Though I have never supported the “sport” of boxing because I consider it a form of inhuman barbarism, I have always supported and held Muhammad Ali in the highest esteem for a number of reasons.
First, for me, Ali through his larger-than-life personality put an accessible and relatable face to boxing. I loved his incredible humor, his focused commitment, his enormous athletic ability, his physical beauty, and his agility in virtually turning a boxing match into an intricate choreographed ballet.
But most of all, I admired him for his total and complete dedication to issues of social justice and to peace, even at the expense of his personal fame and financial gain. Ali never talked or acted in ways that jeopardized his integrity and his truth, even when he took committed stands that raised controversial issues, which ultimately lost him some admirers.
For example, by refusing induction into the U.S. military in 1967 on religious grounds and over his opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the World Boxing Association stripped Muhammad Ali of his world heavyweight championship, banned him from boxing for three years, fined him $10,000, and he sentenced him to five years in prison for draft dodging, which he never served since his case was on appeal. At the time, Ali stated:
My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Muhammad Ali demonstrated to each of us the varied bridges he refused to cross at the expense of his dignity, his integrity, his self-worth and self-respect, all which he held up higher than any amount of power, fame, and glory. By example, he asked us all to question which bridges we could not and would not cross to maintain these quantities in ourselves. This questioning of ourselves I find particularly timely and poignant during this presidential election year.