A heavyweight champion, a pacifist and a Muslim. The result of such a combination? A five-year prison sentence, and $10,000 fine; meet Muhammad Ali in 1967.
A man that caused destruction in the ring, but a man not willing to participate in such damage outside of the ropes. Ali was not just a beacon for sport, but an icon in pop culture; an ambassador of a nation who seemingly contradicted the masses beliefs.
The former champion’s reputation and position on the religious spectrum could be perceived as very different without his boxing gloves. A man that might be viewed as a potential symbol and mouthpiece for the Middle East, a man to encourage characteristics of Islam.
As a conscientious objector, Ali refused to take arms during the 1960s in the Vietnam War. The fight of American democracy against communism was the battle then, his decision led the figure to be an enemy of the government.
And yet, the rhetoric used by Ali is used to inspire, but it would appear all the more alarming if used by a stranger on the street. Such phrases and a promotion of a religion followed by over a billion people would have raised red flags had they been expressed by any ‘normal’ American.
“But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”
Muhammad Ali, speaking in 1965
But Ali was not normal, he was a boxing – a sporting – God. Following Ali’s refusal to be drafted, the heavyweight was stripped of his titles, banned from boxing, and given a five-year prison sentence. His position on the matter was unmovable:
“The real enemy of my people is here [America]. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.”
Ali’s conversion to Sunni Islam in 1975 was further indication where the greatest boxer’s beliefs stood. The sporting icon was not bowing to Big Sam; he was the inspiration who took on the government. Ironically, his greatest defence to protect this stance was his ability to cause destruction: the boxing ring.
Without this platform, Ali would have likely been another number confined to the history books; judged by the public, ignored by the government. Although he was punished for his actions, he was still a symbol, a pin-up boy for those with morals, the poet with the busy tongue could say anything he pleased – he was the Greatest, after all.
Although his position is commendable, and one to inspire and one which should be taken more regularly. It’s a sad reminder that such beliefs of your normal working American would likely lead to an isolated life, and one which casts constant fear over your shoulder if you believed and expressed such values.
The notion to take on government standards and morals would only raise question marks around where you stand in the world. The East or the West? The public forgave and trusted Ali because of his ability to box, because of his ability to entertain; the elitism in us accepted this.
Ali’s position will forever remain one of huge inspiration, but also a sad reminder that the ability to challenge the hierarchy requires you yourself to be in a high elite category.