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Muhammad Ali: Hero or Villain? Essay

Muhammad Ali will be remembered long after his death. Considered by many to be the greatest boxer ever to step in the squared circle, Ali was blessed with the speed, power and stamina to become the world’s heavyweight champion. Ali was also no stranger to controversy throughout his career as many have praised him for his actions whilst many have criticised and condemned him. Ali, even over twenty years after his retirement from the sport that gave him fame, he is still one of the most recognised figures in the world today. Countless books, articles, documentaries as well as blockbuster films have featured the great boxer. The fact that Ali will be remembered is undisputed. How he is remembered varies greatly. Some view Ali as a great champion not only inside but also outside the ring.

Other views see Ali as an arrogant, unpatriotic, outspoken racist. The different views create an historical debate, which is affected greatly by context. In the case of Muhammad Ali, the responder witnesses how traditionally he was mostly viewed from a very negative perspective but in a contemporary society he is now seen, by the majority, in a positive light. These conflicting views can be seen through a number of historical texts and how they interpret events and areas of Muhammad Ali’s life. Through analysing these texts as well as the events in Ali’s life this essay discusses and decides whether Ali truly is a hero or villain.

Muhammad Ali was born as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. As a young boy Clay was always more interested in boxing than his studies. This passion for boxing began when Ali’s bike was stolen as a young teenager. Clay reported the crime to a policeman who referred him to boxing trainer Fred Stoner. This would be the beginning of Clay’s passion for the sport that brought him to prominence.

Clay became a star boxer during his high school days, where Ali won 6 Kentucky championships, 2 national Golden Glove championships and 2 Amateur Union championships. From this Cassius Clay went on to win a gold medal, representing USA, in the 1960 Rome Olympics in the light-heavyweight division. Clay had established himself as an American hero.

Clay on return to the United States turned professional and successfully began to rise through the ranks. Clay soon fought Archie Moore to be #1 contender to Sonny Liston’s world title. Over 16,000 fans paid money “in hopes of seeing Archie Moore button the brash kid’s lips”. They were disappointed as the young boxer went on to defeat Moore with ease. Ali was on his way to his world title bout with Sonny Liston.

Promoter Bill McDonald briefly cancelled the Clay-Liston fight, as concerns grew over Clay’s safety as well as the saleability of the fight. Clay, in reality Cassius X due to his belief that Clay was his ‘slave’ name, had affiliations with Malcolm X and the anti-white Black Muslims. This was already seeping into the news but the scheduled fight still went ahead despite concerns. On February 25, 1964, Clay took the title from Liston as the public was stunned. The public was even more stunned as Clay announced his conversion to Islam. Cassius was soon renamed Muhammad Ali by the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad.

Whilst the newly named Muhammad Ali seemed convinced of the righteousness of his cause, few at the time accepted the religious message of the Nation of Islam. Its racial rhetoric, preposing radical if not violent solutions to domination by white people, betrayed hatred that in turn provoked widespread hostility against its leaders and followers. This went against American values and extreme measures would be taken to recapture the title from the hands of the Black Muslims. This worried ‘White America’ along with the growing strength of the Civil Rights Movement. History as recorded by the sportswriters of the time would have us believe that, in February of 1964, Islam itself struck a blow against the character and sanctity of America.

As a result of Ali’s conversion to Islam the WBA threatened to strip him of his title for what they considered “conduct detrimental to the spirit of boxing”. In March 1964 the WBA stripped Ali of his title for a brief period of time. The majority of the media and public of the time due to their opinion of Ali being a racist viewed this positively. However the Senator of Georgia, Richard Russell was highly critical of the WBA’s decision. Russell believed the decision and the acceptance of it as evidence of “the grip of intolerance on this country”. The fact that Ali was being discussed in the senate was evidence that the heavyweight title was an instrument of symbolic power beyond the sport.

