Muhammad Ali was an inspiration both in and out of the ring
by Janna M. Hall
On June 3, 2016, the world lost the Champion. Even without the grandstanding and braggadocio, Muhammad Ali proved fight after fight to be the greatest boxer that ever lived, with speed and skill that dominated nearly every opponent. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” he often said of his technique, and children and adults alike had the privilege of watching him do just that in boxing rings around the world.
Born Cassius Marcellius Clay, Jr., Muhammad Ali discovered his natural talent for boxing at the age of 12 after telling a police officer he wanted to fight the thief who stole his bicycle. “Well, you’d better learn how to fight before you start challenging people,” the police officer told him. As fate would have it, the officer also doubled as a boxing trainer for young men, and took Ali under his wing. Soon after, he competed and won his first amateur bout, thus beginning a career that would solidify him as the world’s greatest boxer.
He’d established himself as the “meanest,” “the baddest,” and even the fastest, but Ali was also a brilliant boxer who could also win fights by simply outsmarting his opponent. Perhaps one of his most memorable fights was on October 30, 1974 against heavyweight champion George Foreman. The fight, held in Kinshasa, Zaire, violated conventional boxing wisdom. His technique, later coined “Rope-A-Dope,” involved Ali retreating to the ropes and blocking and dodging punches thrown by Foreman. An unprecedented strategy, Foreman eventually tired out, and Ali was able to return to center ring during the eighth round and knock out his exhausted opponent. Even at 32 years old and noticeably slower than his 46 previous fights, Ali defeated the champ and regained the title by knockout.
With an Olympic gold medal, the Guinness World Record for the most heavyweight world title recaptures (3), historic fights, and what are arguably the most memorable press conferences to-date, Ali’s legacy is one of greatness and commitment—to not only his craft, but also to his beliefs.
Despite much criticism and even being stripped of his titles, Ali dedicated his life to speaking against the establishment that oppressed African Americans and believed in using his platform to push for the liberation of his people. He openly opposed the Vietnam War, refusing to fight for a country that never fought for him. “My conscience won’t let me shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people, for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me ‘Nigger’. They never lynched me, they never put no dogs on me, they never robbed me of my nationality,” he said in an interview. “Shoot them for what? Just take me to jail.”
Ali’s refusal to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces and fight for a country that “won’t stand up for him and his people at home” resulted in the three-year stripping of his boxing license and a case that made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which he eventually won. His stance and vigor was polarizing, indeed, but he’ll forever be remembered for inspiring millions of Americans and truly taking a stand against a nation who sought to oppress people of color, both in the U.S. and abroad.
It is dedication to his beliefs and unwillingness to compromise his position as the most beloved, greatest boxer in the world that many remember most about Muhammad Ali. Even in his passing, he embodies the character of a true Champion, unfazed by critics and not intimidated by his opposition nor his oppressors.
Like Ali, Richmond natives hold a unique connection to the systems of oppression that sparked the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It was the parents, grandparents, and great grandparents of these natives who remember fighting against injustices that plagued communities of color in this very city. From experiencing the segregation of schools to protesting on the steps of City Hall, black Americans in Richmond, VA risked their livelihoods for the sake of justice and equality. It is that spirit that birthed black executives, black owned businesses, and black educators, and it is that spirit that birthed Muhammad Ali, a proud black man who fought physically and verbally for the empowerment and liberation of his fellow black men, women, and children.
Today, residents from Richmond, Petersburg, and beyond remember the great Muhammad Ali, not just for the speed, smarts, and strength that made him the World’s Greatest Boxer, but for the boldness and audacity that made him a true fighter.
“Muhammad Ali’s life as a fighter, both in the ring and for social justice, has played a significant role in my life as an African-American runner. His drive has motivated me to not only get the best out of myself as a marathoner, but to provide an environment for African-American men to come together, fellowship and grow together through Black Men Run Richmond. Within the group, we have built genuine friendships and have helped guys train for and run their first half marathon and marathon. Muhammad Ali once said, ‘It’s lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself.’ This is essential to not only dedicating several months to train for a marathon, but to completing it. What helped me complete my first Richmond marathon back in 2014 was that I trusted my training and had faith in what God has prepared me for. People can learn from the legacy of Muhammad Ali and better themselves and society as a whole.” – Michael Jones, Marathoner with Black Men Run Richmond
“During the age of segregation, there were very few blacks on a national stage that younger kids wanted to be like. Usually they were football or basketball players. But Ali was on both a national and international stage, so he gave us even larger goals to strive for. Before him was Joe Lewis, who was the last great boxer black people had—he came along in the 30s and 40s. But he was more conservative, played the role, and played the [white man’s] game. But when Ali came along, he was so brash and unapologetic, it brought him to the forefront of sports. He came during a time when our people pushed for voting and civil rights, so to have his talent mixed with his outspokenness, it made us proud. For once, I think people were proud to be black, not “colored,” but black, thanks to Ali’s influence and other civil rights leaders’ influence, too. I was a teenager during the 60s when school was segregated; they didn’t desegregate until ’69, and it was me and a few other black kids that went to an all-white school. And even though a lot of the white folks didn’t like him because of how outspoken he was, Ali made us proud to be black.” – Ronald Harris, Richmond, VA Native, Virginia State University Alum, Class of ’77
“I adore Muhammad Ali. I grew up looking up to him. Reading his autobiography in 1975 was one of the reasons I was inspired to transition to the Nation of Islam. He stood up to the man [in defense of] what he believed in, and he sacrificed. Truly sacrificed. He was a true champion, and proved it in and out of the ring. My father was a boxing fan, I’ve been a fan of boxing all my life, and I’ve instilled the same in my sons. With my boxing gym, I train members who are on parole, or on probation, or have community service. And thanks to inspiration from Ali, I’m able to work hard with them and produce champions, including my sons, Moshe and Immanuel Aleem. Ali was the greatest. He really was a champion, in and out the ring, and all over the world.” – Omar Aleem, Owner of 9th Dimension Sports Circle, Richmond, VA