The Nation of Islam was led by Elijah Muhammad and had among its most famous followers Malcolm X, who kept company with Ali and who was to be assassinated in February 1965. Among the Nation’s principles were (and are) that whites were “blue-eyed devils” who were intent on keeping black people in a state of subjugation and that integration was not only impossible, but undesirable. Blacks and whites should live separately; preferably by living in different states. The view was in stark distinction to North America’s melting pot ideal.
Ali’s camp comprised only one white man — Angelo Dundee, the trainer. Cassius Clay Sr was violently opposed to Ali’s affiliation, not on religious grounds, but because he believed the entourage of Black Muslims he attracted were taking his money. But Ali’s commitment deepened and the media, which had earlier warmed to his extravagance, turned against him. A rift occurred between Ali and Joe Louis, the former heavyweight champion who was once described as “a credit to his race.” This presaged several other conflicts with other black boxers whom Ali believed had allowed themselves to become assimilated into white America and had failed to face themselves as true black people.
Ali saved his most ardent criticism for Floyd Patterson whom he called an “Uncle Tom” and “the rabbit,” after Patterson had refused to use his Islamic name. He seemed to delight in punishing Patterson in their fight in 1965. The almost malicious performance brought censure from sections of America, both black and white.
The events that followed Ali’s call-up by the military in February 1966 were dramatized by a background of growing resistance to the US involvement in the Vietnam war. Ali failed to meet the qualifying criteria in the mental aptitude at first, but, by 1966, with the war intensifying, the US Army lowered the required percentile, making him eligible for the draft. A legal request for a deferment from military service was denied. Ali’s oft-quoted remark “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” made headlines around the world and positioned him in the eyes of many as the most famous-ever draft dodger. But, he insisted that his conscience not cowardice guided his decision not to serve in the military and, so, to many others, he became a mighty signifier of pacifism.
Ali continued to defend his title, often traveling overseas in response to attempted boycotts of his fights. At the nadir of is popularity, he fought Ernie Terrell, who, like Patterson, persisted in calling him “Clay.” The fight in Houston had a grim subtext with Ali constantly taunting Terrell. “What’s my name, Uncle Tom?” Ali asked Terrell as he administered a callous beating. Ali prolonged the torment until the fourteenth round. The phrase “What’s my name?” became a slogan of defiance. Media reaction to the fight was wholly negative. Jimmy Cannon, a boxing writer of the day, wrote: “It was a bad fight, nasty with the evil of religious fanaticism. This wasn’t an athletic contest. It was a kind of lynching … [Ali] is a vicious propagandist for a spiteful mob that works the religious underworld.”
In April 1967, Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces. Despite claims that he deserved the same status as conscientious objectors from the Mennonite Church or other Christian groups, Ali was denied and found guilty of draft evasion. After a five-year legal struggle, during which time Ali was stripped of his title, a compromise was reached and Ali was set free. During his exile, Ali had angered the Nation of Islam by announcing his wish to return to boxing if this was ever possible. Elijah Muhammad, the supreme minister, denounced Ali for playing “the white man’s games of civilization.” Elijah had objected to sports for some time, believing them to be detrimental to the progress of black people.
Other critical evaluations of sport were gathering force. The black power inspired protests of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics, combined with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, where people like Sam Ramsamy were rallying against racism, had made clear that sport could be used to amplify the experiences of black people the world over. While Ali was a bête noir for many whites and indeed blacks, several civil rights leaders, sports performers and entertainers came out publicly in his defense.
“Still others in American society viewed Ali as a genuine hero,” writes David Wiggins in his Glory Bound: Black athletes in a white America (Syracuse University Press, 1997). “Many people in the black community viewed Ali in this manner, considering him a champion of the black Civil Rights movement who bravely defied the norms and conventions of the dominant culture.” As Michael Oriard, in his essay “Muhammad Ali: Hero in the age of mass media” concludes: “There was not a single Ali but many Alis in the public consciousness”
Ali’s moves were monitored by government intelligence organizations: given the growing respect he was afforded, he was seen as an influential figure. Many of his conversations were wiretapped. He spent three-and-a-half years without his title, unable to earn a living. By the end of it, cultural conditions had shifted so much that he was widely regarded as a martyr by the by-then formidable antiwar movement and practically anyone who felt affinity with civil rights.
Ali’s first fight after exile was in October 1970. He beat Jerry Quarry at an Atlanta where the majority of fans were African Americans. Any prospect of a smooth transition back to the title was dashed March 1971 by Joe Frazier, who had taken the title in Ali’s absence and defended it with unexpected tenacity in a contest that started one of the most celebrated rivalries in sport. Ali had called Frazier a “white man’s champion” and declared: “Any black man who’s for Joe Frazier is a traitor.” Ali beat Frazier twice over the following years, every fight being viciously fought and punishing for both men.
