The importance of Muhammad Ali

Shortly after turning pro, Cassius Clay began training in Miami Beach at the 5th Street Gym under the tutelage of trainer Angelo Dundee, a future Hall of Famer. Harry Benson/Getty Images

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., as Muhammad Ali was once known, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on Jan. 17, 1942. Louisville was a city with segregated public facilities, noted for the Kentucky Derby, mint juleps and other reminders of Southern aristocracy.

Blacks were the servant class in Louisville. They raked manure in the backstretch at Churchill Downs and cleaned other people's homes. Growing up in Louisville, the best on the socio-economic ladder most black people realistically could hope for was to become a clergyman or a teacher at an all-black public school. In a society where it was often believed that might makes right, "white" was synonymous with both.

Ali's father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., supported a wife and two sons by painting billboards and signs. Ali's mother, Odessa Grady Clay, worked on occasion as a household domestic.

"I remember one time when Cassius was small," Odessa Clay later recalled, "we were downtown at a 5-and-10-cents store. He wanted a drink of water, and they wouldn't give him one because of his color. And that really affected him. He didn't like that at all, being a child and thirsty. He started crying, and I said, 'Come on; I'll take you someplace and get you some water.' But it really hurt him."

When Cassius Clay was 12 years old, his bike was stolen. That led him to take up boxing under the tutelage of a Louisville policeman named Joe Martin. Clay advanced through the amateur ranks, won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome and turned pro under the guidance of The Louisville Sponsoring Group, a syndicate comprising 11 wealthy white men.

"Cassius was something in those days," his longtime physician, Ferdie Pacheco, later said.

"He began training in Miami with Angelo Dundee, and Angelo put him in a den of iniquity called the Mary Elizabeth Hotel because Angelo is one of the most innocent men in the world and it was a cheap hotel. This place was full of pimps, thieves and drug dealers. And here's Cassius, who comes from a good home, and all of a sudden he's involved with this circus of street people.

"At first, the hustlers thought he was just another guy to take to the cleaners: another guy to steal from, another guy to sell dope to, another guy to fix up with a girl. He had this incredible innocence about him, and usually that kind of person gets eaten alive in the ghetto. But then the hustlers all fell in love with him, like everybody does, and they started to feel protective of him.

"If someone tried to sell him a girl, the others would say, 'Leave him alone, he's not into that.' If a guy came around, saying, 'Have a drink,' it was, 'Shut up, he's in training.' But that's the story of Ali's life. He's always been like a little kid, climbing out onto tree limbs, sawing them off behind him and coming out OK."

In the early stages of his professional career, Cassius Clay was more highly regarded for his charm and personality than for his ring skills.

He told the world that he was "The Greatest," but the brutal realities of boxing seemed to dictate otherwise. Then, on Feb. 25, 1964, in one of the most stunning upsets in sports history, Clay knocked out Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. Two days later, he shocked the world again by announcing that he had accepted the teachings of a black separatist religion known as the Nation of Islam. And on March 6, 1964, he took the name "Muhammad Ali," which was given to him by his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad.

For the next three years, Ali dominated boxing as thoroughly and magnificently as any fighter ever. But outside the ring, his persona was being sculpted in ways that were even more important.

"My first impression of Cassius Clay," author Alex Haley later recalled, "was of someone with an incredibly versatile personality. You never knew quite where he was in psychic posture. He was almost like that shell game, with a pea and three shells. You know: Which shell is the pea under? But he had a belief in himself and convictions far stronger than anybody dreamed he would."

As the 1960s grew more tumultuous, Ali became a lightning rod for dissent in America. His message of black pride and black resistance to white domination was on the cutting edge of the era. Not everything he preached was wise, and Ali himself now rejects some of the beliefs he adhered to then.

Indeed, one might find an allegory for his life in a remark he once made to fellow Olympian Ralph Boston.

"I played golf," Ali said. "And I hit the thing long, but I never knew where it was going."

Sometimes, though, Ali knew precisely where he was going.

On April 28, 1967, citing his religious beliefs, he refused induction into the Army at the height of the war in Vietnam. Ali's refusal followed a blunt statement, voiced 14 months earlier: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."

