Muhammad said he was pleased to come to Ghana - from an America where black people had to struggle for their ordinary human rights - to find back people running their whole country “beautifully”. Americans, he said, were being misinformed that Africans were eating each other and climbing up and down trees.
When “Cassius Clay” (as he then was) entered the ring to fight Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight title in February 1964, I was afraid that Sonny Liston would kill him.
Although Ali had won the Olympic gold medal in September 1960, before turning professional, he was still only 22 years old in 1964. Not only that – he was handsome and physically unmarked. He called himself “pretty” (with justification!) and in the weeks before the fight, he showed signs of suffering from unabated hysteria, as his mouth never ceased to utter words of self-promotion in an incessant blaze of publicity that marked him out to be a braggadocio. Many in the world believed that he was frightened out of his wits, and was “making noise” to gather "Dutch courage" for the fight to earn a lot of money and then – retire quietly into oblivion!
Sonny Liston, a much heavier man than Ali, gave every appearance of being destined to act as Ali's executioner – or at any rate, the slayer of Ali's career as a heavyweight boxer.
Liston was silent and moody. And he looked immensely fierce. He had made mincemeat of Floyd Patterson, a champion the world had come to respect. He also carried an evil reputation: it was alleged variously that he took illegal drugs, or that he was a Mafia operative, or both!
How could an innocent “pretty” boy like Ali, who had been deliberately provoking Liston by describing him as a "bum" and an “ugly bear”, survive the vengeful assault of a guy who normally looked as if he was a “bouncer” eager to swat away an intruder who did not know how to go away when ordered to do so?
One eye-witness who wrote about the fight in 1964 said that the mindset he had taken to the fight made it impossible for him to recognise that although Ali was, by the sixth round, “coming to Liston for the first time, even then, [my] response was not the hope that he was taking command, but the fear that he was growing rash! [Ali] was a little ahead when Liston quit. The dark tower had seemed about to fall on him just once, [when] Liston caught [Ali] in a corner early in the fifth and gnawed him in a fashion one cannot imagine a fighter sustaining more than four or five times in one night. ... One thought him done and asking mercy...And then one saw that [Ali's] legs were as close together as they had been when the round started and that he was unhurt and Liston just wasn’t coming to him. That is where it ended, [but]... we did not know it.... At the end, there was [Ali] as fresh as ever”.
At the beginning of the seventh round, Sonny Liston refused to get up and go back to face Ali!
All hell now broke loose. Muhammad Ali, aged 22, was champion of the world!
“I told you!” a hysterical Ali shouted to the world. “I am the greatest.... I am the greatest!”
From then on, Muhammad Ali never gave the world one moment to forget him. The very next day after he won the heavyweight championship of the world, he brought a mountain of controversy over his head by announcing that he had become a member of the “Nation of Islam” religion (popularly known as the “Black Muslims”.) White America and even part of the middle-class African-American community was outraged. For the “Black Muslim” preached that they did not want to be part of an America ruled by “white devils”, but wanted a separate, independent territory in America, where they ruled themselves.
After this sensational start, Muhammad Ali actively constructed a reputation around himself that rocketed him to the position of being one of the most talked-about black people in the world. Within months of his winning the title, he had visited Ghana, then the Mecca of African liberation. He met Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah and the Asantehene, Otumfuo Nana Sir Osei Agyemang Prempeh the Second. Photo opportunities with these men enabled him to communicate to African Americans back home that they had the support of the immense African continent, with its rich history and ability to govern itself.
As editor of the Ghana edition of Drum Magazine at the time Muhammad Ali visited Ghana, I asked our then Women's Editor, Beryl Karikari (later to be my wife) to interview Muhammad. A splash in the magazine entitled “The King and I” ensued. Muhammad told Beryl that he was pleased to come to Ghana, from an America where black people had to struggle for their ordinary human rights, to find back people running their whole country “beautifully”. Americans, he said, were being “misinformed that Africans were eating each other and climbing up and down trees.”
Black people everywhere now began to take Ali seriously as a person who articulated what black people felt in the world. He cemented his position in history when he refused to be drafted into the US Army in 1967. He knew he would be sentenced to a term of imprisonment for refusing to be drafted, but he did not mind. In his unique way, he enabled every person who was willing to understand him to get his message. “No Vietcong ever called me nigger!” he said.
That “N”-word, is of course, one of the most insulting words ever hurled at black people by racist whites everywhere. In using it to formulate his message of refusal to be drafted, Ali was saying, “You call me a …. and then you want me to go and kill for you, brown-skinned people who would not only not call me a …. but who probably will regard me as a brother?”
The vengeance of the white power structure in the US against Ali was immediate and decisive. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment [later lifted] and fined $10,000. But worse, he was stripped of his championship and his boxing licence withdrawn. This meant that his source of income dried up.
Now, the remarkable thing about Muhammad Ali was his tremendous courage. It was that courage that took him into the ring to beat Sonny Liston twice, and it was that courage that sustained him in his years of adversity after he'd refused to be drafted into the US Army. So when the ban on his boxing career was lifted, he did not duck out of fights with the good boxers who were standing between him and the heavyweight title of the world that had been stripped from him -- the incredibly powerful Joe Frazier among others.
And then, in 1974, a very strong George Foreman took on a similar position in Ali's life that had been occupied by Sonny Liston a decade earlier. President Mobutu Seseseko of Zaire, anxious to put his country on the world map, and with money pouring out of his ears, decided to promote a world heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Known as “The Rumble In The Jungle”, the fight – the first-ever world heavyweight title fight to take place in Africa - became the talk of the world. And again, Ali, using tactics that would have been regarded as suicide material if employed by lesser men, leaned on the ropes and allowed Foreman to hit him repeatedly in the body until Foreman grew tired. Ali then knocked Foreman out.
In later years, Ali was afflicted with a debilitating disease known as Parkinson's. Some other person would have hidden from the world in order not to destroy the image of a handsome, virile youngman that he had presented to the world in his good years. But not Ali: he accepted invitations to world events, and lit the flame at the Atlanta Olympic Games.
Eventually, the American power structure came to appreciate Ali, and he was awarded some of the highest honours the country has to bestow upon exemplary citizens. But to him, perhaps the best honour ever given was a vote, by listeners all over the world to the BBC, that earned him the title, “The Greatest Sportsman of The Century”, in 1999.
The outburst of grief all over the world that has marked his passing is eloquent testimony that he was indeed, “The Greatest”. May he rest in peace.
* Cameron Duodu is a veteran Ghanaian journalist and author.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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