The Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali

A young Muhammad Ali / Creative Commons

Edited by Dr. Andrew R.M. Smith / Jan.-Feb. 2017
Assistant Professor of Cultural Histroy
Nichols College

Before Mayweather vs. McGregor, There Was Ali vs. Inoki

By Roberto José Andrade Franco
PhD Candidate in History
Southern Methodist University

Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor has moved away from the absurd and into the realm of possibility. The proposed matchup remains a money grab, serving no other purpose for either fighter. If the fight happens, Mayweather will demand $100 million and win in his usual way—supreme skill with minimal excitement. While McGregor, despite likely earning a career-high purse, will be thoroughly dominated and try to save dignity by claiming Mayweather refused to engage in actual fighting. The fight is predictable because boxing rules will govern it, not MMA conventions nor even a hybrid of the two—as was the case when Muhammad Ali fought a Japanese wrestler, Antonio Inoki, in 1976.

Ali vs. Inoki began as a joke. “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter to challenge me?” Ali asked the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association. “I’ll give him $1 million if he wins.”[1] As Ali’s quote spread throughout Japan, the fight became a reality when Japanese businessmen contacted Ali’s manager, Herbert Muhammad—son of Elijah Muhammad—offering a $6 million payday. The challenger was Antonio Inoki, a popular Japanese professional wrestler whose “training” regimen included throwing himself from moving cars as a way of toughening his body.[2] But despite the legitimacy of the opponent, Ali and his people thought the fight was a set-up.

There are various versions of what was supposed to happen. Bob Arum, Ali’s promoter, claims the plan called for Ali to “pound on Inoki for six or seven rounds. Inoki would be pouring blood. Apparently he was crazy enough that he was actually going to cut himself with a razor blade. Ali would appeal to the referee to stop the fight. And right when he was in the middle of this humanitarian gesture, Inoki would jump him from behind and pin him. Pearl Harbor all over again.”[3] Another version of the “script” had Ali accidentally punching and knocking out the referee. While a concerned Ali checked on the unconscious referee, Inoki would kick Ali in the head just as the referee woke up. The referee would then count out Ali and Inoki would win the fight though Ali would “save face through his noble actions.”[4]

United States Army, Funder/Sponsor. The Jap way – cold-blooded murder We’ll make them pay if you keep up production. [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Just as there are various accounts of what should have happened, there are different reasons for those plans ultimately failing. Arum, again, says Ali’s conscience did not allow him to go through with tricking the public and instead, he “refused to go to any of the rehearsals. So all of a sudden, we had a real fight.”[5] Another source states that Inoki was serious about the fight and Ali did not realize it until he arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. There, attempting to sell the fight, Ali yelled towards reporters, “There will be no Pearl Harbor!”[6] Noticeably, both Arum and Ali evoked Pearl Harbor more than thirty-five years after it occurred. We do not know what they meant beside the obvious: Inoki was Japanese. But the stereotype of Japanese and Asians as “cunning and corrupt, treacherous and vindictive, [given] to lechery, dishonesty, xenophobia, [and] cruelty” has been common in the United States since the late 1800s.[7] Pearl Harbor and WWII only intensified the stereotypes with war posters commonly depicting Japanese as a deceitful people, if not sub-humans.[8]

This stereotype would also play into the supposed plan of Inoki attacking Ali when he least expected it. Of course, Ali soon recognized there would be no rehearsals and that the fight was more than an exhibition.[9] This became clear when Ali saw Inoki’s public sparring sessions and saw him practicing roundhouse kicks to the shoulders of his trainer at full-strength and speed. Concerned, Ali’s management placed new restrictions on Inoki, banning him from kicking while standing up. As part of the new rules, Inoki also could not throw Ali, apply lock holds, or use elbow strikes.

In 1978, DC Comics issued Superman vs. Muhammad Ali in which the two faced each other before teaming up to fight against aliens for the good of mankind.

Regardless of Ali’s expectations, the fight went on as scheduled and besides the millions he stood to gain, the fight was also about ego. Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, says the Inoki fight allowed Ali to show he “was not only the best boxer in the world but also the best fighter.”[10] Incidentally, in 1978, two years after Ali fought Inoki for the unofficial title of the best fighter in the world, DC Comics released Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, a comic book in which Ali showed he was the best fighter in the universe. The comic’s plot shares similarities with one account of what should have happened in his fight against Inoki with Ali showcasing his fighting superiority and concern for his opponent. In the comic, Ali refused to knock out Superman though he dominated him. Instead, Ali walks away from a battered Superman, who eventually fell on his own. Even, the comic’s ending shows a magnanimous Ali, shaking Superman’s hand and saying, “Superman, WE are the greatest.”[11] Unfortunately for Ali, his fight against Inoki did not end as well—in fact, it was a disaster for both men.

On June 25, 1976—eight months removed from “The Thrilla in Manila”—Ali faced Inoki in Tokyo’s Budokan Stadium. Closed-circuit television broadcast the fight across 134 countries.

