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The Champ Was More Than Just a Boxer

The Champ Was More Than Just a Boxer

Despite years of bracing for his inevitable demise from the Parkinson’s disease that had debilitated him for decades, the world was devastated by the recent loss of the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali. A giant in the ring, the New York Times called him “the most charismatic and controversial sports figure of the 20th century.” And President Barack Obama, the first African-American man to lead the free world, mourned eloquently in an official statement after his death: “Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it.”

Ali is rarely remembered as simply a boxer; in fact, much of the coverage since his death almost seems to write off his sports career as a side note to what would ultimately be his most permanent mark: his personal politics, and specifically his willingness to speak out against injustice. Ali was a civil-rights leader and an anti-war activist at a time when being either was at best controversial and more often deeply dangerous.

But Ali was something else that perhaps is more controversial now than either of those labels was in his own time: an American Muslim. As we are bombarded with hateful rhetoric from the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz about the immigration of Muslims to the United States and toward Muslims writ large, admirers of Ali should not only remember his faith, but also that Islam — with its emphasis on social justice and racial equality — stoked much of the fiery defiance so many still admire about Ali today.

My father, Robert Kassel, observed Ali’s political and moral strength — again, largely borne from his conversion to Islam in 1964 — when he fought to get Ali’s boxing license reinstated after his title and right to box were revoked in 1967. He was an attorney in New York who was also the CEO of a sports conglomerate. When Ali was drafted that year, he was at the height of his heavyweight-boxing career and he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army, citing religious reasons. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” he said in a television interview shortly thereafter.

For the most part, the press was extremely critical of Ali’s choice. On May 1, 1967, Sports Illustrated published a brief but biting editorial under the headline “A Matter of Principle.” It read, “Without his gloves on, Ali is just another demagogue and an apologist for his so-called religion, and his views on Vietnam don’t deserve rebuttal.” The Chicago Tribune deplored his stance, adding insult by referring to the fighter by his birth name — one he despised being called once he had taken on his Muslim name: “We haven’t found anyone who is persuaded that Cassius Clay should be enriching himself at the expense of sucker spectators by fighting here … instead of doing his fighting in the Army.”

Some members of the African-American community, and of course the anti-war movement, were supportive of Ali, but with few exceptions the sports world shunned his politics and gradually turned against him.

For his refusal to serve, Ali was initially sentenced to five years in federal prison and a $10,000 fine. He managed to avoid jail time through a series of appeals that continued until 1971, when the Supreme Court overturned the first ruling on the grounds that Ali’s religious beliefs made him a legitimate conscientious objector.

When my father first came in contact with Ali in 1970, he found that after the ban and several years of isolation the fighter had grown bitter. “He knew he was the best fighter in the world and he was deeply torn between realizing that dream and his religious and political views about the war,” my father remembers. That year, Ali’s promoter, Bob Arum, and several others had tried and failed to get Ali a license to fight in a dozen states. It was my father who had the crazy idea to contact state Sen. Leroy Johnson. A distant acquaintance through his then-father-in-law, Johnson was a highly regarded black leader in Georgia, a state that didn’t have a boxing commission. This meant that it would be harder for the federal government to prevent Ali from fighting, as it had in most other states.

Determined to seize this opportunity, my father set about persuading Johnson and other powerful political figures in Atlanta to set up the fight — including obtaining the necessary permits and licenses from the municipal authorities, despite the ban. His efforts paid off; a match between Ali and a white boxer named Jerry Quarry was arranged. My father had not only found himself with front-row seats to the fight, but also in the crosshairs of a major cultural struggle that was underway in the United States, of which Ali was at the center.

By this point, Ali was more active in the civil-rights movement under the mentorship of Malcolm X, who would become a close friend and advisor. Ali’s commitment to the Nation of Islam had also grown, and it would prove to be a venue where he could vent his anger toward the racial discrimination he experienced as a young black man in the United States. Some felt that Ali’s religion was a bit of a front, or an excuse to get out of the war, but my father observed otherwise. He says that based on his discussions with “the champ,” it was clear Ali was a serious and (mostly) observant Muslim who was deeply committed to Islam and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

My father recalls several occasions when Ali went out of his way to demonstrate his faith and commitment to the Nation of Islam. “He had given up a huge amount — potentially the most successful boxing career in history,” my father says. And though he never showed any real sign of backing down, “[Ali] was convinced, even 48 hours before the fight [in Atlanta], that no one would ever let him box again.”

