Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Getty Images

Ali is one of the greatest and most influential activist celebrities in the world. In an era where sports endorsements and lucrative sponsorships have silenced any measure of radicalism or integrity in the sports world, his career sets him apart.

If I were to write an open letter to Muhammad Ali now,  my tears would be the ink with which I write. It would be a letter of love and admiration. Of confusion and anger.  It would be a difficult letter because it would be a final note to a human being whose influence over my life and so many others stands as an edifice of so much that I and perhaps humanity at large aspire to be.

Muhammed Ali is one of the most iconic figures of the last 100 years –if not of all time. He was a bundle of contradictions and political controversy, personal weakness and staunch principles, a man of peace and a warrior of Black consciousness. His passing forces me to consider and reconsider the many reasons that I admire him and the many instances that he confused me. So many myths and motifs of greatness seem contestable upon closer scrutiny.

I met Ali many years ago as a I rolled off my father’s lap after Ali had knocked George Foreman out during the  ‘Rumble in the Jungle‘. Jubilant, my father leapt and declared ‘He’s done it again. The man is GREAT!’ And indeed he was. He had regained his title after the lost years had robbed him and the rest of humanity of a daunting sportsman at the height of his powers.

And it is probably this Zairian odyssey that partly sealed Ali’s status of a true son of the Afrikan soil, an Afrikanist spirit. And yet here lay a contradiction that I had not considered for 40 years that have since passed. The match was organised by Don King –a reptilian fight promoter – persuaded by one of Africa’s most ignominious and despicable sons -Mabuto Sesesseko –to put up the $5 million purse. Mabuto [along with the Belgians] remains hugely complicit in the death of one of Africa’s most glorious sons - Patrice Lumumba – a friend of Ali.

In the light of all this, Ali’s participation in the match seems quite contradictory. And yet he was also a man of great ambition, hungry to show the world that he was still the greatest, the fastest and of course the prettiest. And a man of great ego who delighted in Sesesseko’s fawning hospitality. A lesser being could claim not to know. Ali ‘s sharp intellect allowed him no such luxury.

Ali confused some again when,  in 2005 , he accepted a Presidential Medal of Freedom from the hawkish George W Bush. This was after having acted as Bush’s  peace envoy to Iraq successfully neogitatng for the release of several American hostages. Bush’s politics would never have aligned with Ali’s 30 years earlier.  Popular myth of course has it that Ali threw  his Olympic medal into a river after White America refused to recognize and honour him upon his return from the Rome Olympics where he won the medal. Some accounts claim that he lost the medal but be that as it may, the powerful symbolism of denouncing the separatist and deeply segregated American state was a gesture which resonated with the excluded across the world.  African children across the continent embraced him as did those  in Asia and Latin America. His politics were far beyond civil rights but were part of the anti-imperial struggles globally. He was indeed doing it for all of us.

I watched with deeply mixed emotions as Bush - a man who I daresay Ali would not have broken bread with decades earlier – say of Ali ‘the American people are proud to call Muhammad Ali one of our own." Bush studiously avoided mentioning Ali’s stance against Vietnam and tried to erase the radical, polarising politics that literally  nearly set the United States – and Ali himself - on fire. Nor did Bush qualify what ‘our own’ means in the still  rabidly racist  and separatist United States holding the world hostage to its maniacal fixation with real and imagined terror.

Ali is one of the greatest and most influential activist celebrities and stood alongside Sydney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Jim Brown in the 1960s. In an era where sports endorsements and lucrative sponsorships have silenced any measure of radicalism or integrity in the sports world, his career and potentially life threatening stance against the Vietnam war should not be underestimated. He chose not to ‘skip bail’ into Canada and take up citizenship which readily awaited him there. On principle, Ali chose to go to jail.

Only Tommy Smith’s and John Carlos’s symbolic Blackpower fist on the podium at the 1968 Olympics compares in courage and power. A true activist sports star, his shadow was certainly the longest and although he never formally associated with the Civil Rights movement, his influence was and remains palpable. At the time of Ali’s conversion to Islam, Malcolm X was one of his closest friends and mentors and helped him weather the vitriolic political, media and social backlash including from the conservative part of the Black civil rights movement. The civil rights activist  late Julian Bond said, “Ali was able to tell white folks …that I’m going to do it my way”.

That was an Ali thing, the more the media reviled, the stronger he seemed to become. After Malcolm’s assassination and his own conversion to conventional Islam, Ali expressed deep regret that he did not reciprocate his former mentor’s loyalty. Perhaps his youth and relative naiveté clouded his vision but history still recalls that he turned his back on another great and courageous  icon.

In later years, the years that many feel uncomfortable with, when the warrior had slowed down, robbed of his infinite and memorable words by the sport that gave him such a huge platform and the disease that arose, he spent more of his time as a man of peace. This caused more discomfort for many who were  accustomed to the lion-eating man of witty and quick words. It felt to many that Ali was rebranded, toned down and integrated into the very establishment that called him ‘another demagogue and an apologist for his so-called religion’. Others branded him hateful and ‘UnAmerican‘.

Perhaps in part due to the illness, but also perhaps because of his own mellowing, Ali seemed to be less dangerous , deradicalised and sanitised by the end. I find this is a diservice despite my confusion about some of his choices along his walk to legendhood. The cult of memory is one that interests me immensely and the way we are remembering Ali has disturbed me further. Most images prefer the Warrior, the King of the World, brash, handsome and forever young and vibrant. The photo session released by his family just days before Ali passed is bold and courageous. It forces us to face age, mortality, illness and decline with dignity.

I never asked him whether he really threw away the medal the one time that I met him 25 years ago. I was too overcome with emotion to be anything other than awed.  An awe that remains. The best legacies are the most  complex ones and the greatest people do not allow  their humanity to withhold them from incredible exploits. For all  Mr Muhammed Ali did  to give me and many others a  sense of the impossible, for doing the right thing at the right time , he remans the Greatest. King of the World.

In his own words: When I die I am a legend.

* Lebohang Liepollo Pheko is Senior Research Fellow at Trade Collective, a political economist, columnist  and activist scholar.



* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to [email=[email protected]]editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org[/email] or comment online at Pambazuka News.