Bob Arum, Ali’s promoter, claimed the fight would “sell more closed-TV seats than any fight event in history.”[12] Unfortunately for the many who watched the fight, it proved far less exciting than expected. With the restrictions placed on Inoki, one of the few things he could do was lay on his back and kick at Ali. As a result, the 15-round fight deteriorated into “Inoki throwing flying kicks at Ali’s legs and Ali dancing backward.”[13] And although Ali only landed a few solid jabs, Inoki continuously pounded Ali’s legs with kicks that, by the latter rounds, left them badly swollen, bleeding, and bruised. At the end of the fight, Angelo Dundee talked the referee into ruling it a draw so that Ali and Inoki could both keep what little respect remained.[14]

The fight left everyone unsatisfied. The crowd, feeling cheated, threw trash in the ring while Ali apologized and blamed Inoki for the lack of action. “I wouldn’t have done this fight,” Ali explained, “if I’d known he was going to do that. Nobody knew this was going to happen so we had a dead show.”[15] Bob Arum called the match the lowest point of his career.[16] Ferdie Pacheco—Ali’s doctor—agreed. “Fighting Inoki was an incredibly stupid act,” Pacheco said. “To subject a great legendary fighter to a carnival atmosphere like that was wrong…[he] put his entire career in jeopardy for some dollars that he could have made just as easily without risking his reputation and his health.”[17]

Despite the lack of excitement, the fight left Ali’s legs so badly bruised that doctors briefly discussed amputation.

After the fight, Pacheco implored Ali to seek medical attention instead of following through with his planned tour through Asia where he was to hold a boxing exhibition in Korea then dedicate a shopping mall in Manila, Philippines. Ali refused the advice, went along with the scheduled plans and by the time he returned to the US, doctors hospitalized him as his leg muscles remained badly damaged.[18] Blood clots developed and damage to Ali’s legs was so extensive, there was talk of a possible amputation.[19]

As for Inoki, he also felt embarrassed and though he did not suffer the same physical damage as Ali, his pain was emotional. Despite the $2 million he earned, he cried in the dressing room after the fight as his hopes of becoming a national hero faded along with his dreams of restoring “prestige to the floundering sport of professional wrestling in Japan.”[20] The only hope for consoling his disappointment was his wish to reconnect with an estranged sister with whom he lost contact, presumably, after the economic hardship of post-war Japan forced them to the coffee fields of Brazil. “I hope all this publicity brings us together again,” Inoki said before the fight.[21] Whether that reconnection ever occurred is unknown.

Ali vs. Inoki was a disaster that should serve as a warning but it will not. Even if Mayweather and McGregor never fight against each other, there will be other bouts proposed, eager to pit a boxer versus a mixed martial artist. With its money-making potential, one of these fights will eventually occur. The promotion leading up to that fight is predictable. Boxing will claim supremacy based on its longer history. Ironically, it may even call itself a civilized sport compared to MMA. Conversely, MMA will portray boxing as dying sport whose relevance continues to fade. They will call themselves the future of combat sports, a mixture of various disciplines from across the globe. And though the fight will attract interest and attention, it will leave most spectators unfulfilled. There is no other conclusion. If absurdity defeated both Ali and Inoki at the same time—how can anyone else stand a chance?

[1] Dexter Thomas, “The Japanese pro wrestler who almost got Muhammad Ali’s leg amputated” Los Angeles Times, June 9, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (New York: Touchstone, 1991), 337.
[4] Andrew Mckirdy, “How a bizarre ’bout of the century’ between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki led to a firm friendship” Japan Times, June 7, 2016.
[5] Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 337.
[6] Mckirdy, “How a bizarre ’bout of the century’ between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki led to a firm friendship.”
[7] Rhoda J. Yen, “Racial Stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans and Its Effect on Criminal Justice: A Reflection on the Wayne Lo Case” Asian American Law Journal, no. 1, vol. 6, 2000: 6-7.
[8] John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific (New York: Pantheon Book, 1986), 99.
[9] Mckirdy, “How a bizarre ’bout of the century’ between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki led to a firm friendship.”
[10] Angelo Dundee, My View from the Corner: A Life in Boxing (New York; McGraw-Hill, 2008), 202.
[11] Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Fight in History – Deluxe Edition (New York: DC Comics, 2010), 72
[12] Josh Gross, Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight that Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment (Dallas: BenBella Books, 2016), 4.
[13] Andrew H. Malcolm, “Ali, Inoki, Fight to Draw in Dull Bout” New York Times, June 26, 1976.
[14] Dundee, My View from the Corner, 203.
[15] Malcolm, “Ali, Inoki, Fight to Draw in Dull Bout.”
[16] Mckirdy, “How a bizarre ’bout of the century’ between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki led to a firm friendship.”
[17] Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 337.
[18] Ibid, 338.
[19] Andy Bull, “The forgotten story of … Muhammad Ali v Antonio Inoki” The Guardian, November 11, 2009.
[20] Mark Kram, “…But Only a Farce in Tokyo” Sports Illustrated, July 5, 1976.
[21] Ibid.

