The recent passing of boxing great Mohammed Ali caused me to pause and reflect on my childhood. Memories of growing up during the champs reign during the racially turbulent 1960’s and 70’s came back like a flood. To a young black boy watching him on TV and the tremendous skills he possessed in the ring, and the bravado in which he would predict his foes demise in the ring was mesmerizing.
I remember learning of his conversion to Islam and taking on the name of Mohammed Ali while reading Jet Magazine the pocket size weekly publication that showed up in the mailbox of our family home. Jet and sister publication Ebony a monthly full-size magazine were the must have subscriptions of every Black household to keep tabs on the happenings of the Black community. These publications were a lifeline in an era in America where Blacks would call each other on the phone with excitement whenever we saw a Black person on TV since it was that rare. Jet and Ebony’s award-winning coverage of the civil rights movement was our window into the lives of the iconic figures of the movement including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, etc. and a young brash Mohammed Ali.
I didn’t understand why Ali took on (to me as a young teen) that funny name. I was perfectly fine with Cassius Clay. I’d seen Nation of Islam Muslim men passionately selling their newspapers and bean pies on the street corners of the inner city. Back then they were called Black Muslims. They were always nattily dressed in their suits and bow ties. I knew of Malcolm X, but that was about the extent of my knowledge of Muslims and Islam. Ultimately, I really didn’t care. Mohammed Ali was my hero and every young black boy in America for that matter. If we got into boxing matches, every one of us wanted to be “Mohammed Ali.” And we’d argue so much over who would assume that mantle that often our sparring matches would be Mohammed Ali vs. Mohammed Ali….lol
I remember his personal stand as a conscientious objector in not wanting to go to Viet Nam an unpopular war during the late 1960’s and early 70’s. I did not fully understand the war, the opposition, nor his position in not wanting to go. Some called him a draft dodger, some applauded his stance. As a teen, I was just happy they stopped mandatory registration for the draft one year before I was of age. I had many uncles that went to Viet Nam. All were forever changed from that experience. And one uncle we lost to cancer from being exposed to Agent Orange, and another we lost to alcoholism years later as he suffered from PTSD.
I remember watching Mohammed Ali on TV. The way he took command of the boxing ring, his speed and finesse and power all rolled into one. He would frustrate his opponents, and talk about them all the while putting a good ole’ fashion whooping on them. He was a master of the “head game.” He was also a master marketer and completely changed the fight game with his pre and post-fight antics. I remember his spirited and often hilarious interviews with sports analyst Howard Cosell. I remember one of his famous quotes. When asked if he was a braggart by a reporter. His response was priceless: “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.”…lol
My father took me to an Ali fight in the early 1970’s that was on closed circuit TV at the Fabulous Forum in Southern California. My mom dropped us off. By the time we sat down in the arena to watch the fight on the big screen it was over with Ali again the victor. I remember my dad asking me if we should call Mom to pick us up or walk home. My eyes grew wide as I responded, “Dad, walk all the way home?!” To me, it seemed like 100 miles but was actually only about a mile or two. He challenged me and said, “Think you can do it son? I know you can. Come on let’s go.” So I accepted the challenge, and he and I walked home that night with me trying to match his every stride and keep up. Going to that fight and walking home with my dad that night was a coming of age moment for me. At that moment, I was in my eyes “one of the guys.” There would be many more moments, but that one stands out. Just me and my dad doing a “Man thing.” Going to the fights and walking home, like men.
Mohammed Ali was an icon for Black men and in particularly young Black boys coming into manhood. The confidence he exuded was inspiring during a time when racial tension and discrimination was palpable. To see him stand on his convictions emboldened Black men to stand on theirs.
Since his passing I have seen much commentary on him the man and his life, some praising him, some condemning him. During his early years, he was certainly polarizing, even among some Blacks. During his later years, he became a unifier beloved throughout the world. Some say he was anti-Semitic since Muslims have no real love for Jews. Yet, one of his close friends was Howard Cosell.
I think Mohammed Ali was Paradoxical. I think he embraced Islam as a young man because he had no depth of understanding of what Islam was/is. He chose a false belief system that was marketed to the Black community in the 1960’s and 70’s as the answer to the “White Man’s Religion” of Christianity and oppression. Today, Islam is still marketed that way to those in Urban America looking for answers to their plight and place in America. It’s a false narrative, but it resonates for those who feel they have no voice and feel it must be somebody else’s fault. Islam or more to the point the Nation of Islam is right there to tell them “it’s the white man’s fault” for their plight and circumstance in society pushing their own version of liberation theology from the likes of Louis Farrakhan and company.
As Ali matured, it became obvious his views had broadened though he never publically renounced Islam. He was certainly a flawed man yet, still loved by millions throughout the world. Watching his memorial service in Kentucky, I saw Christians, Jews, Muslims, liberals and conservatives all celebrating his life. Some say Ali accepted Christ and returned to the true faith of his youth in his later years. I don’t know if that’s true, I just hope he knew Jesus before he left this earthly plain. Eternity is a long time to spend apart from the one true God…………….