tied.
Watching his televised interviews with famous journalists like William F. Buckley Jr., and David Frost revealed a widely read man who took no prisoners in debate. He floated through the debates like a butterfly and stung them like a bee as he threw intellectual punches at an America that was still overtly racist.
To our young minds that were very opposed to the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali’s defiance against the military draft in 1967 turned him into a greater hero than the man who had floored men in the boxing ring.
His words were very exciting. Nearly 50 years later, one discovers in them a freshness, relevance and inspiration that is more powerful today than it was when injustice was a vague concept to a carefree teenage lad.
There is an abundant record of his great sayings that galvanized a world beyond the borders of the United States to rise up against racial injustice. His defiant rejection of the draft captures the essence of what made him a leader in the anti-war movement.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville (Kentucky) are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Ali said. “No, I am not going ten thousand 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. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion. But I have said it once and I will say it again: The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…”
Muhammad Ali, who was suspended from boxing and stripped of his heavy weight championship, lost millions of dollars in endorsements. However, putting his conscience and the fight for justice well above his material needs and physical freedom, he chose a path that carried with it the strong likelihood of imprisonment.
“If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow,” he said. “But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”
Fortunately, he avoided incarceration upon his successful appeal of a five-year sentence in jail. Instead he became a hero and catalyst of the anti-Vietnam war movement.
Of the many words he said about the Vietnam war, to me the most memorable and applicable today were: “I can’t take part in nothing where I’d help the shooting of dark Asiatic people, who haven’t lynched me, deprived me of my freedom, justice and equality, or assassinated my leaders.”
These are words that invite reflection by people who may be asked by their superiors to beat, injure or kill fellow citizens on account of the people’s attempt to enjoy their human rights.
Imagine if Kenyan police officers, for example, who have been ordered to beat up demonstrators on a Nairobi or Kisumu street, defied the orders by saying: “I can’t take part in the beating up of Kenyan people, who haven’t attacked me, deprived me of my freedom, justice and equality, or stolen my children’s inheritance.”
There are moments when the only course of action must be passive, non-violent defiance against injustice. It is a course of action that defined Muhammad Ali and raised him to the icon that he deservedly was. To me his words of resistance and a willingness to lose comfort rather than betray the truth and justice capture the essence of his legacy.