Ali at Purdue: Reconsidering the Impact of His Campus Speeches

By Andrew McGregor
PhD Candidate in History
Purdue University

I was in Louisville on June 3, 2016 when Muhammad Ali died. Although I was in the process of having my brained turned to mush by grading thousands of AP U.S. History Exams, I felt fortunate to be there as tributes to the former world champion flowed through every medium, soothing the city’s profound sadness like a stiff bourbon. There with me were a few of my sport history compatriots – Russ Crawford, Aaron Haberman, Ryan Swanson, and Andrew R.M. Smith – grinding out the at-times torturous AP Reading after a relaxing week at NASSH in Atlanta. During our breaks we met for meals and drinks, and discussed Ali’s life and legacy. These conversations inspired this blog series.

After I returned home from the AP Reading and began to sift through the Op-Eds, Tweets, and Facebook posts, I found that Ali’s influence was much larger than I ever imagined. I learned that my own uncle met Ali while a graduate student at the University of Louisville during the 1990s, and that in 1975 Ali visited Purdue University where I teach and study. I had just finished my first year teaching an African American Studies course on “The Black Athlete,” and thought my students would enjoy hearing about it. In all of my classes, I try to find ways to make history personal and use local events to show how history happens — and has happened — around them. This post is part of my on-going effort to understand Ali and to make sense of him for my students. It is an incomplete project, but one that I hope is generative.

* * * * *

Muhammad Ali’s “exile” – the time he spent away from boxing after refusing induction into the military – solidified his status as a cultural icon. As Thomas Hauser has argued, during his three and a half years away from boxing “Ali grew larger than sports.” Standard interpretations of this part of Ali’s life highlight how his anti-war stand connected him with the New Left, providing the movement with an important and powerful symbol. Ali’s speaking tours were a key component of this connection. He found an eager audience of students at dozens of colleges and universities, many of whom agreed with his anti-war stance – although they often disagreed with other aspects of his politics. The speaking fees from these campus speeches sustained Ali financially and emotionally.

Most discussions of this period of Ali’s life, however, seem superficial. We see broad connections with the “radical” 1960s. We witness the change in student rhetoric and popular attitudes on Vietnam. We know Ali benefited financially. But too often a ground level examination is missing. What did Ali say in his speeches? Where did he go? Who organized them and what kind of effect did they have after he left campus? These questions warrant further exploration to better understand Ali’s interaction with students on campuses across America and intersection with multiple social movements during the late 1960s.

Most of those questions I can’t answer–yet. I haven’t done the research or the in-depth reading to share those findings here. But I can point out a few different ideas to build on and concepts worth putting in conversation.

The first is the black studies movement. Ibram X. Kendi’s first book The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965–1972 provides an important overview of African American student life. Although the “People’s Champ” visited both HBCUs and PWIs, Kendi’s broad strokes do not leave room for a substantive discussion of Ali in this context. Mike Marqusee’s Redemption Song locates Ali squarely in the 1960s, including his connection to the black studies movement and black activism on college campuses. Specifically, Marqusee points to an intense 134-day student strike at San Francisco State University. Comments about Ali fomented a confrontation between the Black Student Union and white student newspaper that extended beyond the campus. Other Ali scholars, like Michael Ezra, discuss his relationship with the Civil Rights movement generally, and try to reconcile his influence despite his at times oppositional position.

Second, I think reading and studying the text of Ali’s speeches will give us insight into how he viewed himself and the advice he thought students needed to hear. Hauser shares some pieces of the speeches during his exile in his book along with commentary, but a fuller interrogation is needed—and perhaps a comparison between his speeches during and after his exile. Only then can we start to understand Ali as an intellectual – both as a member of the Nation of Islam as well as after he left in 1975 and his politics began to evolve.

Although he sometimes joked about being the only one in the room without a degree, he knew he was “deep” and had common sense. This self-awareness came through in many of his interviews. Ali recognized that he was an intellectual, and that he had something important to share. In a 1972 article in the Chicago Defender, Ali said that he saw himself teaching in the future. He shared critiques of black history as too brief and not long enough. Part of his goal for after his boxing days were over, he told the paper, was to tell the larger story and unite black people around the world. Although perhaps parallel to some of the demands of black students advocating for African American Studies programs, he affirmed the value of learning about one’s own culture and past.

Ali was a strong advocate of education. It was a point he stressed in many speeches and one of the most common pieces of advice that he gave young listeners. In February 1967 he donated $10,000 to the United Negro College Fund, and committed to continue supporting it during his time as champion. Ezra notes that Ali “wanted more money to fund black education and had a goal of giving $100,000 to the UNCF.”