And the American establishment, which fiercely upheld a "war is duty" ethos, responded with a vengeance. On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of refusing induction into the United States armed forces and sentenced to five years in prison.

Four years later, his conviction was unanimously overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. But in the interim, Ali was stripped of his title and precluded from fighting for 3½ years.

Belinda Ali, the fighter's wife at that time, said her husband was resigned to the fact during his "exile" that his boxing days were over.

"He did not believe he would ever fight again," she said. "He wanted to, but he truly believed that he would never fight again."

Meanwhile, Ali's impact was growing -- among black Americans, among those who opposed the war in Vietnam, among all people with grievances against The System.

Said Julian Bond, activist and civil rights leader before he died: "It's hard to imagine that a sports figure could have so much political influence on so many people."

Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger recalled the scene in October 1970 when at long last Ali was allowed to return to the ring:

"About two days before the fight against Jerry Quarry, it became clear to me that something had changed," Izenberg said.

"Long lines of people were checking into the hotel. They were dressed differently than the people who used to go to fights. I saw men wearing capes and hats with plumes, and women wearing next to nothing at all. Limousines were lined up at the curb.

"Money was being flashed everywhere. And I was confused until a friend of mine who was black said to me, 'You don't get it. Don't you understand? This is the heavyweight champion who beat The Man. The Man said he would never fight again, and here he is, fighting in Atlanta, Georgia.'"

Four months later, Ali's comeback was temporarily derailed when he lost to Joe Frazier. It was a fight of truly historic proportions. Nobody in America was neutral that night.

"It does me good to lose about once every 10 years," Ali jested after the bout. But physically and psychologically, his pain was enormous. Subsequently, Ali avenged his loss to Frazier twice in historic bouts. And ultimately, he won the heavyweight championship of the world an unprecedented three times.

Meanwhile, Ali's religious views were evolving. In the mid-1970's, he began studying the Quran more seriously, focusing on orthodox Islam. His earlier adherence to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad -- that white people are "devils" and there is no heaven or hell -- was replaced by a spiritual embrace of all people and preparation for his own afterlife.

In 1984, Ali spoke out publicly against the separatist doctrine of Louis Farrakhan, declaring, "What he teaches is not at all what we believe in. He represents the time of our struggle in the dark and a time of confusion in us, and we don't want to be associated with that at all."

But is Muhammad Ali relevant today? In an age when self-dealing and greed have become public policy, does a former fighter who spent his final years with Parkinson's syndrome really matter? At a time when an intrusive worldwide electronic media dominates, and celebrity status and fame are mistaken for heroism, is true heroism possible?

In response to these questions, it should first be noted that, unlike many famous people, Ali was not a creation of the media.

He used the media in extraordinary fashion. And certainly, he came along at the right time. In 1960, when Cassius Clay won an Olympic gold medal, TV was crawling out of its infancy. The television networks had just learned how to focus cameras on people, build them up, and follow stories through to the end. And Ali loved that. As Izenberg later observed, "Once Ali found out about television, it was, 'Where? Bring the cameras! I'm ready now.'"

Still, Ali's fame was pure.

Athletes today are known as much for their endorsement contracts and salaries as for their competitive performances. Fame now often stems from sports marketing rather than the other way around. Bo Jackson was briefly one of the most famous men in America because of his Nike shoe commercials. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and virtually all of their brethren derive a substantial portion of their visibility from commercial endeavors.

Yet, as great as Jordan and Woods are as athletes, they don't have the ability to move people's hearts and minds the way Ali moved them for decades. And what Muhammad Ali meant to the world can be viewed from an ever-deepening perspective today.

Ali entered the public arena as an athlete. And to many, that's significant.

"Sports is a major factor in ideological control," said sociologist Noam Chomsky.

"After all, people have minds; they've got to be involved in something; and it's important to make sure they're involved in things that have absolutely no significance. So professional sports is perfect. It instills the right ideas of passivity. It's a way of keeping people diverted from issues like who runs society and who makes the decisions on how their lives are to be led."

But Ali broke the mold.

When he appeared on the scene, it was popular among those in the vanguard of the civil rights movement to take the "safe" path. That path wasn't safe for those who participated in the struggle. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo and other courageous men and women were subjected to economic assaults, violence and death when they carried the struggle "too far."

