“A man who truly does something from his heart,” Muhammad Ali once said, “don’t look for thanks, nor do he look to see the results, he just do it.”
You may recognize the last 3 words, hijacked for a Nike slogan, but there’s more to Ali than sportsmanship. The Greatest has a singular strength of character, a love of self, and freedom of mind seldom embodied in one human being. The greatness of Muhammad Ali is manifest in nearly every one of his endeavors, from fighting and poetry to public speaking and political activism. Throughout his life, he has acted on principle, no matter what the consequences. Ali has always been clear about this. It was his primary motivation for achieving international fame. He wanted a platform to advocate on behalf of his downtrodden, marginalized human brethren, and created it by becoming The Champ.
In a 1974 interview with British chat show host Michael Parkinson, Muhammad Ali said,
“I always waned to do something to help my people and their cause. And I always wanted to be famous, where when I talk, I say something, they would listen. I would get attention. Not for greedy, selfish reasons, but to help my people.” (Muhammad Ali’s Parkinson Interview, 1974)
Despite his lack of formal education, Ali’s intellect was always formidable, and his political voice developed in tandem with his boxing career. After he won the gold medal for boxing in the 1960 Olympics, he returned to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and was refused service at a diner for being black. Though angry, he responded to the event with symbolic practicality. Ali threw his gold medal into the Ohio River.
Muhammad Ali started boxing when he was 12, and liked it so much he dropped schooling to excel at boxing. He won fight after fight, including two Golden Gloves, an Olympic Gold Medal, and the Heavyweight Championship of the World. Muhammad Ali conjectured that if he’d gone to school and become educated, he may have been a lawyer, or a political man like Martin Luther King, Jr. Regardless, he wanted to stay connected to the huge masses of poor, ground down, invisible, disenfranchised black Americans. Ali desired to represent his socio-economic origins, unaltered by the traps and convenient amoral injustices of affluence.
Nonetheless, he lived large. When criticized for his materialism, he did not fall into the trap of denying it. As base as he felt the idea was, he knew no one would regard him unless he displayed wealth.
“People don’t respect you when you look like you don’t have no money. So I gotta buy diamonds, I gotta be the Heavyweight Champion, I gotta have a Rolls Royce. Otherwise I’m broke. ‘He’s just a Joe Lewis. He let his manager take all his money. He don’t have nothin’. Now, that’s why you see these cars and stuff.” (Muhammad Ali’s Parkinson Interview, 1974)
He did not covet his fame or his riches. They were a means for his voice to be heard in an unjust and jaded world which needed a figure like him. But he took it deeper. He said materialism was actually central to his message. Ali said that good and evil reside in the material world, in our actions and the way we treat each other right here on earth, not in some hereafter. The quality of human life now is of the greatest consequence for establishing any kind of harmony with eternity.
“Heavan is not up in the sky! Heavan is on Earth. Hell is not underground! Hell is on Earth. But white men has told you ‘Heavan is in the sky, and hell is underground.’ And he takes everything in the middle. He’s got all the factories, all the hotels, the land…Heavan is a good condition on Earth.” (Muhammad Ali’s Parkinson Interview, 1974)
He was the world’s greatest fighter, a warrior-poet, with a remarkably wise and spry mind, a genius mind. He understood that people would listen to the Heavyweight Champion of the World, just because of the title. No matter what, they’d at least tune in to see what he says. With his gift for boxing, and his desire for a voice, the Heavyweight Championship was his shot at the Presidency. It was his political wedge onto an international platform, to speak for all the people on whose backs the wealthy, elite, racist, chauvinist system of control was built. And it worked. He became a globally recognized icon, more popular and influential than any president.
All the while, Ali’s principles and love of humanity remained his center of gravity. He never let the money or the fame be the reason. They were a necessary means for him to have the leverage to uplift his people. When the government classified him eligible for the Vietnam War draft, he sacrificed all of his fame, all of his wealth, and acted on principle, because that was what the situation called for. He told the news he had “no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” He topped it off with the now famous comment, “Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me ‘nigger’.”
The Vietnam draft was Ali’s political moment, and he did not enter it lightly. Boxing was his platform, his vehicle to pursue his real passion for humanitarian action. He was the first nationally recognized civilian American to speak out against the Vietnam War. In 1967, before appearing for his induction appointment, Ali met with Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps for council or to discuss strategy. Then, with television news media nearby, Muhammad Ali refused to step forward for the draft. I can’t say anything about it better than Ali himself, so I give you his great war quote, what he told the world after he refused to fight in America’s war:
“I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for me right here at home.”
Muhammad Ali’s identity became unequivocally politicized after he refused induction into the U.S. armed forces. Within one hour of his refusal, he was stripped of the title, followed by his boxing licenses in every state, then his passport, so he couldn’t fight overseas. He was arrested and convicted after refusing the draft. (Not dodging it, mind you, because he wanted to stand up for himself in his own land and he felt he could take on the legal system.) In the aftermath, he was smeared in the press and paupered by fines and legal fees. After a long expensive court battle, Ali won on appeal to the Supreme Court, by unanimous decision. A free man, as ever, he won back his World Heavyweight Champion title and reestablished his platform on the international political stage. His principles remained intact. His voice was preserved and disseminated around the world. Undeniably, Ali had become a symbol.
Muhammad Ali has remained a devout, God-fearing Muslim, using his global influence to further civic and humanitarian causes. In his autumn years, he still performs global humanitarian work. In 1998, he was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace. In 2005 he helped found the Muhammad Ali Center for world peace in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. In March of 2011, he wrote a letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei beseeching the leader to release Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, American hikers arrested near the northern border of Iraq. (As of July, 2011, he is also suing electronic bookseller Kobo for unlicensed use of his slogan, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Smart move to license it. Gotta stay in the money somehow. But that discussion is more appropriate for Infdist.)
At Ali’s 69th birthday celebration this year in Louisville, Kentucky, his wife Lonnie Ali said a few words about The Champ. She said his real passion “was to be a humanitarian. To bring hope and comfort and relief and inspiration for those who didn’t have a voice and couldn’t do it on their own.”
Muhammad Ali loves his fellow human beings. He isn’t perfect, because no one is. Nobody’s off the hook when it comes to flaws. Yet, he exhibits true excellence, his body, mind, and spirit equally splendid. He was never to be outwitted, cornered, or outpaced in any form of conflict, be it a televised dialogue, boxing match, or human rights struggle. After his boxing career was over, he put even more effort into traveling the world advocating for those who did not have a voice. Muhammad Ali will always be listed among the greatest of human beings.
There are a lot of places to find Ali quotes, so rather than aggregate them for you, I will leave you with a poem by Muhammad Ali, on friendship:
Friendship is a priceless gift
That cannot be bought nor sold,
but it’s value is far greater
than a mountain made of gold.
For gold is cold and lifeless
It can neither see nor hear
And in times of trouble
It is powerless to cheer
Gold, it has no urge to listen
No heart to understand
It can not bring you comfort
Or reach out a helping hand
So when you ask God for a gift
Be thankful if he sends
Not diamonds, pearls or riches
But the love of real, true friends!