Finally, the year 1975 seems significant. By then he had returned to the ring and reclaimed the title. No longer in exile, he arrived at Purdue – and other colleges, like Morehouse – as the champ. He had also visited the White House, invited by President Ford two months after the Rumble in the Jungle fight because, according to Chicago Defender, Ali complained about not being invited before. The trip illustrated his partially rehabilitated image. After the visit, however, A.S. Doc Young criticized Ali in his Chicago Defender column:

Muhammad Ali, if he would forsake his position at self-center, if he would familiarize himself with the real problems, if he would think out his actions and utterances (or permit experts to plot them for him), if he would quit preaching reverse bigotry, and racial separatism, could become a valuable leader among us. If he merely would, he could become as important a “leader” as was Joe Louis.

Young saw Ali as an arrogant and cocky boxer, misunderstanding Ali’s appeal and criticizing his message. Ali was not an intellectual or a leader in Young’s eyes, despite his earlier actions.

Were Ali’s speeches in 1975 a pushback against this perception of him? It is difficult to know, but with Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975 and Ali’s departure from the Nation of Islam, the champ had the opportunity to redefine himself. These developments suggest that Ali’s motives and message changed, disrupting, or at the very least altering, the common narratives surrounding his speeches.

* * * * *

Muhammad Ali’s visit to Purdue is one place where further exploration may provide insight into the complicated relationship between a rejuvenated boxing champion and emboldened black students. The speech took place after his exile and resonated in the context of Purdue’s history. As late as 1965, Purdue remained a relatively segregated and hostile campus to African American students. That year the school enrolled only 129 black students out of a total of 20,176. The poor conditions inspired a student protest on the steps of Hovde Hall (the administration building) three years later. Called “. . .Or the Fire Next Time” after James Baldwin’s famous novel, the demonstration featured over 150 students carrying bricks to the steps of the building, demanding change. In June 1969, the Trustees acceded to one of the demands, and formally established a Black Cultural Center (BCC). Faculty in the School of Humanities, Social Science, and Education met and established a plan for an African American Studies program in the Spring of 1970. The students continued voicing their concerns, publishing an independent newspaper called the Black Hurricane during the 1970-71 academic year.

The Black Cultural Center and African American Studies program were up and running by 1975, when the BCC sponsored Muhammad Ali’s visit. On the evening of November 20, 1975, 6,000 fans crowded into the Elliot Hall of Music to catch a glimpse of boxing’s world heavyweight champion. Ali’s visit to Purdue brought attention to the relatively new cultural center – celebrating the advances won by students, and providing them an important opportunity to hear from an iconic figure at the center of black activism as they continued to fight for equality on campus. Of course, because of the demographics of Purdue, most of the audience was likely white. Purdue’s student newspaper, The Exponent, reported the theme of his speech was “Friendship,” which hints at an inclusive and cooperative message, breaking from his earlier emphasis on black separatism. Indeed, during some of his early campus speeches, Ali preferred to talk to exclusively black audiences. Many took place at HBCUs like Howard and Central State. Ali eventually catered to white audiences with speeches at places like UCLA and Union College during his exile. I don’t know how much they differed from Ali’s Purdue message, but given the developments I outline above, my hunch is that there is some evolution.

Ali was a hit at Purdue. Many students recalled leaving the speech inspired and mesmerized by Ali’s message. He entertained the crowd with quips like, “I never been in no schools and I’ve lectured at Harvard,” hinting at his non-traditional intellectualism. He also relayed his belief in giving back, saying, “I get tired of this Uncle Tommin’. I just wanta see somebody do something for the little man.” Donald Mitchell, who was a professor of religion at Purdue in 1975 and attended the speech, reflected on the event in the Lafayette Journal-Courier after Ali’s death in June. “It was one of the most inspiring lectures I have ever heard. It was touching, funny, uplifting, challenging and intellectually stimulating” he wrote, “Muhammad Ali was a living example of a proud, sensitive, intelligent, cultured and successful African-American man formed by the Nation of Islam.” After the speech, students got the chance to meet the champ in a short 30-minute reception.

Black athletes at Purdue, who had a series of run-ins with administration in previous years, likely found more inspiration and encouragement in Ali’s visit than the average student. Harry Edwards has described Ali as “the father of the modern athlete, the modern athlete who stood up and spoke out for issues beyond the athletic arena, he moved sports out of the arena.” Ali’s courage particularly resonated with athletes, inspiring many of them as they began to demand black coaches and better treatment from authoritarian and unsympathetic white coaches and administrators. These issues were present at Purdue like many other campuses. A 1969 Sports Illustrated article reported, “When two black members of the Purdue track team refused to shave their mustaches, Athletic Director Red Mackey suspended them.” The incident intensified when “A third Negro, a sympathetic teammate, who had already been suspended for disciplinary reasons, passed a remark that was interpreted as a bomb threat just prior to a team flight. He was arrested.” In response, the article reported, “Black students marched on City Hall in Lafayette, Ind. The charges against the bomb talker were dismissed.”