Ali’s conversion to Islam and becoming a member of the Black Muslims is one of the events in his life in which there is much conjecture. This event is still debated in today’s society as to whether Ali was a racist. The Black Muslims and Nation of Islam had a poor reputation due to their image of hatred that solidified by Mike Wallace’s documentary “The Hate That Hate Produced” (1959). This however may have been unfair as they were trying to change their image to a new, economically orientated, more religious Nation of Islam. Their religious and believed potentially violent values, compounded by the social context of the era led to the huge push to rid Ali of his title.

Some believed that Malcolm X negatively influenced Ali whilst others believed that Ali had simply hidden his true feelings of racial anxiety from the public. The Michael Mann film, “Ali” (2001), doesn’t show the supposed violent beliefs of the Black Muslims and Nation of Islam but briefly features Malcolm X’s violent standpoint. Malcolm X was soon out of favour with the Nation of Islam with comments about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Despite being good friends with Malcolm, Ali supported the party’s view. This pivotal moment in Ali’s life is essential in analysing who Ali really is, villain or hero.

The WBA were without the support of various athletic commissions and reinstated Ali with his title. The popular opinion was that the heavyweight champ shouldn’t be preaching what was considered a “hate religion”. Ali’s popularity nose-dived. The nation was intolerant of Ali’s religious beliefs as many continued to call him Clay and the bid to find a champion with “American” values continued. Floyd Patterson arrived as a suitable candidate to take the title off the unpopular Ali. Whilst Patterson talked a good fight he was no match for Ali who was in his prime.

Patterson liked many others showed a lack of respect for Ali and his religion by refusing to name him by his correct name. As is discussed in the documentary series “Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story”, many believed Ali had tortured Patterson for twelve rounds, but the documentary comes to the conclusion, as Howard Cosell does that Ali “carried” Patterson out of admiration for the former champion. Most people at the time did believe Ali kept Patterson in the ring out of spite, which added to the negative profile that the majority of the public held of him.

During Ali’s prime years as a fighter, America was battling communism and was doing so in the Vietnam War. In 1963, at a time when Ali was largely considered charmingly obnoxious, he had been classified 1-Y for draft purposes – mentally incompetent to serve in the armed forces. However, in February 1967, Ali was reclassified by the Selective Service, making him draft eligible for Vietnam with 1-A status. The government sought to have him imitate the role Joe Louis played in World War II supporting and serving in the war. Ali refused entry into the army and this brought angry replies from the highest levels.

Representative of Pennsylvania, Frank Clark, came close to branding Ali as a traitor, “as unthinkable as surrendering to Adolf Hitler”. Clark was not alone in his feelings on Ali’s stance as the majority of the public were outraged by Ali’s refusal to serve. Ali was finally stripped of his title, as boxing asserted its patriotism and view on the war. The New York Athletic Commission stripped him of his title, declaring his conduct “detrimental to the best interests of boxing”. Other athletic commissions soon followed and refused to recognise him as the heavyweight champion, relinquishing his boxing license and evidently denying him the right to earn a living.

On June 20, 1967, the federal court found Ali guilty of draft evasion, sentencing him to five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. It was believed that if Ali had escaped without punishment then many other blacks wanting to be Muslims would follow. As there were a large percentage of blacks fighting in Vietnam this was a real concern for the government. Another Ali critic said “If any one individual contributed to the contagious disrespect for law and love of country, then it would have to be our disposed [sic] fighting king”. Ali, although heavily outnumbered, did have support from protestors of the war.

This is the most fiercely debated topic when accounting for who Ali truly is, hero or villain. Many people at the time and still today believe Ali was wrong, cowardly and unpatriotic in his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. Over time though, support has grown for his decision to avoid the draft. Many respect his protest against the war and commitment to his religion. He stood firmly by his decision as he faced imminent incarceration, revocation of his passport, unfavourable press coverage, and hostility from much of the American public.

