Muhammad Ali’s fights outside the ring

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tags: Muhammad Ali



Peniel E. Joseph is professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of “Stokely: A Life.”

Muhammad Ali’s death marks the passing of one the greatest sports icons and cultural figures of the 20th century. Yet Ali’s most enduring legacy remains his bold political resistance against the Vietnam War, a controversial stance that thrust him into the center of the maelstrom of the era’s racial, political, and cultural storm. As Cassius Clay, the “Louisville Lip,” struck the world as a bracingly insouciant figure, a loquacious 22 year-old boxer who defied odds-makers and skeptics by defeating Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world and the self-proclaimed “greatest.” 

Behind public displays of bravado Clay formed a deep friendship with the black radical leader Malcolm X, secretly joined the Nation of Islam, and adopted the name of Muhammad Ali — a gift bestowed by the “Messenger” Elijah Muhammad as the finishing touch in a power struggle between the apostate Malcolm. To his later regret, Ali’s distanced himself from Malcolm after his former mentor’s increasingly messy departure from the group.

In short order however, Muhammad Ali found himself in many ways adopting the political radicalism of the times. Black Power-era radicalism framed the Vietnam War as an exemplar of American imperialism while the heavy number of black draftees illustrated the depth and breadth of institutional racism. Ali became fast friends with the radical movement’s spokesman, Stokely Carmichael, and they bonded over their shared reputations as mavericks. 

In 1967, at a time when most people favored the war, Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the military shocked and angered white America. Scorned as unpatriotic for his political beliefs and demonized for his religion, he would soon be stripped of his heavyweight title and disallowed from practicing his trade and making a living. 

Over the next seven years Muhammad Ali embarked on a political odyssey that transformed him into a revolutionary cultural figure whose open defiance of US foreign policy made him a traitor to some and a hero to others. A star speaker on the college lecture circuit, Ali braided a discussion on black history, resistance against white supremacy, and a critique of war and racial violence into an exhilarating seminar that made him an enduring symbol of late 1960s era radicalism. ...




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