Cheerleader Pam King also clashed with administrators, too. During the 1968-1969 school year she held her fist high, giving the Black Power Salute during football and basketball games. Eventually she was “barred from entering the basketball arena during the playing of the national anthem,” causing her to quit the cheerleading squad. During the late-1960s, the political consciousness of black students took inspiration from Ali, the Olympic Project for Human Rights led by Harry Edwards, and the Black Power movement. King’s demonstration alongside the other protests on campus illustrates these connections.

By the Spring of 1975, Purdue had a black female track coach, JoAnn Terry Grissom, who competed in the hurdles and long jump at the 1960 Olympic Games. She had met Ali that year in Rome, and greeted him when he visited Purdue. It is unclear if she had any role in bringing him to campus or was hired in response to racial tension on the track team. The latter seems likely, however, and her presence on campus is indicative of how administrators sought to build bridges and meet the demands of black athletes during this era.

While Ali’s Purdue speech occurred after the Vietnam War had officially ended, it still carried some weight. And perhaps more, since much of the controversy surrounding him had subsided and he was now the reigning champ. Yet given the activism only a few years prior to his visit, one wonders what kind of impact Ali had on campus? How did white administrators respond? Did they see him as controversial or was he used to placate the demands of black students? The student newspaper does little to answer these questions, but deeper reading into administrative records may reveal their true thoughts. From the local perspective, Ali’s visit showcased his intellect and activist philosophy, linked him to the black campus movement, and highlighted his popularity. It also showed his desire to maintain a relationship with young people.

* * * * *

This post is brief, exploratory, and staccato. But I hope it teases out places that we can dig deeper into various parts of Ali’s life and legacy. I believe that exploring Ali’s campus visits across the country can help us connect him to students in the 1960s and 70s, and demonstrate how his impact remains on campuses and beyond. He helped to inspire a generation to create African American Studies courses and black cultural centers, and in cases like Purdue his visit confirmed their achievements. This ground level research further helps us broaden our understanding of Ali as an advocate for education, a teacher and intellectual, and an important figure within the New Left. Ultimately, exploring the questions and contexts I propose allows us to reshape the contours of his life and more fully appreciate his legacy.

Muhammad Ali and the Fight Against Genocide

By Albinko Hasic
PhD Candidate in Modern U.S. History
Syracuse University

The death of a giant, bigger than life itself, sent shock waves, not just through the world of sports, but the world as a whole. Muhammad Ali, champion in the ring and outside of it, was gone. For so long, Ali’s life served as a great example for the downtrodden all around the world. His death beckoned a moment of reflection on that great life which benefitted so many people around him, and the world he called home. Personalities within sports, and around it took to Twitter and other social media platforms to say a few words about what Muhammad Ali meant to them. Unseen, however, was how many regular people’s lives Ali touched. The charismatic Ali was undoubtedly the greatest boxing champion, and an American sports icon, but outside of the ring, he championed another cause altogether – human rights. Many people wrongly assumed Ali’s charismatic personality, television interviews, and other media appearances contributed to the positive changes within society and around the world. What is almost never discussed are Ali’s many hours on planes, in meetings, at discussions and at negotiation tables, fighting in a different sphere for people he will have never met, or ever known personally. Ali’s activism was active and alive, matching his bigger-than-life personality. His legacy, perhaps even bigger than the man himself, still lives in the memories of the people whose cause he gladly championed.

Born into relative poverty in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, the hands of Cassius Clay and those around him were already tied. Societal advancement was not something readily feasible for the African-American population. Despite the inherent disadvantage Clay discovered boxing by mistake, stumbling upon a local gym after a stolen bike incident.[1] Clay’s career took off, winning Olympic gold in 1960, and hailed as a hero in the eyes of the American white establishment. It wasn’t for long.

Ali’s decision to join the Nation of Islam, to embrace Black Nationalism, and to change his name shocked the public sphere in the United States. His subsequent refusal to be conscripted for the Vietnam War led to arrest, much to the pleasure of the white elite. Losing prime fighting years, Ali successfully challenged and appealed the decision in the Supreme Court, winning another big battle. Ali became synonymous with counterculture and the fight against unfair societal rules imposed on minority peoples within the country, contributing much to the Civil Rights movement and the human rights fight within the U.S. Upon his retirement in 1981, Ali globalized his efforts, taking part in numerous actions around the world; everything from talking a man off of the ledge in L.A., to securing the release of U.S. hostages in Iraq, to championing Palestinian human rights. Ali wasn’t content with simply standing by idly, admiring his already monumental legacy. He built on his reputation as a “people’s champ,” by broadening the scope of all people, not just his.[2]

In 1992, war had begun in the breakaway Yugoslav republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian Serb army began a campaign of complete annihilation. The Bosnian Muslim civilian population was purposefully targeted as complete areas of the country were “ethnically cleansed.” This culminated in the Srebrenica genocide and a wider campaign of genocide in the country where by some estimates over 100,000 people were systematically murdered. Sarajevo, the country’s capital, resisted the longest siege in modern military history. The world looked on as the first genocide on the European continent since the Holocaust took place on their very television screens. To make matters worse for the embattled Bosnian Muslim population, the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo (Resolution 713) on the former Yugoslav territories. This hurt the Bosnian army the most because the Serbian army inherited the vast majority of Yugoslavia’s pre-war arsenal and Croatia could easily smuggle arms through their many ports and coastline. A few reporters, such as Christiane Amanpour, pleaded for the world to take action.

