Series Overview – Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali

This post is the final post in our Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali Series guest edited by Andrew R.M. Smith. Muhammad Ali was a complex figure and he had a large influence beyond the United States. The goal of these posts is to explore various aspects of Ali’s life and reflect on his legacies, offering insight into understudied themes and periods. 

By Andrew R.M. Smith, Guest Editor

It has been a distinct pleasure to guest edit the “Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali” series for Sport in American History. I believe I speak for the entire Blogarchy at SAH when I say that the responses we received to this call for papers were exactly what we hoped for: a cross-section of the people who were thinking critically about Ali after his death, as well as a variety of new ways to examine what he did and what it means.

The posts selected for this series, which spanned almost the entirety of Black History Month, included two local histories, one national interpretation, and two transnational stories. They came from a handful of sports scholars at various stages of their careers, with differing relationships to academia. The authors were a mix of folks who had never written for SAH before, have had their books reviewed on the site, and regular contributors. But they all spoke directly to our expressed goal of sharing explorations or reflections of Ali via understudied aspects of his career and life outside the ring.

Bijan Bayne kicked off the series by framing Ali as the “Ringmaster” of a sports-media circus in the 1960s and ‘70s. It is a terribly prescient metaphor. Ali was more than just a part of the show; it often revolved around him. He ordered and coordinated the talent orbiting him like the conductor of a sportswriting symphony. And similar to his role as an icon for black, liberal and/or young America, Ali’s relationship with the media cannot be divorced from its context.

The rise of New Journalism begged for subjects as accessible and transparent as Ali. Bayne emphasizes Ali’s consciousness of both his public image and the cauldron that forged it. That understanding of the product and process, we learn, was crucial to Ali’s relationship with sportswriters—one that was much more symbiotic than parasitic.

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Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali

Ali’s attachment to the media is significant to the history of boxing when we consider that Ali paved the way, in many regards, to making closed-circuit television a viable medium for broadcasting prize fights. Whether for love or hate, people paid to watch Ali fight at a time when television networks shed their boxing programming out of fear that advertisers would not pay for it. By the time networks reinvested in the sport, the template for pay-per-view had already been set.

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Malcolm X holding a copy of Muhammad Speaks.

Lost in the shuffle of a self-propelling athlete-media machine, however, is that Ali did not do all of this alone. He had a team of image builders and message disseminators from his de facto press secretary Drew “Bundini” Brown to the full public relations infrastructure of the Nation of Islam. This includes the NOI’s own newspaper, Muhammad Speaks.

Bayne’s picture of Ali as a “Ringmaster” reminds us that he fit in the center of a bigger performance, relying not only on his own talent but marshalling all the resources available to him for the sake of the show. When Ali made or stayed in the headlines, it was not accidental, rather it was purposeful; not just luck, but a conscious effort; rarely candid, more often choreographed. For all of these reasons, Ali was the perfect athletic icon for a new generation of sportswriters and the evolution of visual sport media. Doubtless this media circus of the postwar era would have gone on, but the quality of its Ringmaster made the spectacle—perhaps boxing’s greatest decade—something truly great.

Given the attention directed toward Ali by print and televised media, and the attention he gave to the media during his long career, it is always surprising when someone reveals an image of Ali that we have not already seen. For many of us, Albinko Hasic’s post accomplished that feat.

Hasic discusses Ali’s intervention on behalf of Bosnian Muslims in 1992 as they faced an existential crisis following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Sympathetic organizations in the United States called on Ali a decade after his boxing career ended because he was still one of the most famous and influential Muslim Americans. Ultimately his statements in front of the United Nations Security Council did not compel them to lift the arms embargo that many believed “handcuffed” Bosnians against Serbian inheritors of Tito’s military stockpile. However, Hasic argues, Ali’s support fueled the defense against the siege of Sarajevo, legitimized the struggle, and created another pocket of lifelong Ali fans in “a small corner of Europe.”

This contribution to the series, and the moment it brings to light, demonstrates not only the global reach of Ali but also emphasizes the importance of international sports scholars in furthering studies of American athletes. It’s a refrain we often repeat at conferences and in special issues of journals. Here is prima facie evidence for the cause. Many of us were unaware of this incident; fewer still have the tools to act on it. Hasic does, and the series is better because of it.

Retelling this story fills in a gap between Ali’s retirement from the ring and his “reappearance” for many at the Olympics in Atlanta. He lived nearly half of his life as a retired boxer but much of our research stops before he hung up the gloves. Future scholars might use this as an opportunity to dig deeper into how Ali changed over time.

