Yesterday it was announced that, at the age of 74, Muhammad Ali died. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the name and I’m beyond certain that you’re aware of how many famous people have died over the last six months. Lemmy from Motorhead, Alan Rickman, Ronnie Corbett, Prince and David Bowie, along with a whole host of others, that can be found in this list, have all had 2016 struck into their headstones. However, while I have enjoyed a number of these people’s work, I was never particularly invested in them or their work. Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, has made me more forlorn than all the others combined.
Born in 1942 in Kentucky as Cassius Clay, it didn’t take long for Ali to find his passion. At the age of 12, after a thief stole his bicycle, police officer and boxing trainer Joe Martin guided him towards boxing when Ali announced his desire to “whup” the thief. He won a number of state and national awards, culminating in his participation and victory in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games in the Light Heavyweight division.
His now legendary professional career as a Heavyweight boxer, totalling 61 fights with 56 victories, will always be worth examining for any boxer, but the reason I admire him so much is the thing that stopped him pursuing this.
With the USA’s involvement in the Vietnam War skyrocketing after the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, conscription was introduced in order to fuel the US war machine. Ali, at this point, was already being monitored by the CIA. He had heavily involved himself in the Nation of Islam (NOI) over the past few years and, when he became Heavyweight Champion of the World he took the name he is famous for, Muhammad Ali, as a gift from Elijah Muhammad. Furthermore, he had previously been close friends with Malcolm X through the NOI, someone who was known, at the time, for his militant approach to the advancement of civil rights for African Americans.
All of three of these people were on CIA watch lists as they were seen as a threat to the American government. They were very strict when it came to their religion and, as public figures for the NOI, they were seen as being very powerful. Malcolm X’s high profile assassination at the hands of the NOI plunged that section of the black civil rights movement into anarchy and, only a year later, Muhammad Ali finds himself being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War as a way for the US government to remove him from the limelight.
“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 are treated like dogs and denied simply human rights?” – Ali, 17th February 1966
His refusal of the call ruined the next five years of Ali’s life and career. Banned from boxing and in the midst of a court battle to stop him going to jail for draft dodging, he had the prime of his life taken away along with everything he’d earned up until that point, including his Olympic gold medal. He was brave enough to stand up to the government and declare, as a huge public figure, that he did not agree with the USA’s involvement in Vietnam and that he believed that sending American people from their homes to a foreign country for a year, where they are expected to kill people and endure all the horrors of war, was more than just wrong.
It is rare, I feel, to have someone become so famous for a sport and have them so talented in so many other things. Not just that, Ali had the conviction and belief in himself to defy a government, even though he knew that it would cost him everything, and there might not be a happy ending for him once it had blown over. I hope that, in a similar situation, I would be able to do that. I hope that everybody, regardless of your beliefs, would have enough belief in themselves to stand up for them. That’s what Ali would have wanted.