I was too young to ever see Ali fight anywhere besides ESPN Classics. I never sat with my dad to watch him take on Joe Frazier or George Foreman. In fact, the first time I was introduced to the boxing legend was from a movie. My dad was watching a movie in our living room, and I joined him. The film was "Ali," a biographical movie starring Will Smith as the titular character, the man who passed away June 3. I liked the movie, although I was probably too young to be watching it and maybe didn’t understand everything that was happening all that well. But that film had an impact on me. The part that sticks out the most even to this day was Will Smith reviving Ali’s passionate defense of his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. Muhammad Ali was known for his poetics, for being as quick with his tongue as he was on his feet and his fists, yet one blunt line stood out to me; “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
Ali gained notoriety not only for his bravado and his ferocity in the ring, but also for his politics. Ali was a staunch civil rights activist who followed the “any means necessary” approach of his close friend Malcolm X. Ali refused to go fight in the Vietnam War, officially citing his standing as an ordained minister in the Nation of Islam. But when pressed on the matter, Ali spoke about his refusal to go and shoot at other poor people, at other people of color, and of people he personally had no quarrel with. Not only that, but he saw the country that wanted to send him to fight as the oppressor, both at home and abroad. For Ali, the enemy was not the Vietnamese. It was segregation and racism in the United States. The idea of the United States as the major force of oppression in the world was extremely controversial. It was the complete opposite of the narrative the country wanted to push in Vietnam and throughout the entirety of the Cold War. The United States was bastion of democracy and freedom, the world power leading the free world against the tyranny and brutality of Communism. Ali was speaking on the news saying that this idea, the image of the United States as a free country, was utter nonsense.
The United States has always been a country of contradiction. When the Founding Fathers were signing documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they enshrined the liberties given to mankind by God while simultaneously enslaving Africans and their descendants, and establishing the firm foothold of white supremacy. The United States has always been seen as a land of opportunity and democratic values, where all men and women are treated equally and can achieve whatever they work hard to achieve. Yet this has never truly been the case. There has always been prejudice, always a dissonance between the values we hold dear and the reality of this country. As America went to war in Vietnam to contain Communism and to stop the spread of an ideology that was ultimately opposed to democratic ideals, the struggle for racial equality in the United States was still ongoing. Ali decided that the fight for civil rights, and his fight for justice, were more valuable than fighting in Vietnam. It would take time, but eventually large segments of the population came to share this sentiment.
When Muhammad Ali shed his given name Cassius Clay and expressed anti-war views long before the anti-war movement had gained ground, he was a sort of pariah. Ali was put on trial, despised across the country, stripped of his title and banned from the sport he’d dedicated his life to ever since a cop taught him how to beat up the punks who stole his Schwinn bike. And yet, despite it all, he kept his convictions. Ali was tougher out of the ring than he was in it, and his perseverance allowed him to become a legend beyond sports.
I was at dinner with my parents and one of my dad’s friends from medical school and his wife this week. The friend had worked with my father and is close with him. There was a soccer game on TV, and the television programming had taken a moment to honor the life of Muhammad Ali. My father turned to his friend’s wife and asked what Ali meant to her. She said of course she’d known of him, but he wasn’t too important to her. My dad and his friend looked at each other, and my father said, “For us he was,” and sighed with a look of awe and admiration in his eyes. My father’s friend turned to me and told me how he remembered, vividly, as a child sitting on his father’s lap and watching the Rumble in the Jungle, telling me how Ali dodged Foreman’s punches with his hands down. From a couch in Peru to a couch in the United States, in one way or another, Muhammad Ali shaped the life of two young men. He taught us courage, he taught us conviction, and he taught me that America has constantly struggled to be a country that upholds the values it deems sacred. The fight is far from over, but Muhammad Ali has done his part, and it is time for the Greatest to get some well deserved rest.