The Greatest


Muhammad Ali in 1967 (Ira Rosenberg; Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons).

Muhammad Ali was a fascinating human being. So utterly charismatic, majestic and captivating.

In a brilliant New Yorker piece documenting his life, David Remnick asked:

What modern athlete, much less one at Ali’s level, has ever talked with such political complexity, ambiguity and engagement?

I can’t think of one who came even close. Indeed, modern sport has been sterilised of “overt” politics. That in itself is political and, of course, serves a particular order.

As Ben Carrington astutely observed:

The significance of Ali isn’t so much that he “transcended” sport into politics but that he showed how sport itself was inherently political.

Ali has his detractors too. More fool them. A myopic and much less discerning Piers Morgan claimed that “Ali said far more inflammatory/racist things about whites than Donald Trump ever has about Muslims”.

Morgan was referring to Ali’s forthright comments with regard to the “White Devil”, inter-racial marriage and the self-preservation of his own marginalised, stigmatised and brutalised people whilst he was a member of the Nation of Islam.

To equate Ali’s words in the 1960s and 1970s with Trump’s words of today indicates a profound and contemptible ignorance of Ali’s life, experiences and cultural memory on the part of Morgan. Ali never oppressed anyone for their race.

Ali and his people were the victims of some of the worst injustices and oppressions known to man; this was all at the hands of the dominant white American society. On the other hand, Trump is a powerful WASP billionaire who has enjoyed an upbringing steeped in privilege.

That’s the key qualitative difference that one must consider when interpreting Ali’s statements about white people and when interpreting Trump’s statements about Mexicans or Muslims.

Ali was talking about how he and his people were mistreated by whites. He was speaking for the disenfranchised and punching up. He was expressing valid anger and grievance. He spent his whole life protecting blackness and asserting pride in his identity.

Ali wasn’t talking about people he wanted to mistreat or prejudice, nor was he trying to manipulate through stoking division. That’s what Trump does. Trump punches down. There’s a world of difference.

Indeed, Ali once said:

Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.

Challenging oppression isn’t racist. If Morgan thinks challenging oppression is “inflammatory”, I think that says more about Morgan than it does about the man he pathetically attempted to discredit.

Ali was entirely right to take on white America, its privilege and its prejudice. He wasn’t so much the embodiment of the “American Dream”. He exposed it for the dark nightmare that it was. He shone a light deep into its dark core.

Here is a section of his 1972 interview with RTÉ’s Cathal O’Shannon where he speaks of struggle, solidarity and culture upon a visit to Ireland:

Ali said to O’Shannon:

This is one thing I love and I admire about the Irish people. I studied a little bit of history since I’ve been here. I found out you been underdogs for years. Hundreds of years. People dominating you and ruling you and you can identify with this freedom struggle. You understand, but I just have mine on the other side of the water, but we’re all fighting for the same cause and idea, but we have different reasons and different approaches.

I’m honoured he had that to say of us.

Sure, Ali might not have been perfect – who doesn’t have flaws? – but he had immeasurably more insight to disclose to America and the world than the likes of Donald Trump could ever dream of. What a ridiculous comparison.

Rest in peace, the Greatest.


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