Half a world away, Muhammad Ali learned of the concentration camps and the brutal attack on members of his own faith, but more importantly, on diversity. It did not matter that it didn’t impact him directly. Ali knew that it was an attack on humanity, and therefore an attack on him as well. The Muslim community of Chicago, in cooperation with Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) created a Bosnia Task Force, in hopes of raising attention to brutal massacre taking place. The task force was successful in gathering members to join its cause, with the aim of first and foremost, confronting the killing taking place and establishing peace in the area. The group needed star power to raise attention to their cause, and they knew exactly whom they would contact, Muhammad Ali. The former champion gladly accepted the invitation. Traveling to New York, and despite under the constant shadow of his Parkinson’s disease, Ali addressed the U.N. Security Council and other senior officials, pleading to raise the weapons embargo. Even though he was unable to join later protests and rallies for the cause of the Bosnian population, Ali issued statements such as, “I wanted to be there to help fight against genocide and `ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia,” the statement said. The people of Bosnia “should be able to get their own arms to fight off the attacks of the Serb forces.”[3]

As Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first ambassador to the U.N. would later recount, “The next time I had the opportunity to meet Muhammad Ali, he actually came to meet me, at the United Nations in 1992 where I was representing Bosnia & Herzegovina, (BiH). Muhammad wanted to do as much as he could to urge action to confront the genocide being unleashed at that time. While it was the Muslim population of BiH that was being targeted, we both understood that it was diversity that was also under assault and that stereotypes were being used as the weapon of indifference.” For Ali, it was a wider humanitarian mission and the right of a people to assert their very existence and identity in the face of complete annihilation. Ali understood this struggle, from his earliest days in a racist society to the latter part of his life when he saw the global fight against injustice. For Ali, identity and life were connected and he sympathized with the need to preserve both. For the Bosnian Muslim population, whose hands were tied at home and internationally, Ali’s very support gave credence to their fight for survival. In the U.S. we remember Ali as a great fighter, a bigger-than-life personality, but for millions of people around the world, and in a small corner of Europe, he was a humanitarian, and a champion of human rights above all.

[1] Ezra, Michael. “Louisville’s Favorite Son: The Professional Debut.” In Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon, 7-13. Temple University Press, 2009.
[2] Hauser, Thomas. 1991. Muhammad Ali: his life and times. New York: Simon & Schuster.
[3] Harris, Hamil R. 1993. “Muslim Rally on Mall Urges U.S. Action in Bosnia.” The Washington Post (Pre-1997 Fulltext), May 16, A28.

Life After Death in Louisville

By Andrew McGregor

Maya Angelou once said that Muhammad Ali belonged to everyone, but Louisville perhaps has a greater claim to him than anywhere else. Ali was born in Louisville, in 1942 – he was Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. back then. The young Cassius Clay was taught his two most important lessons in Louisville: how to box, and how to recognize inequality. He watched as his mother went to work as a domestic for a rich white family across town. He knew there were certain parks, shops, and clubs in which he was not welcome, and he saw his own West-End neighborhood stagnate under the yoke of generational poverty. He also knew that there was a sharper, more violent side to American racism, especially in the South. The unconscionable murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi terrified young Clay in September 1955, and Cassius himself had a smattering of run-ins with Louisville’s more virulent racists.

Despite this, Ali loved his hometown. He returned to Louisville frequently to visit family and spoke of Louisville in honorific terms,

Wherever I go I tell ’em I’m from Louisville. I don’t want Chicago or New York or Texas to take the credit for all of what I’ve done. I want you to know … that we in Louisville are the greatest of all time.

