From Clay to Ali: Poetry, defiance and anger

travelsI like your show
And I love your style
But your pay is so low
I won’t be back for a while!

Away from the brutality of the boxing sport, Muhammad Ali formerly known as Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior brought poetry, defiance and anger to life in the ring. From couplets to short poetic extravaganzas, he moved to the performance of longer poems. And he planned to go into music with Sam Cooke after he retired from boxing. They met in 1960, before Clay became Ali and Cooke shot dead in 1965. Whatever the Louisville Lip would morph into, song and poetry was already in him.

“This is the legend of Cassius Clay
The most beautiful fighter in the world today.
He talks a great deal and brags indeed-y
Of a muscular punch that’s incredibly speedy.
The fistic world was dull and weary
With a champ like Liston, things had to be dreary.
Then someone with color – someone with dash-
Brought fight fans running with cash
This brash, young boxer is something to see
And the heavyweight championship is his destiny.
He’s got speed and endurance.
But if you sign to fight him, increase your insurance!
This kid’s got a left. This kid’s got a right.
If he hits you once you’re asleep for the night.
And as you lie on the floor while the ref counts 10,
You pray that you won’t have to fight me again.
For I am the man this poem is about
The next champ of the world there’s no doubt.
If Cassius says a cow can lay an egg, don’t ask how.
Grease that skillet.
He is the greatest.
When I say two, there is no third.
Betting against me is completely absurd.
When Cassius says a mouse can outrun a horse
Don’t ask how.
Put your money where your mouse is!
I am the greatest!!!

The anger and the defiance came later. They came because life’s show paid so low for Black Life in America. All through his life Muhammad Ali lamented the failure of the American justice system to find the person who shot Sam Cooke guilty of murder. Imagine if Cooke was Presley or one of the Beatles… One must wonder if those who sing the praise of the greatest remember his anger and his defiance.

At the age of 12, Muhammad Ali went into a gym and asked to be taught how to box. Asked why he wanted to learn how to box he said that someone stole his new bicycle. He was going to look for the person. When he found him, he was going to whip good and proper and he wanted to know how to do it well. He learnt to box but he never found his bicycle nor did he find the person who stole it. Boxing became what he could do to make himself somebody. He also dreamed of being a singer and of using his good looks to market whatever he did.

As a young athlete representing the United States of America he won the gold medal in the heavy weight division at the Olympics in Rome in 1960. He came home to his town of his birth wearing the gold medal he had earned after becoming the greatest heavy weight in the world and he was refused service at a restaurant. Out of anger, Muhammad Ali threw his gold medal into Ohio River. The gold medal had not earned him the respect he deserved. Fast forward to the Olympics in Atlanta where he lit the Olympic touch in front of a world audience. The Olympic Organisation gave Muhammad Ali a replacement gold medal for the one he threw into the Ohio River so, so long anger ago!

During a boxing career that lasted over three decades, Muhammad Ali beat Sonny Liston, was star of the thrills in Manila and made the Rumble in the Jungle. Talent aplenty as never before displayed in boxing. Soon after the victory over Liston, Muhammad Ali joined the Nation of Islam, a Muslim group that valorised Black people.

On April 28, 1967 Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the Army of the United States of America to be sent to Vietnam to fight in the American war against that country. He was a conscientious objector to war as an instrument for settling disputes among humans. He was immediately stripped of his world heavyweight title. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment. He was fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. And these were the years of the peak of his career. His offence? He was accused of draft dodging.

Ali stated his case thus: “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers. I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong… They never called me nigger.”

Draft evasion is an intentional decision not to comply with the military conscription policies of one’s nation. Many citizens of the United States of America evaded conscription into the army during the Vietnam war. Many did this by fleeing the country and going to places like Canada, Australia and South Africa. One such draft dodger as they were known became president of the country later. Rich people, children of the rich got away with it but not Black people like Muhammad Ali. Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and Dick Cheney are some of the draft dodgers we know.

Muhammad Ali stayed out of prison because his case was appealed. He spent his time giving lectures in mosques and college auditoriums, preaching against war and for peace, freedom and friendship.

Little by little America began to change. It became possible to refuse to fight in Vietnam. Respect could be given to the deserving no matter the color of their skin. In fact, there are people who claim today that if Muhammad Ali could not have been, Barrack Obama would not have been.

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