Ali had to wait until 1974 before getting another chance at the world title. By this time, Frazier had been dethroned by George Foreman and Ali, at 32, was not favored; in fact, many feared for his well-being, especially as he had been given two tough fights by the unheralded Ken Norton (one win each; Ali won a third later, in 1976). The fight in Zaire was promoted by Don King, at that stage building his way toward becoming one of the world’s most powerful sports entrepreneurs. The circumstances surrounding what was known as “The Rumble in the Jungle” are the subject of Leon Gast’s documentary film When We Were Kings. Ali’s remarkable Phoenix-like victory re-established him as the world heavyweight champion. The death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975 led to a split in the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan taking the movement in a fundamentalist direction, while Elijah’s son Wallace D. Muhammad founded the World Community of Al-Islam in the West which dwelt less on past atrocities of blue-eyed devils, more on the future. Ali sided with Wallace.
In June 1979, having lost and regained the title against Leon Spinks and beaten Frazier once more, Ali announced his retirement from boxing. There were clear signs of decline in both Spinks fights and, at 37, Ali appeared to have made a graceful exit when he moved to Los Angeles with his third wife Veronica whom he had married two years before. His first marriage lasted less than a year ending in 1966; Ali married again in 1967.
Ali had split with the business syndicate that handled his early affairs after joining the Nation. His manager became Herbert Muhammad. Hauser estimates Ali’s career earnings to 1979 to be “tens of millions of dollars.” The three Frazier fights alone brought Ali $11m; the 1976 Norton fight grossed him $6m; his purse for the Foreman fight was $5.45m; he earned $6.75m for the two Spinks fights. His lesser-paid fights were typically worth $2m each to Ali. Yet, on his retirement, Ali was not wealthy. His wife had an extravagant lifestyle and his business investments were poorly judged. He also gave generously to the Nation of Islam and to various causes.
Within 15 months of his announced retirement, Ali returned to the ring, his principal motivation, apparently being money, though Ali himself reckoned it was the prospect of winning the world title for a record fourth time that drove him. While public sentiment seemed against a comeback at 38 against a peak-form Larry Holmes, who was employed as Ali’s sparring partner between 1973-75, boxoffice interest was strong enough to justify paying Ali $8m. Holmes, as champion, received less than $3m. It was the first fight in which Ali failed to last the full distance and seemed an inglorious, if lucrative end, to a grand career.
Ali’s ill-fated business ventures took another bad turn when he became involved with Muhammad Ali Professional Sports, an organization headed by Harold Williams, which proved to be a fraudulent operation. A return to the ring appeared impossible after medical tests revealed all manner of complication and Ali relinquished his boxing license to the Nevada State Athletic Commission. But, this still left him free to box elsewhere in the world and, in December 1981, he fought once more in Nassau, the Bahamas. It ended in another resounding defeat, this time by Trevor Berbick. James Cornelius, who was a member of the Nation of Islam, promoted the fight. As in the Holmes fight, there was plain evidence of Ali’s acute deterioration and, although he lasted the ten round distance, he spent much of the fight against the ropes soaking up punishment. He was 39 and had fought 61 times, with a 56-5 record.
Further questionable business deals and an expensive divorce in 1986 followed. In 1984, he disappointed his supporters when he nominally supported Ronald Reagan’s reelection bid. He also endorsed George Bush in 1988. The Republican Party’s policies, particularly in regard to affirmative action programs, were widely seen as detrimental to the interests of African Americans and Ali’s actions were, for many, tantamount to a betrayal.
Ali’s public appearances gave substance to stories of his ill health. By 1987, he was the subject of much medical interest. Slurred speech and uncoordinated bodily movements gave rise to several theories about his condition, which was ultimately revealed as Parkinson’s Syndrome. His public appearances became rarer and he became Hauser’s “benign venerated figure.”
Over a period of four decades, Ali excited a variety of responses: admiration and respect, of course, but also cynicism, anger and condemnation. At different points in his life, he drew the adulation of young people committed to civil rights, black power and peace. Yet, as Wiggins points out: “Members of the establishment were, moreover, infuriated by Ali because he exposed, for all the world to see, an America that was unwilling to honor its own precepts.”
Ali engaged with the central issues that preoccupied America: race and war. But, it would be remiss to understand him as a symbol of social healing; much of his mission was to expose and, perhaps, to deepen divisions. He preached peace, yet aligned himself with a movement that sanctioned racial separation and the subordination of women. He accepted a role with the liberal Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter, yet later sided with reactionaries, Reagan and Bush. He preached black pride, yet disparaged and dehumanized fellow blacks. He preached the importance of self-determination, yet allowed himself to be sucked into so many doubtful business deals that he was forced to prolong his career to the point where his dignity was effaced. Like any towering symbol, he had very human contradictions.