The special relationship between Ali and his hometown became a great source of pride for Louisville, particularly after his death on June 3, 2016. Ali died in Phoenix, and had lived away from Louisville for most of his professional career, but it was his expressed wish that he should be laid to rest in the city of his birth. In the days following his death, commentary from Louisvillians sought to affirm their connection with the champ, citing the role that the city played in shaping Ali. U.S. Senate leader Mitch McConnell said of Ali, “His life story is an American story, and it’s a story that began in Louisville, Kentucky.”[1] Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer believed that “The values of hard work, conviction and compassion that Muhammad Ali developed while growing up in Louisville helped him become a global icon.” Others viewed the champ as a source of inspiration for a city that rarely attracts attraction outside of the Kentucky Derby. Louisville’s black citizens, who live in one of the most segregated African American communities in the country, spoke particularly fondly of Ali. Mourners gathered at a service outside the Muhammad Ali Center said that “he represents that greatness came from Louisville,” and that his legacy is “really major here in Louisville…now I feel like I have a duty to do something to impact this world because of him.”[2]

The connection between Ali and Louisville was not contrived as a result of his passing. The city, and Ali himself, actively fostered this relationship for many years. The Muhammad Ali Center, an $80 million museum opened in 2005, goes to great efforts to promote his legacy and places special emphasis on the influence that an upbringing in Louisville had upon shaping the champ’s hatred of racism.[3] The Clay family home on Grand Avenue has also been restored and operates as a museum, and the main thoroughfare in town was renamed Muhammad Ali Boulevard in the late 70s.[4] However, the Louisville-centric thread of the Ali story took on increased importance around the time of his funeral. Ali’s funeral celebrations were set for the 9th and 10th of June, in Louisville. For fans, journalists, and admirers, this was a chance not just to bid farewell to Ali, but perhaps also to glimpse the foundations of his greatness. Journalists from across the world descended upon Louisville for what was to be “the biggest day in Louisville’s 238-year history.”[5]

There were the obligatory interviews with childhood neighbors, sound bites from civic leaders, and vox-pops from mourning citizens. Some of these stories were hoping (impossibly) to reveal the “real” Muhammad Ali. Others tried to get a grasp upon what Ali meant to his hometown in order to better explain the significance of his burial in Louisville. International news outlets also seemed particularly interested in showing a piece of middle America to viewers who probably weren’t familiar with much of the USA outside of New York or Los Angeles. The Clay family home was a focal point for the coverage – it provided viewers with a taste of Ali’s childhood and also a window into a “forgotten” or “invisible” piece of America.[6] The house is located in “Louisville’s economically depressed, ‘hyper-segregated’ West End.”[7] The small weatherboard restoration at 3302 Grand Avenue has changed little since Ali’s childhood, and neither has the surrounding neighborhood. The days of Jim Crow are gone, but its legacy is felt sharply in Louisville’s West End. Interviews with locals revealed the area’s problems with drug use, chronic disease, entrenched poverty, and gun violence – all linked to a history of segregation.[8]

Coverage of Ali’s funeral in Louisville began to incorporate these perspectives, and took on a more nuanced character. The celebratory narrative of Ali’s relationship with Louisville remained, but the city was also painted as an allegory for the broader injustices that the champ fought against throughout his entire life. Ali’s battle against racism and injustice at a national level was supposedly doubly meaningful back in Louisville, the place that sparked his activist fire. A June 6 article in the Guardian argued that, from a racial perspective, Ali’s triumph was Louisville’s triumph,

the established order, the granters of gold medals and diner seats – would be revealed as a fragile, glass-jawed opponent by Louisville’s brash young man… By the time he finished, he had changed the Louisville of his youth – a segregated, provincial city – for good.[9]

For those familiar with Ali, or familiar with American race-relations more generally, this is hardly revelatory. Although he was only peripherally involved in localized campaigns for equality in Louisville, he often used his hometown to explain the motives and beliefs that underpinned his activism. Most famously, he asked why he should be required to “drop bullets and bombs on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs.”[10] The connections that journalists made between segregation in Louisville and Ali’s broader struggles against racism were important. This narrative also offered a break from the barrage of inspirational quotes and montages that many news outlets aired instead of analyzing the significance of his life.

However, even this more nuanced vision of Ali was overly simplistic. Throughout the coverage of the memorial celebrations, journalists conceptualized Ali’s relationship with his hometown in black and white terms (quite literally). He was positioned as the champion of black Louisville, a lone hero standing against the white establishment. Journalists described white Louisville’s consternation with Ali in the 1960s, recalling white civic leaders who had a “hard time knowing how to deal with Muhammad Ali,” because he was a “threat to social order.”[11] This vision of Ali is only partially complete. Ali did challenge the white establishment, but he also challenged the black establishment. Particularly during the mid 1960s, Ali was just as polarizing amongst black Americans as he was amongst whites. He was young. He was a braggart. He was a black nationalist. He was a Muslim, and he vehemently criticized the Civil Rights Movement. He ridiculed established black leaders for asking whites to be allowed into their shops, neighborhoods, and institutions. Further more, his Islamic faith was highly controversial amongst a strongly Christian black population. In the mid 60s, these qualities earned Ali the ire of black America, not their admiration.