Ali was not the only one worried — or in some cases hoping — that the fight would be canceled. “The federal government served me with an injunction an hour before the fight telling me to call it off,” my father admits, with a laugh. “I tore it up and threw it in the trash.”

News of the fight had stoked passions on both sides of the Ali debate, and tensions were running high. It also wasn’t just the federal government intent on disrupting the fight; my father (and his then-wife, and my half-brother and sister) received kidnapping threats from the Ku Klux Klan and others that didn’t appreciate him bringing an African-American draft-dodger to fight in their town. As the “Jewish white guy” representing the transaction at news conferences, and the one who had put up the money, my father was a primary target for these threats.

“All the detractors knew that without the letter of credit, the fight wouldn’t happen,” he told me. “Plus, they wouldn’t have dared to threaten [Johnson].” While my father never reported the threatening phone calls, the FBI caught wind of them anyway and asked him to arrive early at Atlanta’s municipal auditorium on the day of the fight. They showed my father how to escape through a hatch in the ring if there was an attempt on his life, and an agent provided him with a bulletproof vest, which he ultimately declined to wear, telling me that it didn’t fit under his new tuxedo.

The fight took place on Oct. 26, 1970. Every prominent member of the African-American community was there in their velvet and furs, he says. “I was getting calls from everyone, and I gave them all ringside seats — even the Temptations showed up.” My father remembers the energy in the room; it was “electric.”

It had been more than three years since Ali had stepped into a ring, and the anticipation had reached its threshold. “The fact that that bell was going to ring and Ali was actually going to come out and fight, and that he hadn’t backed down, he hadn’t gone to the draft, and he was still going to fight — people were just going crazy.”

The fight ended with a technical knockout in the third round after Ali delivered a brutal blow, cutting Quarry above the eye.

Muhammad Ali beats Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, Georgia, on Oct. 26, 1970. Photo credit: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali beats Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, Georgia, on Oct. 26, 1970.
Photo credit: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

“I ran into the ring when all pandemonium broke loose, and I was right next to him and Angelo Dundee, his trainer, when Dundee came over to cut off Ali’s gloves. He cut off the first one and Senator Johnson and I were fighting over it, and then they cut off the next one and on the inside someone had written, in a ballpoint pen, ‘TKO in the third round.’”

It seems Ali had planned the outcome in advance, knowing that Quarry was “a bleeder,” and he or someone had written it there as a reminder. I couldn’t find any other reports of this in the press; but to my father, who stands by his memory, it’s a detail that only underscored Ali’s exactitude as a fighter.

That 1970 fight would re-ignite a career that not only changed the boxing world forever, but also put Ali in a position to speak out against segregation, work to alleviate poverty, and serve as a goodwill ambassador in Iraq and elsewhere. The event not only put Ali back into the ring, but it did so on his own terms, demonstrating without question his willingness to sacrifice everything for his religious and political beliefs. His position on the war became less controversial as the American people gradually came to grips with the mistake that was Vietnam, as did his views on race and other social issues. “There were a lot of people who hated him,” my father recalls. “It’s remarkable to see how he’s recognized so differently — and positively — today.”

Over the past week, I’ve been struck by how few of the obituaries and fond, moving recollections dwell on Ali’s religion, or how many of the ones that reference it in some way, treat it as an interesting footnote rather than a core aspect of his identity and values. Having grown up listening to my father’s stories about Ali, it was always clear that his religion was a core aspect of who he was, and one that his fans should appreciate and value as having driven him to change the conversation in the United States at that time. By downplaying its role, observers leave our understanding of this great man — and of my own family’s proud, if small role in his story — incomplete.

But there is no shortage of those who seek, in some cases deliberately, to ignore the fact that Ali was an adherent of a faith that today is vilified and discriminated against, not only in the United States but also across much of Europe and elsewhere in the world. In Trump’s case, his tweet last December reading, “Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?” demonstrates striking ignorance, particularly alongside his tribute to Ali last weekend (the two appear to have been more than acquaintances; Ali attended Trump’s last wedding in 2005).

But if Trump is the most egregious example of this hypocrisy, a subtler version exists in failing to recognize how Islam influenced those parts of Ali that Americans and fans around the world hold dear. While perhaps unintentionally, Ali was a great and badly needed spokesman for moderate Islam at a time when extremists have hijacked the global narrative and perpetuate a spiral of hate that is only exacerbated by bigotry in the West. To honor his legacy is to maintain his message of tolerance in our memorials, and to understand his strength in terms that respect and value his beliefs.

Photo credit: MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images