But the road they traveled was designed to be as nonthreatening as possible for white America. White Americans were told, "All that black people want is what you want for yourselves. We're appealing to your conscience."

Then along came Ali, preaching not "white American values" but freedom and equality of a kind rarely seen anywhere in the world.

And as if that wasn't threatening enough, Ali attacked the status quo from outside of politics and outside of the accepted strategies of the civil rights movement.

"I remember when Ali joined the Nation of Islam," Bond said. "The act of joining was not something many of us particularly liked. But the notion he'd do it -- that he'd jump out there, join this group that was so despised by mainstream America and be proud of it -- sent a little thrill through you."

"The nature of the controversy," said NFL great Jim Brown, also the founder of the Black Economic Union, "was that white folks could not stand free black folks. White America could not stand to think that a sports hero that it was allowing to make big dollars would embrace something like the Nation of Islam. But this young man had the courage to stand up like no one else and risk not only his life but everything else that he had."

Ali himself downplayed his role.

"I'm not no leader," he said in 1964. "I'm a little, humble follower."

But to many, he was the ultimate symbol of black pride and black resistance to an unjust social order.

Sometimes Ali spoke with humor.

"I'm not just saying black is best because I'm black," he told a college audience during his exile from boxing. "I can prove it. If you want some rich dirt, you look for the black dirt. If you want the best bread, you want the whole wheat rye bread. Costs more money, but it's better for your digestive system.

"You want the best sugar for cooking; it's the brown sugar. The blacker the berry, the sweeter the fruit. If I want a strong cup of coffee, I'll take it black. The coffee gets weak if I integrate it with white cream."

Other times, Ali's remarks were less humorous and more barbed. But for millions of people, the experience of being black changed because of Muhammad Ali. Listen to the voices of some who heard his call:

Bryant Gumbel: "One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that black people were able to overcome their fear. And I honestly believe that, for many black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage."

Alex Haley: "We are not white, you know. And it's not an anti-white thing to be proud to be us and to want someone to champion. And Muhammad Ali was the absolute, ultimate champion."

Arthur Ashe: "Ali didn't just change the image that African-Americans have of themselves. He opened the eyes of a lot of white people to the potential of African-Americans, who we are and what we can be."

Abraham Lincoln once said that he regarded the Emancipation Proclamation as the central act of his administration.

"It is a momentous thing," Lincoln wrote, "to be the instrument under Providence of the liberation of a race."

Muhammad Ali was such an instrument.

As commentator Gil Noble later explained, "Everybody was plugged into this man, because he was taking on America. There had never been anybody in his position who directly addressed himself to racism. Racism was virulent, but you didn't talk about those things.

"If you wanted to make it in this country, you had to be quiet, carry yourself in a certain way and not say anything about what was going on, even though there was a knife sticking in your chest. Well, Ali changed all of that. He just laid it out and talked about racism and slavery and all of that stuff. He put it on the table. And everybody who was black, whether they said it overtly or covertly, said 'Amen.'"

But Ali's appeal would come to extend far beyond black America.

When he refused induction into the U.S. Army, he stood up to armies everywhere in support of the proposition that "Unless you have a very good reason to kill, war is wrong."

"I don't think Ali was aware of the impact that his not going in the Army would have on other people," longtime friend Howard Bingham said.

"Ali was just doing what he thought was right for him. He had no idea at the time that this was going to affect how people all over the United States would react to the war and the draft."

Many Americans vehemently condemned Ali's stand.

It came at a time when most people in the United States still supported the war. But, as Bond later observed, "When Ali refused to take the symbolic step forward, everybody knew about it moments later. You could hear people talking about it on street corners. It was on everyone's lips."

"The government didn't need Ali to fight the war," said Ramsey Clark, then the attorney general of the United States. "But they would have loved to put him in the service, get his picture in there, maybe give him a couple of stripes on his sleeve and take him all over the world. Think of the power that would have had in Africa, Asia and South America. Here's this proud American serviceman, fighting symbolically for his country. They would have loved to do that."

But instead, what the government got was a reaffirmation of Ali's earlier statement: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."

