“I don’t have to be what you want me to be…” #MuhammadAli #RIP

From A Muhammad Ali Reader, Robert Lipsyte

It will fall to someone better placed than me to remember the life and times of Muhammad Ali (or the more shadowy figure of Cassius Clay who could beat anyone or everyone to us in early Primary school).
Most of the pre and post fight quotes floating about the Internet were boastful macho bombast that launched a thousand cheap imitations. The time he came through was an era of massive struggle for civil rights in the US and Ali’s career narrative took on much of the colour of that era. 

His refusal to take the military draft led to him being stripped of his title and banned from boxing for three years. That probably elongated and politicised his career for a full 21 years: creating in him a world public figure for almost a whole generation. 

Yet when he arrived in professional boxing he was no more liked by pro boxing journalists than the man from he took his first World Heavyweight title: Sonny Liston. They quickly christened him ‘the Louisville Lip’. 

Racial loathing was rarely far below the surface. And Liston ticked all boxes in that regard. Author LeRoi Jones noted in 1964, that he represented… 

“…the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world.”

It was a combination of Ali’s supreme confidence in his own abilities, conscience, sheer forebearance against the obstacles placed in his way, along with the steady transformation in social mobility of black Americans that he transcended such fear to become a social hero. 

Boxing never was the same before or since. But with Ali boxing briefly became much more than a sport, or even a settlement of old scores. The little men in the street and the housewives have long since turned their backs left the lonely ring. 

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty