When Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016, the world not only lost a superb, iconic athlete, we also mourned the passing of one of the most unique human beings to set foot on Earth.
To condense Ali’s career and impact on society beyond the boxing ring to just a mere-thousand plus words can’t truly do it justice. There are people throughout history who have an aura about them: Che Guevera, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Corazon Aquino, Angela Davis… Ali is part of this esteemed list.
For someone such as myself, who was born in 1986, I never had the privilege to see Ali shake up the world when he knocked out Sonny Liston or play rope-a-dope with George Foreman in Zaire. Sure there are video archives but it’s nothing compared to being there and experiencing it in the actual moment.
His achievements in boxing are remarkable and remain unquestionable, however, it’s what he did outside of the ring which resonates with me – and perhaps it’s the same for others who are part of the post-Ali generation. The Lip of Louisville’s trash talk was just like his in-ring work, entertaining and devastating. He was a new breed of boxer/athlete for his time (with many who came afterwards wanting to emulate him); young, black and cocky – conservative America’s worst nightmare.
A great orator he began using his platform to address the biggest issue in America at the time: civil rights.
Brought into the Nation of Islam by Malcolm X when Ali still went by his birth name, Cassius Clay, the boxing phenom was fully prepared to take part in the struggle… even at the cost of his own world heavyweight championship.
He wasn’t perfect, some of the things he said, particularly to his long-standing rival Smokin’ Joe Frazier (referring to him as an ‘Uncle Tom’ and an ‘ugly gorilla’), were, in hindsight, in bad taste, possibly as shocking and reductive for their time as they’d be today.
However, Ali like all of us was only human – he was a champion for the people after all. It may not excuse some of the things he did or said, but considering the context and climate of the period, the majority of his actions were within reason.
As much as we love to eulogise about Ali today, during his illustrious career he was often vilified for speaking his mind about subjects outside of the ring.
His refusal to be drafted to the Vietnam War in 1966 cost him his world title, he was locked out of the sport from 1967 to 1970 as a result. Ali became a national pariah, scrutinised for his unpatriotic stance. But what’s the point of holding a world championship if it comes at the cost of your beliefs and principles?
His stance on the Vietnam War would resonate throughout the ages, and inspire African American athletes to be more than just a figurehead for their sport- to be an example for the people who idolise you. Even at the cost of your career.
Today’s volatile American sociopolitical climate, where young black men and women are subject to systematic injustices from the law, Hispanic families are at risk of being deported and extreme far-right rhetoric is on the rise (with President Donald Trump sadly offering a bizarre sense of legitimacy to such voices), now more than ever it’s important for athletes to use their voice and platform for the betterment of others, particularly those most in need.
Prominent figures in the NBA, like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr have used their respective platforms to criticise the current administration and the injustices that people of colour go through in the United States.
Someone who is the very embodiment of Ali’s mantra is former NFL player Colin Kaepernick. With the potential for a highly lucrative career at his fingertips, no modern-day athlete has sacrificed more for the benefit of others. Just as Ali protested the Vietnam War, Kaepernick protested the shocking levels of police brutality African Americans are subjected to every day. It may well have cost him his career.
He didn’t have to speak out or use his platform, up until then his career was on the rise as one of the league’s prospects. It was all taken away from him the minute he put his knee to the turf as a form of protest. Because of this Kaepernick is has no team call his own, blackballed out of a sport he loves because he saw the bigger picture.
Speaking to GQ Linda Sarsour, an activist, co-organizer of the Women’s March on Washington and former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, described as Kaepernick as:
An activist is anyone who cares about something and has a talent that they’re willing to put toward it. Every single one of us needs to prioritize: What is it that touches your heart the most? Is it the killing of unarmed black people? Is it domestic violence against women? Is it immigration and protecting undocumented people?
I always tell Colin: ‘You are an American hero. You may not feel like a hero right now, but one day, people will realize the sacrifices that you made for so many others.’ There might even be a day when we’ll be walking down Colin Kaepernick Boulevard and people will remember what Colin Kaepernick did, just like we remember Muhammad Ali. And I truly believe that in my heart.
His actions set off a chain reaction as fellow African American athletes in the NFL and NBA followed suit. Because of this, the NFL is now clamping down on players who protest during the American National anthem for next season.
Here in the UK, once we peel back the eccentricities of British charm, there’s an obvious trend of cultural and class prejudice in both government and mainstream media (Raheem Sterling anyone?). Spawned from a history of colonialism which, try as they might, no one will (nor should they) forget.
I could list a number of racial, social and class injustices inflicted by the powers that be in the UK but I’d be here all day. What’s disappointing is we don’t have athletes in this country who are willing stand up for the people.
Maybe it’s because they’re afraid, maybe it’s because they’ll be told to shut up and just get paid for what they’re doing. Maybe they’re just too afraid to rock the boat and challenge the thin liberal veneer of the status quo.
Whatever the case may be, the cold hard truth is we desperately need to see our own homegrown athletes take a stand too for matters away from sport and prove they are not only defined by their career.
It is for that legacy we should never forget Muhammad Ali.