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How Muhammad Ali shook the world one last time

Muhammad Ali fighting Ernie Terrell at the Houston Astrodome in 1967 (Photo by Cliff via Flickr)

When a young Muhammad Ali knocked out hard-hitting Sonny Liston in 1964 in Miami, he declared he had shaken up the world. True to his word, he went on to dominate the world of boxing over the next two decades, becoming the first man to win heavyweight titles three times. But, he also shook the establishment, famously becoming a member of the Nation of Islam in the 60s, changing his ‘slave name’ from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and refusing to fight in the Vietnam War - a decision that cost him three years of his career. After becoming diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 42, Ali’s movements became slower and his speeches softer, but his charisma never waned. So, when the news broke on June 4 that Ali had died, the world was collectively shaken again.

U of T News spoke to Simon Darnell, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, about Ali’s legacy and what made him such a unique presence in the world of sport. Darnell’s research includes social movements and activism in sport, as well as sport, race and post-colonialism.

What made Ali such an extraordinary athlete?
Ali embodied a combination of elements that had rarely been seen before within a single person. He was a great athlete to be sure, but also an orator, a poet, a critic, a trickster, and eventually a social icon. That he took up all of these roles as a person of colour only made him more significant. I think if a Black athlete today were to do what Ali did – speak out on issues like war, racism, inequality, money – it would be controversial and take some serious courage. That Ali had the gumption to do so in the 1960s is remarkable.

At the same time, it was in part precisely because he was Black that he became so iconic. His actions aided the ongoing disruption of racial normativity and forced people to reckon with a powerful voice from a Black person. In so doing, he refused to accept, or to conform to, the social and political logic of the world. He rejected the rules of the game as they had been laid out for him. For any star athlete, that’s a big deal because while the institution of sport is organized to celebrate its champions, it isn’t set up for, nor does it expect, those same champions to start talking back.   

How did he challenge the status quo inside and outside the ring?
Athletes, particularly those of colour, weren’t really understood or seen as anything other than athletic. To some degree this is still true. In addition, there is a pervasive sense that sport is meant to be an escape from reality, so when athletes force us to confront realities – particularly about themes of dominance and conformity – it can be a real shock. Combine that with Ali’s prowess and performances in the ring as well as in front of a microphone, and he was unlike anything that had been seen before.

In his prime, Ali was both vilified and admired for his religious and political stances, but seemed to have undivided respect from all. What accounts for that?
I’m not entirely sure that Ali did have undivided respect from all during his prime. Clearly, he was a force to be reckoned with in the boxing ring, so he had some measure of athletic respect. But forcing important social and political issues into the cultural discussion was seen by some as itself disrespectful. For those who threatened his life, he was mostly dangerous and threatening. And he was threatening, if only to the logic of race and racism, the sanctity of U.S. foreign policy, and to some of the basic narrative elements of the American Dream.

It is also true that history treated him rather more kindly the older he got and that he was nearly universally loved and respected towards the end of his life. But one can make the argument that this coincided with his failing health and general fading from public life. It’s a cynical view, but sometimes it seems that we like our famous athletes better when they don’t say that much. What if Ali had continued up until his death to speak out against U.S. (and Canadian) participation in wars? It’s hard to believe he would have been universally celebrated in quite the same way.

What is Ali's lasting legacy?
Ali will be remembered as a combined force of athleticism, bravado, and courage. He will be a prime example of the platform athletes are afforded to engage in activism. And he will also always serve as a reminder that sport and politics are, at a basic level, one and the same because they reside within the same social fabric. Finally, he showed us that an athlete’s identity cannot be easily compartmentalized. Ali was never 'just' a boxer and so I think we should remember that today’s athletes are not 'just' sportspeople. They are social and political actors and they should be afforded the commensurate respect, while also being held to high standards of responsibility.  

(Visit Flickr to see the original of the photo at top