Much like historians of the African American experience have worked to both humanize and historicize black icons like MLK and Malcolm X, Ali’s iconic status merits further analyses. In the 1970s he did not express concern for ethnic groups under attack in Mobutu’s Zaire, or lend support to the persecuted Muslim population in the Philippines. Just as Malcolm’s understanding of Islam or MLK’s view of the war in Vietnam changed, a new cadre of sport historians with generational and geographical diversity might be ready to ask if, when, how, or why Ali changed his view of the world and his place in it.

The global appeal of Ali was as symbiotic as his relationship with sport media. Yet his ability to generate attention in other places—or even other sports—remains understudied. Roberto José Andrade Franco’s post fixates on the Ali-Inoki “fight” but with resonance across time and space.

Ali was not afraid of fighting abroad, even if he had a fear of flying, but his first significant international prize-fight was the Rumble in the Jungle. Afterwards, he pursued the “golden egg” of transoceanic mega-matches including the Thrilla in Manilla against Frazier. There were rumors of more, particularly in oil-rich Middle Eastern nations, that did not get made as Ali weighed the quality of challengers in the ring and at the gate (live and virtual). Unable to find the right opponent for another boxing match, Ali agreed to the infamous cross-over bout with a Japanese wrestler nicknamed “the Pelican.”

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The Budokan Martial Arts Hall in Tokyo, Japan

The event was an unmitigated disaster: a wrestler laying on his back, kicking the legs of a boxing champion unable to land a punch. But it fit a tradition of disappointing international events at the Budokan Martial Arts Hall. George Foreman’s first title defense occurred there a few years earlier, a two-minute drubbing of José “King” Roman that ended before some paying spectators even found their seats. The Beatles were not much better, playing one half-hour set in the 1960s before leaving the stage. Those still complaining about the truncated shows put on by Foreman or the Beatles might have changed their tune, however after a long, drawn-out farce between Ali and Inoki.

Franco is openly reconsidering this moment in time through the lens of today, as discussions regarding a boxing-Mixed Martial Arts cross-over contest grow louder. In terms of quality, his warning is certainly merited. But that did not stop Ali and Inoki. As Japan faced a stark economic downturn, marginalized sports outside of the hegemonic Sumo—including boxing and wrestling—realized a dangerous contraction in their television coverage. Moreover, the chimera of economic stimulation by foreign tourists seemed too enticing. This event was sold as a panacea to disparate stakeholders fearful of Japan’s economic future.

Spoiler alert: it did not work. But Sylvester Stallone reconceived the idea in his early scenes for “Rocky III” and the then-World Wrestling Federation’s second “Wrestlemania” event included a similar cross-over between the villain of that most recent Rocky film, Mr. T., and one of the most prominent pro-wrestling “heels” Roddy Piper. These might have influenced talks of another boxing-wrestling mega-match in the late 1980s. While in Tokyo preparing for his title fight with little-known James “Buster” Douglas, Mike Tyson and Don King held a meeting with Vince McMahon and broached the subject of a Tyson-Hulk Hogan pay-per-view event. When Tyson lost to Douglas, of course, the ideas dissipated into the air above Japan—where many folks probably wished the Ali-Inoki talks stayed.

Franco’s post reinforces Bayne’s articulation of just how aware Ali was of the need to drive public interest—particularly from those outside of the “base” of committed boxing aficionados—and the transnational attraction Ali did not just hold but actively built, as Hasic’s post demonstrates. It becomes clear that Ali was open to all offers that would keep his name in the news at home and abroad.

Spoiler alert redux: that did work. But one facet of his media-dominance that has been understudied is brought to the fore by Andrew McGregor’s post. Not only did Ali entertain new ideas for opponents, venues, and even rules as in the case of the Pelican, but he also continued to take offers for speaking engagements, particularly on college campuses, even after regaining the championship.

Because of his position at Purdue, McGregor had access to the local and student newspaper coverage of Ali’s campus visit in 1975. Less than two months removed from perhaps his most difficult match, the third meeting with Frazier, Ali came to West Lafayette to talk about “friendship.” Everyone who commented, it seems, was happy with if not inspired by the speech. Yet we do not know exactly what he said.

It is clear why Ali began taking so many speaking engagements during his forced exile from the prize ring in 1967. He lacked money and attention; these were a way to continue earning at least occasional doses of each. Likewise, students and communities caught up in a whirlwind of black activism and campus reform needed broader awareness to garner support—and to apply pressure to the powers that be who may resist their demands for change.

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Ali receiving an honorary doctorate from Princeton in 2007.

