Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties
Second edition 2005
By the time of his death, Muhammad Ali was viewed with great affection by the American establishment.
Yet for several years in the 60s he was unchallenged as the most reviled figure in the history of American sports. Why this was the case is sharply analysed in this book by the late Mike Marqusee, a white American who permanently left the US in 1971 to live in England.
Ali’s important social and cultural impact would not have been possible if he had not been a truly great boxer, winning Gold for the USA at the 1960 Olympics before becoming world heavyweight champion in 1964. Following which, under the direction of the Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad, he changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay to Muhammad Ali.
This honour of being given a new Islamic name helped pull Ali away from Malcolm X, the man who had originally recognised his leadership qualities, and who was to be assassinated in the very month, February 1965, when the US upped its involvement in North Vietnam by launching its Rolling Thunder air war. By the time of the eventual ceasefire in the conflict eight years later, US planes had dropped three times the tonnage of bombs unloaded on all of Europe, Africa and Asia during World War II.
The conflict in Vietnam was to be the first American war in which the mood amongst blacks was oppositional. Previously it had largely been the case that black involvement was viewed as a way of pressing claims for equality, long denied in a country built on the genocide of the indigenous population and subsequent racial segregation, in times of peace. Malcolm X had in 1963 become one of the best known black people to condemn America’s meddling in Southeast Asia.
In early 1966, a time when opposition to the war was still limited, Ali was told he had been drafted and would have to fight in Vietnam. In an era when revolutionary movements were being constructed against colonialism, Ali replied: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” He was pilloried as sports commentator’s rushed to claim he had been ‘duped’ and didn’t understand what was taking place in Vietnam. His forthcoming fight with Ernie Terrell in Chicago was ruled by the Illinois attorney general as illegal on grounds that he had not used his ‘correct name’ of Cassius Clay on the contract. Other possibles venues refused to host the fight.
When the US then moved to prosecute Ali for his public opposition to the war and the draft he refused to back down and he was subsequently stripped of his titles for over three and a half years. It was a time when he was arguably, as asserted by Hugh McIlvanney, taking boxing into new territory and was at his physical peak.
Ali was to overturn his conviction for draft evasion in 1971 and return to the ring in what Marqusee describes as “a triumph over the system.” Ali was to go on to defeat Joe Frazier in 1973, George Forman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in 1974 and Leon Spinks in 1978, thus becoming the only man to become world heavyweight champion on three occasions. Ironically the Forman fight was bankrolled by dictator Joseph Mobutu who, with US support, had in 1960 overthrown the (only) democratically elected Congo President, Patrick Lumumba, who was subsequently assassinated.
Marqusee shows how by the mid 70s, Ali was being embraced by the conservative white and black American establishment. This peaked in 1996 when, with support from advertisers, backstage lobbying by NBC Sports saw Ali chosen to light the torch at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia before a sell-out crowd of 83,000 people paying $600 a ticket. Ali’s international standing amongst the masses was being cynically used by capitalists to sell the Games and its spinoff products.