"And that rang serious alarm bells," noted Chomsky, "because it raised the question of why poor people in the United States were being forced by rich people in the United States to kill poor people in Vietnam. Putting it simply, that's what it amounted to. And Ali put it very simply in ways that people could understand."

Ali's refusal to accept induction placed him, once and for all, at the vortex of the 1960s.

"You had riots in the streets, you had assassinations, you had the war in Vietnam," journalist Dave Kindred recalled. "It was a violent, turbulent, almost indecipherable time in America, and Ali was in all of those fires at once, in addition to being heavyweight champion of the world."

That championship was soon taken from Ali, but he never wavered from his cause.

Speaking to a college audience, he said, "I would like to say to those of you who think I've lost so much, I have gained everything. I have peace of heart. I have a clear, free conscience. And I'm proud. I wake up happy. I go to bed happy. And if I go to jail, I'll go to jail happy. Boys go to war and die for what they believe, so I don't see why the world is so shook up over me suffering for what I believe. What's so unusual about that?"

"It really impressed me that Ali gave up his title," said former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, who understood Ali's sacrifice as well as anyone. "Once you have it, you never want to lose it; because once you lose it, it's hard to get it back."

But by the late 1960s, Ali was more than heavyweight champion. That status had become almost an aside. He was a living embodiment of the proposition that principles matter. And the most powerful thing about him no longer was his fists; it was his conscience and the composure with which he carried himself:

Kwame Toure (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael): "Muhammad Ali used himself as a perfect instrument to advance the struggle of humanity by demonstrating clearly that principles are more important than material wealth. It's not just what Ali did; the way he did it was just as important."

Wilbert McClure (Ali's roommate and fellow gold-medal winner at the Olympics): "He always carried himself with his head high and with grace and composure. And we can't say that about all of his detractors -- some of them in political office, some of them in pulpits, some of them thought of as nice, upstanding citizens. No, we can't say that about all of them."

Charles Morgan (former director of the ACLU's Southern Regional Office): "I remember thinking at the time, what kind of a foolish world am I living in where people want to put this man in jail?"

Kindred: "He was one thing, always: He was always brave."

Ali was far from perfect, and it would do him a disservice not to acknowledge his flaws.

It's hard to imagine a person so powerful yet at times so naive. On occasion, Ali acted irrationally.

He cherished honor and was an honorable person, but he too often excused dishonorable behavior in others. His accommodation of dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seko and Ferdinand Marcos and his willingness to fight in their countries stood in stark contrast to his love of freedom.

There is nothing redeeming in one black person calling another black person a "gorilla," which was the label Ali affixed to Joe Frazier. Nor should one gloss over Ali's past belief in racial separatism and the profligate womanizing of his younger days. But the things that Ali did right in his life far outweigh his mistakes. And the rough edges of his earlier years have long since been forgiven.

What remains is a legacy of monumental proportions and a reminder of what people can be. Muhammad Ali's influence on an entire nation, black and white, and on a whole world of nations, was incalculable. He wasn't just a champion. A champion is someone who wins an athletic competition. Ali went beyond that.

It was inevitable that someone would come along and do what Jackie Robinson did.

Robinson did it in a glorious way that personified his own dignity and courage. But if Jackie Robinson hadn't been there, someone else -- Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron -- would have stepped in with his own brand of excitement and grace and opened baseball's doors.

With or without Jack Johnson, eventually a black man would have won the heavyweight championship of the world. And sooner or later, there would have been a black athlete who, like Joe Louis, was universally admired and loved.

But Ali carved out a place in history that was uniquely his own. And it's unlikely that anyone other than Muhammad Ali could have created and fulfilled that role. Ali didn't just mirror his times. He wasn't a passive figure carried along by currents stronger than he was. He fought the current; he swam against the tide. He stood for something, stayed with it and prevailed.

Muhammad Ali was an international treasure. More than anyone else of his generation, he belonged to the people of the world and was loved by them. He made us better.

He encouraged millions of people to believe in themselves, raise their aspirations and accomplish things they otherwise might not have achieved. He wasn't just a standard-bearer for black Americans. He stood up for everyone.

And that's the importance of Muhammad Ali.

Thomas Hauser is the author of the definitive Ali biography, "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times." He can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com.