The recent passing of boxing great Muhammad Ali caused me to pause and reflect on my childhood. Memories of growing up during the champ’s reign and the racially turbulent 1960s and ‘70s came back like a flood. His tremendous skills in the ring and the bravado with which he would predict his foes’ demise was mesmerizing to a young black boy.
I remember learning from JET magazine, the pocket-sized publication that showed up in the mailbox of our family home every week, of his conversion to Islam and taking on the name of Muhammad Ali. JET and its sister publication, Ebony, a monthly full-sized magazine, were the must-have subscriptions of every black household wanting to keep tabs on the happenings of the black community. These publications were a lifeline in an era in America where blacks would call each other on the phone with excitement whenever we saw a black person on TV, since it was that rare. JET and Ebony’s award-winning coverage of the Civil Rights Movement was our window into the lives of the iconic figures of the movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, and a young, brash Muhammad Ali.
I didn’t understand why Ali took on (what I as a teen considered) a funny name. Cassius Clay seemed perfectly fine to me. I remember seeing Muslim men of the Nation of Islam passionately selling their newspapers and bean pies on the street corners of the inner city. Back then they were called “black Muslims.” They were always nattily dressed in their suits and bow ties. I knew of Malcolm X, but that was about the extent of my knowledge of Muslims and Islam. Ultimately, I really didn’t care, though. Muhammad Ali was my hero and the hero of every young black boy in America. If we got into boxing matches, every one of us wanted to “be” Muhammad Ali, and we’d argue so much over who would assume that mantle that often our sparring matches would be Muhammad Ali vs. Muhammad Ali.
I remember Ali’s conscientious stance against going to Vietnam amidst the unpopular war of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. I did not fully understand the war, nor the opposition, including Ali’s. Some called him a draft dodger; some applauded his stance. As a teen, I was just happy they stopped mandatory registration for the draft one year before I was of age. I had many uncles who went to Vietnam and were forever changed by their experience there. One uncle we lost to cancer from being exposed to Agent Orange, and another we lost to alcoholism years later, as he suffered from PTSD.
I remember watching Muhammad Ali on TV — the way he took command of the boxing ring; his speed and finesse and power all rolled into one. He frustrated his opponents and talked about them, all the while putting a good old-fashioned whoopin’ on them. He was a master of the “head game” and a master marketer whose pre- and post-fight antics completely changed the fight game. I remember his spirited and often hilarious interviews with sports analyst Howard Cosell and his priceless response to a reporter who asked if he thought he was a braggart: “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.”
My father took me to an Ali fight in the early 1970s that was on closed circuit TV at the Fabulous Forum in southern California. My mom dropped us off, and by the time we sat down in the arena to watch the fight on the big screen, it was over, with Ali again the victor. I remember my dad asking me if we should call Mom to pick us up or if we should walk home. My eyes grew wide as I responded, “Dad, walk all the way home?!” To me it seemed like 100 miles, but it was actually only a mile or two. He challenged me and said, “Think you can do it, son? I know you can. Come on; let’s go.” So he and I walked home that night, with me trying to match his every stride and keep up.
Going to that fight and walking home with my dad that night was a coming of age moment for me. In that moment, I considered myself “one of the guys.” There would be many more moments, but that one stands out. Just my dad and me doing a “man thing” — going to the fights and walking home like men.
Muhammad Ali was an icon for black men, and particularly for young black boys who were entering manhood. The confidence he exuded was inspiring during a time when racial tensions and discrimination were palpable. Seeing him stand on his convictions emboldened black men to stand on theirs.
Since his passing, I have seen much commentary on him — the man and his life — some praising him and some condemning him. During his early years, he was certainly polarizing, even among some blacks. During his later years, he became a unifier, beloved throughout the world. Some say he was anti-Semitic, since Muslims have no real love for Jews. Yet one of his close friends was Howard Cosell.
I think Muhammad Ali was paradoxical. I think he embraced Islam as a young man because he had no deep understanding of what Islam was/is. He chose a false belief system that was marketed to the black community in the 1960s and ‘70s as the answer to the “white man’s religion” of Christianity and oppression. Today, Islam is still marketed that way to those in urban America who are looking for answers to their plight and for their place in America. Though it’s a false narrative, it resonates for those who feel they have no voice and that it must be somebody else’s fault.
Islam, or more to the point the Nation of Islam, is right there to tell them their plight and circumstance in society is “the white man’s fault,” pushing their own version of liberation theology from the likes of Louis Farrakhan and company.
Ali’s views obviously broadened as he matured, though he never publicly renounced Islam. He was certainly a flawed man, yet still loved by millions throughout the world. As I watched his memorial service in Kentucky, I saw Christians, Jews, Muslims, liberals, and conservatives all celebrating his life. Some say Ali accepted Christ and returned to the true faith of his youth in his later years. I don’t know if that’s true; I just hope he knew Jesus before he left this earthly plane. Eternity is long time to spend apart from the one true God.