Podium: The power of Muhammad Ali

From a talk by the principal in American Studies, the University of Westminster, to a seminar in London
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The Independent Culture
MUHAMMAD ALI'S autobiography The Greatest is now recognised as an important record of his continuing influence on the course of African- American and world history.

The emergence of Ali's political consciousness is generated by three symbolic acts that occur in the autobiography.

The first is his encounter with a racist restaurant owner who refuses to serve Ali when he was joined by a few friends to celebrate his winning of an Olympic gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. The restaurant owner tells them: "I done told you, we don't serve niggers." Ali then throws his medal into the Ohio river in disgust. A few days later, Ali and a group of friends derail an Amtrak train.

More important than these incidents is Ali's memory of Emmet Till who was murdered in Mississippi for making a pass at a white girl. Ali remembers that Emmet's twisted body had been displayed in a casket for all to see. Ali began to identify with Till when he discovered that he was born on the same day and year as Till. Ali was never to forget the racist power of the American South and the low status of the African American.

Ali was a master at getting under an opponent's skin and he used all the techniques of provocation he had acquired from African-American culture in order to embarrass people who tried to put him down. He had in his repertoire a series of masks that he could put on to dramatise these insults.

At one moment he would play the crazy coon like Stepan Petchit, rolling his eyeballs, whining, and shuffling his feet. Then he would play at being the angry buck who would threaten opponents with violence.

All these masks had been used by black actors like Sidney Poitier, Jim Brown and Brock Peters.

Ali was a master at discovering and deconstructing the myths that have governed black-white relations. Ali persuaded millions of people of colour in the Americas, Asia and Europe that they were just as capable of creating world culture as the whites.

The way Ali's speeches and actions created trans-generational bonds between black militants of all ideological persuasions made him the most exciting catalyst of his era, more than a match for Martin Luther King. The scale of his influence was truly remarkable, particularly during the period when he was preparing to fight George Foreman. He became the honoured guest of kings and presidents who were keen to be seen with this most glamorous of athletes.

His physical presence in this era was extraordinary. Norman Mailer writes: "There is always a shock in seeing him again. Then the world's greatest athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man. Women draw an audible breath. Men looked down."

In the film When We Were Kings we see Ali with a variety of groups. He is comfortable with them all, particularly children. During the course of the film we see a national hero becoming a global leader. He had the makings of a director general of the United Nations. Norman Mailer called him "the black Kissinger".

He was open to all influences and he knew how to convert popularity into political capital. Unlike the Black Muslims he was inclusive. His embrace was worldwide. Unlike the Black Muslims who saw themselves a separate element, he was an independent champion who had stood out against the American State and had refused to use American arms against his brown brothers in South East Asia.

He was royally paid for his efforts and his magical boxing style. His share of the profits of the fight with George Foreman in Zaire was $10 million. Everything about him was the greatest. His audience via satellite was the greatest that there had ever been. His message that the black man was equal to the white man was transmitted through a body of perfect proportions that danced around the ring on tiptoe, his opponents chasing shadows.

What was the Ali message? First, there was the sheer physical power of his physique and the way he could move around the ring for 15 rounds outwitting his younger and stronger opponents. Then there was the technical message that the black man was way beyond the white man in the skills necessary to compete as a heavyweight.

The strongest part of his ideology was his anti-imperialism. He praised the arts and culture of the non-whites. His great esteem for his own skills did much to empower the millions in the ghettos to whom he was a hero.

He was the top man, the king of kings and he descended into the ring in a white robe and immediately inspired the audience to call out after him his battle cry "Ali boma Ye".