On a day when Muhammad Ali is on all of our minds, we reached out to the authors of a recent (and excellent) book on Ali to get their thoughts on the Greatest of All Time.
Muhammad Ali: A Man, Not a King
By Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith
Muhammad Ali was an epic Shakespearean figure. He transcended sports and politics, achieving a cultural importance that was singular. No one else climbed to his level. No flesh and blood person compares to him. He said he was the King of the World, and many commentators have agreed. But it is crucial to remember that he was largely self-created, that, as he said, “Who made me is me.” Shakespeare understood that kings are also men. Speaking of Hamlet’s father, Horatio said, “I saw him once; he was a goodly king.” But Hamlet quickly corrects him: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.” That was Muhammad Ali. A man, not a king. But, my god, what a man!
Muhammad Ali introduced serious ideas into the world of sports. He courted controversy, changed directions, and was seldom rigorously consistent. But along the way he made people in America and around the world think about Christianity and Islam, racism and imperialism, war and peace. In his full life he addressed the most important ideas of the day.
On February 25, 1964, when he defeated Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion, he shouted from the ring that he was “the king of the world.” That very notion, the sense of a wider world, was largely the result of his friendship with Malcolm X. The charismatic minister of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm taught young Cassius Clay, as he was then known, that he was the descendant of a race of kings, and that “white devils” had stolen their crowns, robbed them of their heritage, and shackled, enslaved, and abused them. It was for them, the downtrodden and the dispossessed, that the newly christened Muhammad Ali would speak. He would give them a voice and a champion. The morning after the fight, he told reporters at his press conference that he would be “the people’s champion.”
Fittingly, after he won the championship, he visited Harlem, where black fans gave him a hero’s welcome. “I could be living all exclusive, downtown, in some skyscraper,” he said, but he preferred being around his own people—working-class black folks who had limited education and little money. They could appreciate everything he had surmounted to became heavyweight champion of the world. His face broke into a wide smile when a crowd of children rushed toward him, shouting his name. For more than an hour, he signed autographs in the lobby. Throughout the week, he and Malcolm canvassed Harlem like two political candidates running for office on the same ticket. Ali enjoyed socializing with his adoring fans, ordinary citizens—the grassroots—bellhops, waiters, and factory workers. He loved these people because they loved him.
And throughout his life he continued to represent the poorest and least powerful. In 1991 New York Mayor David Dinkins celebrated Thomas Hauser’s biography Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, written in cooperation with Ali, with a reception on the lawn of Gracie Mansion. Midway through the event Dinkins invited Ali into the mansion to meet some deep-pocketed donors. As Ali entered the mansion he turned toward the kitchen. Dinkins touched his arm, looking toward the donors, said, “There’s some important people here, Muhammad.” Looking toward the kitchen, Ali answered, “There’s some important people in there too.”
Throughout his life he judged people by the quality of their character, not the cut of their clothes. He was the kindest to those who had the least, the most comforting to those who most needed a kind work.
Randy Roberts, Distinguished Professor of History at Purdue University, and Johnny Smith, Assistant Professor of History at Georgia Tech, are the authors of Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X (Basic Books, 2016.)