This held true for the black population in Louisville too. Older, moderate, Christian, activists who believed firmly in integration dominated black advocacy in 1960s Louisville, as they did in many locations across the country.[12] Men like Frank L. Stanley, who ran the city’s black newspaper and was a noted civil rights activist, led the Louisville ‘black-lash’ against Ali. In 1964, his newspaper (the Louisville Defender) labelled Ali “pitifully ignorant,” and “not my champion” on the basis of his joining the Nation of Islam.[13] When Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, the paper “deeply regret that Clay has chosen not to bear arms for his country.”[14] The reasons for the Louisville Defender’s rebuke of Ali are far too complex to discuss in depth here.[15] It suffices to say, however, that the men who ran the Defender represented the middle-class black establishment who had been leading the civil rights movement for decades. Ali’s beliefs on how best to achieve black equality were almost antithetical to the views of the black establishment in Louisville, and across America.

This vital part of Ali’s story went unexplored during the coverage of his funeral in Louisville. Journalists focused on the divide between white and black Louisville, which is a compelling narrative. However, they ignored, or were not aware of, the divides that Ali caused within the black community. Dr Kevin Cosby, a prominent Louisvillian who spoke at Ali’s massive public funeral, alluded to this in an interview with the Huffington Post. He argued that journalists were in “great danger of making Muhammad Ali our convenient hero…to do that minimizes the courage of Muhammad Ali, and the purpose of his pronouncements.”[16] The media’s habit of portraying a simpler version of Ali was not confined to coverage of Ali’s Louisville funeral however. Outlets from across the United States, and across the world, were happy to engage with Ali’s stand against with the white establishment, but shied away from the messier, more complex narrative of his conflicts with moderate black leaders. This is due, in part, to Ali’s changing image over the past two decades. As he aged, and lost the ability to communicate, Ali slowly transformed from a firebrand activist, to a Zen-like figure of global unity and peace. This image of Ali is useful, but it’s shallow. The meaning of Ali lies somewhere in an impossibly complex nexus of faith, arrogance, virtue, compassion, violence, pride, determination, lyricism, and autonomy. Many have tried to see beyond the complexities, to uncover some sort of simple truth, an easily digestible vision of the “real Ali”. This is an impossible, and fruitless task. The best way to understand Ali is to embrace the messy, ugly, complex elements of his legacy. In the words of Dave Zirin, who wrote about Ali for the Los Angeles Times in the 60s and 70s, we must “remember what made him so dangerous in the first place.”[17]

[1] WHAS11 Staff, “Ky. Officials react to Muhammad Ali’s death,” WHAS11 ABD [online], June 5, 2016, retrieved from:
[2] Charli James, Emily Shapiro, David Caplan, “Louisville Honors Hometown Hero Muhammad Ali: ‘He Represents That Greatness Came From Louisville,’” ABC News [online], June 4, 2016, retrieved from:
[3] James A. Throgmorton, “Inventing the Greatest: Crafting Louisville’s Future out of Story and Clay,” Planning Theory 6 (no. 3, 2007): 243.
[4] Formerly Walnut Street.
[5] Chris Leadbeater, “Remembering Muhammad Ali in Louisville”, The Telegraph [online], June 9, 2016, retrieved from:
[6] Jessica Lussenhop, “The legacy of segregation in Muhammad Ali’s hometown,” BBC News Magazine [online], June 9, 2016, retrieved from:; Tracy Clayton, “Here’s What Muhammad Ali Meant To Black Louisville Natives Like Me,” Buzzfeed News Reader [online], June 28, 2016, retrieved from:;
[7] Lussenhop, “The Legacy of Segregation in Muhammad Ali’s hometown,” BBC News Magazine [online].
[8] Ibid.
[9] Matthew Teague, “Louisville, forever changed by Muhammad Ali, prepares to bury him,” The Guardian [online], June 6, 2016, retrieved from:
[10] Mike Marqusee, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (2nd ed. London, 1999), 214.
[11] Dana McMahon, “Muhammad Ali’s hometown heartbreak: I went looking for Ali’s Louisville, and it wasn’t there,” Salon [online], June 7, 2016, retrieved from:; Robert Moore, “Louisville’s finest: Muhammad Ali’s hometown hails the boxer’s legacy,” ITV News [online], June 4, 2016, retrieved from:
[12] Tracey K’Meyer, “The Gateway to the South: Regional Identity and the Louisville Civil Rights Movement,” Ohio Valley History 4 (Spring, 2004).
[13] Cecil Blye, “Writer Calls Cassius’ Black Muslim Antics Phony,” Louisville Defender, February 6, 1964; Alfred Duckett, “Patterson Was Ideal Champion,” Louisville Defender, March 19, 1964.
[14] Frank L. Stanley, “Is Religion a Last Resort?” Louisville Defender, Feb. 24, 1966.
[15] See Stephen Townsend, “Floating Like a Butterfly” Shifting Perceptions of Muhammad Ali in Louisville’s Black Press,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 2017 (in press).
[16] Travis Waldron, “This is Muhammad Ali’s Louisville,” The Huffington Post, June 24, 2016, retrieved from:
[17] Dave Zirin, “Don’t remember Muhammad Ali as a sanctified sports hero. He was a powerful, dangerous political force,” Los Angeles Times [online], June 4, 2016, retrieved from: