Muhammad Ali was born on January 17, 1942 in Lousville, Kentucky as Cassius Marcellus Clay. He started training as a boxer at the age of 12. This was after his bicycle was stolen and he told Jo Martin a police officer and boxing enthusiast that he would want to beat up whoever it was that had stolen it. Martin told him he would first need to know how to box.
Ali would later rise to becoming “the Greatest” boxing legend of all times. He started with winning the boxing Olympic gold at the age of 18. He then became the world Heavyweight boxing champion twice. He was a delight to watch as a fighter and a man who could weave words into gold outside the ring
But, a major defining element of Muhammad Ali for millions across the world, was his politics. Muhammad Ali was the people’s champion not just because of his excellent boxing skills or the poetry of his speech. He was the people’s champion because he stood for social justice and freedom as well as he knew how. This he did, even at personal costs to his career.
The young Cassius Clay grew up in the midst of racial segregation. He became a staunch Black Nationalist. Influenced by Malcolm X, he joined the Nation of Islam shortly after defeating Sonny Liston to become the world Heavyweight champion in 1964. He then dropped the name “Cassius Clay” which he described as a “slave name”, taking up Muhammad Ali.
In 1966, he refused to be drafted into the US Army to fight in the imperialist war against the Vietnamese people. He was denied his license for professional boxing because of this. But he remained steadfast in his stand against the war. He inspired the Black Panthers who were a very militant body for Black Power and socialism during the 1960s Civil Rights movement in America.
But there were some shortcomings to his politics despite the brilliance and sincere commitment he brought to it. In 1984 for example, he supported the re-election of Ronald Reagan. His argument was that Reagan was “keeping God in the schools and that’s enough”. This was despite the horrendous atrocities of the Reagan administration.
A lesson for activists from this is the importance of a class compass for our ideology. Marxism empowers us with such anchor. Muhammad Ali however continues to inspire young persons who seek a better world and rightly so too. Socialist Worker says goodbye to the People’s Champion.
by Todun Jagun