By the time Ali returned to the ring, let alone to the championship, he certainly did not face a dearth of cash or limelight. So why continue travelling and talking to students? What, precisely, was he saying in the “meat” of talks with vague labels such as friendship? A clearer understanding of what Ali said to college students and communities particularly through the 1970s might go a long way to understanding the deep connection between so many students and faculty—then and now.

It does not require a deep-dive to uncover the connection between folks in the Louisville area and Ali. Those personal connections forged and felt by many people who saw or heard, let alone met Ali, are ubiquitous in his hometown. Stephen Townsend focuses on that local level, particularly with regard to the funeral and remembrance of Ali. But he aims not to simplify as athlete-obituaries sometimes do, rather to complicate Ali further by identifying the intraracial fissures he encountered and even inflamed right at home.

Louisville was not immune to the divisions of social class and religious affiliation that augmented differences of opinion regarding the best means for addressing racial inequality in America. Local African Americans could be just as antagonistic to Ali as some national black leaders and (sports)writers who disagreed with his views on virtually everything outside of boxing. As time wore on, many forgot or forgave their grudges with Ali; others took their animosity to the grave. The memorial, funeral, and procession that followed his death appeared to be a uniform celebration of a local and national black hero.

Townsend’s post reminds us of the important role sport historians can play in protecting the past from the present. If Muhammad Ali was as unanimously adored in the 1960s as he was a half-century later, he would not have been Muhammad Ali—literally.

If we keep Ali’s significance rooted in polarization during a critical period in our history, it is important that we continue to think about those divisions. Essentialist reductions casting Ali “haters” as wealthy, Christian, white or something less than “authentically” black do not tell the whole story—even if it is often the story Ali himself perpetuated. But for all the disadvantages of growing up in Louisville’s West End, Ali enjoyed some important privileges.

Many African Americans in the rural Deep South certainly would have traded places with a light-skinned child of a two-parent household in the urban center of a border state. Actually, black residents of Louisville’s “Smoketown” on the city’s southeast probably coveted his West End address.

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Smoketown Monument in Louisville, KY

Moreover, the Clay family almost certainly had neighbors on or around Grand Ave. that would have been envious of any dual-income potential, even if the work was unsteady and chronically underpaid. Parsing out those who felt alienated by Ali because of his privilege and not theirs is a much more difficult, complicated, but fundamentally important task.

These five posts collectively elucidated new questions, methods, and perspectives for studying Ali—again. In life, he engendered more scholarship than most subjects of sport history. His death is an opportunity to encourage not just some new work but a fresh historiography on Ali. The body of scholarship on someone so important can quickly bend from historiography to hagiography. Miracles in Miami, Kinshasa, and Manilla (among others) confirmed the canonization of the man Harry Edwards called the “Saint” of the “Revolution.”

However, those of us who did not come of age during his championship reign bear the responsibility of expanding the breadth and depth of scholarship on Ali while also keeping it grounded. As Black History Month comes to a close, we should remember that Carter G. Woodson expected “Negro History Week” to emphasize the achievements and contributions of African Americans in order to weave black people back into the fabric of American history. He was not seeking out histories of exceptional people in a vacuum. Contextualizing and historicizing Ali in local, national, and transnational perspectives is crucial to integrating his life and legacy back into the central narrative of American sport history.

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Mural in northwest Washington, D.C.

Andrew R.M. Smith is Assistant Professor of Sport Management and History, and Chair of the Undergraduate Adult Education Program, at Nichols College. He was in Louisville the night Ali died and at the cafeteria tables where this series may have been conceived. Correspondence to andrew.smith@nichols.edu is always welcome.

2 thoughts on “Series Overview – Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali

  1. Pingback: A Friday Farrago | The Daily Context

  2. Muhammad Ali is certainly one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen, but there is so much more to him than his ability in the ring. Obviously, we both agree in terms that Ali had an enormous effect on people’s views, especially regarding religion and race. The statement, “Doubtless this media circus of the postwar era would have gone on, but the quality of its Ringmaster made the spectacle—perhaps boxing’s greatest decade—something truly great.” drew a great deal of interest from me for two reasons. The first is concerning the media and whether or not the craze would have been so large. Muhammad Ali was the greatest and one of the most controversial figures of that time period. I completely agree that he made the “spectacle…something truly great”, but I do not think that the media would have been in such a craze without Ali’s actions and beliefs. Secondly, the boxing era of Muhammad Ali was definitely one of, if not the best, eras in the history of the sport of boxing. Not only was it one of the greatest, but it evolved the sport into something even more great. The prizefighting that was revolutionized was because of this decade of boxing and Muhammad Ali did not only change the boxing culture, but the entire world as a whole.

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