Many also believed, and still do, that he deserved whatever he got. Thousands of others had been conscripted, fought and died for the United States. The same nation that gave Ali opportunity, fame and fortune and Ali was too ungrateful to pay her back.

Ali persevered in his pursuit for freedom and his right to earn a living as a boxer. Eventually in 1970, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Ali and he was given that freedom. He also had his boxing license reinstated as he set out to regain his heavyweight championship. In October 1970, Ali successfully made his come back by defeating Jerry Quarry. His next aim was to defeat the new champion Joe Frazier.

Ali got his wish but was eventually beaten over fifteen rounds in a close decision by Frazier. Over the next few years Ali continued to challenge and beat other contenders for the title. Ali reasserted himself as a title contender and beat Frazier in a rematch in 1974. Unfortunately this was not for the world title as Frazier had previously lost it in a devastating loss to a young George Foreman.

Ali would go on to fight Foreman in what is arguably Ali’s greatest triumph in the ring. Seven years after his title was taken from him he would recapture it against all odds. Ali used his experience to outwit and outsmart the younger and stronger Foreman. “The Rumble In The Jungle”, as it is affectionately known completed the comeback for Ali. This fight is glorified in “Ali”, which added to the feeling that this was Ali’s greatest moment inside the ring. Ali went on boxing for another five years, losing and regaining the title to become the first three-time world heavyweight champion. Ali retired in 1979 but was to come out of retirement twice in the pursuit of another title reign only to be denied.

After he retired Ali became politically active, with involvement in Jimmy Carter’s campaign in 1980. Unfortunately he was diagnosed Parkinson’s syndrome in 1982. The once quick-witted and sharp-tongued Ali is now a shadow of his former self with his speech slurred and muffled, his way of walking slow and unsteady. The public’s perspective of Ali had greatly changed since his objection to the Vietnam War now felt pity. Ali became a victim of the sport that many believed he saved.

Ali also successfully negotiated the release of fifteen soldiers being held captive during the Gulf War in 1990. Ali also founded WORLD, the World Organisation for Rights, Liberty and Dignity. Ali has also been involved numerous charities adding to his increasing popularity.

Muhammad Ali is undoubtedly a hero in the ring. His efforts for over twenty years are evidence for that. What has been disputed is whether Ali is a hero or villain outside the ring. Through the controversies, bad and good times it can be said that Ali should be considered just as much of a hero outside the ring as he was inside it.

Though there was much controversy over Ali’s conversion to Islam and the potentially threatening Black Muslims, Ali never displayed any hatred towards others that wasn’t provoked. He was committed to his religion no matter what obstacle he faced, or the ramifications it would bring. His criticism of the white treatment of blacks inspired many people involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Ali was criticised heavily for many of his actions including this. However as time has passed and the social attitudes and tolerance of America have changed the general perspective of Ali also did. A great deal has changed between the social context of the time during Ali’s fighting career and the modern society. This along with Ali’s attempts to “avoid controversy” and his eventual illness has lead to a vastly different view of Ali today. Ali is now seen as a heroic figure and remembered mostly for his better moments.

Ali always stood up for what he believed in and despite what others thought remained committed and stayed true to himself. Despite what the majority of the American public thought of him Ali also had many supporters and his actions earned their loyalty. The scene in “Ali” where Ali witnesses a mural in Zaire is symbolic of what he truly meant to people. The mural featured Ali fighting tanks and planes and symbolically fighting against war. Ali gave these people hope and inspired them, as he did to many people especially his own.

Whilst many, ridiculed Ali for his decision not to go to Vietnam, it was his decision and he stuck with it. The manner, with which he acted, may not have always been appropriate but Ali was always honest and the public always knew where he stood on issues. His manner also entertained and delighted his audiences and was a major factor in his eventual popularity. Ali was not perfect but will deservedly go down in history as not only an incredible boxer, but as a humanitarian, political activist, witty humourist and an inspiration to millions of people from all over the world.


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