Even saints weren’t really “saints,” at least in the sense that we have come to understand that term: the idea of holy men and women of unlimited kindness, patience and virtue. On top of miracles verified by the Catholic Church, what actually made most saints a “saint” was their single-minded determination to get something done. And oftentimes, in order to get this thing done, the person behind that effort had to be something of a hard-headed, single-minded, feelings-bruising son of a bitch.
If you want perfection from your heroes, I suggest you find another hobby.
Muhammad Ali was far from perfect, he was, however, one of my heroes. The centerpiece in the home office where I am right now writing this and have performed all of my activism over the last decade or so, is a framed photograph of Ali in his prime standing over and taunting a vanquished Sonny Liston. Ali himself signed the photo in 1995. I have also framed the photo of Ali signing the photo.
Politically, culturally and socially, Ali and I agreed on practically nothing. As a young man, the newly-crowned heavyweight champ, fresh from his earth-shattering upset over Liston, announced his conversion to Islam and membership in Elijah Muhammad’s bizarre and racist Nation of Islam cult. He would later refuse to serve his country in Vietnam and end his life as a globalist. Me? I’m a patriotic, Roman Catholic who firmly believes that one of America’s great sins was abandoning our allies in South Vietnam.
When it comes to how the world should be, Ali was the furthest thing from my North Star. And as remarkable as they were, Ali’s athletic accomplishments have little to do with my admiration for the man. Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and Pelé are all tremendous athletic competitors, their own “Greatest” within their chosen sport, and they certainly seem like decent enough fellas, but… no.
What I admire about Ali is that he was something incredibly rare and courageous; one of the hardest things to be during his time, or any time — Muhammad Ali was his Own Man.
Despite what popular culture tries to sell us today, renouncing his Christian faith and joining the National of Islam was not seen as a cool or popular decision in 1963 — even within the black community, which is largely Christian. And it certainly wasn’t popular within the establishment media, especially the sports media.
No, the courage of Ali’s decision to shed the skin of Cassius Clay and become Muhammad Ali went far beyond bucking popular opinion. By thumbing his nose at the Christian faith, the liberal notion of racial integration, and the entire boxing world, Ali set himself up for a spectacular fall. Unlike so many today who pretend to be courageous, Ali couldn’t bury himself within the velvet bubble of an academia or Rockefeller Center where he would constantly be reassured of his courage.
Rather, Ali did what he did with no protection, no shield, and no escape. With much of the public hoping he would get his comeuppance at the hands of a fighter who did “toe the line,” again and again, Ali had to risk historic humiliation before the world, and do so in the middle of a boxing ring wearing only shorts and shoes.
With all of his beauty and eloquence and charisma and talent, in order to be his Own Man, Ali chose to be the villain in a profession where there is no place to hide, where the ultimate humiliation is just one punch away. A loss in the ring would not only have meant a professional loss for the Champ, it would have been interpreted as a loss for everything he stood for.
In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War and his athletic prime (he was 25), Ali was drafted to serve in the Army. On religious grounds, he refused. The response from the government and the boxing world was immediate and potentially disastrous. Ali was swiftly convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. He was also stripped of his heavyweight title and, unforgivably, of his livelihood. For four years, no American commission would sanction him in a fight. Moreover, he was not allowed to leave the country while free on appeal.
This quote published at NBC News probably sums up his complicated reasoning better than his more famous quotes on the subject. (e.g. The Viet Cong “never called me nigger.”)
“My enemy is the white people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese,” Ali told one white student who challenged his draft avoidance. “You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”
First off, had I been a black man in 1960s, I would have stood with Malcolm X (another hero of mine I almost always disagreed with) and not Martin Luther King. Without question, King was a legitimately great man, a true American hero. But when it comes to the government (or anyone) violating my God-given rights, I am a pure, 100%, Grade-A radical wholly uninterested in niceties and anything nearing patience or diplomacy. That’s my attitude without having experienced even 1% of what a black man born in Kentucky in 1942 experienced.
More importantly, let’s look at what Ali did not do. He did not grab his fortune and run to a foreign country without extradition that would treat him like a King and sanction his fights. Even more impressive, with his fortune, profession, and very freedom on the line, he did not accept a compromise from the government that would allow him to fulfill his military service as a noncombatant.
What Ali did do was fight the United States federal government for his God-given religious rights. He didn’t flee The System, he didn’t use his celebrity to game The System; instead, he literally risked everything to fight The System. And after four costly years, he beat The System in a unanimous Supreme Court decision.
Even before fascist American governments began forcing Christians to bake same-sex wedding cakes — to choose between their immortal souls and their livelihoods, I admired Ali’s stand. Today, I thank God for it.
Muhammad Ali could be cruel (his treatment of Joe Frazier was unforgivable), vain, petty, a bully, and dead wrong. But he was “The Greatest,” not because of his misguided beliefs but because of his courageous willingness to time and again risk everything to stand up for those beliefs.
Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali, the Louisville Lip, the Champ, the Greatest…. There will never be another like him.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC