In Memoriam: Mohammad Ali 1942 – 2016

The world lost an icon on Friday June 3 with the death of boxing champion and legend Mohammad Ali. He died at the age of 74 from septic shock due to a respiratory illness in a Phoenix, Arizona hospital. He was buried today in Louisville, Kentucky.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on January 17, 1942 in Louivelle, KY, where he began training as a boxer at the age of 12. he won his first Olympic gold medal in the Light Heavyweight division at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Four years later, in an upset, he won the WBC and WBA heavyweight championships from Sonny Liston. It was shortly after that fight, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Mohammad Ali.

In 1966, after he draft status was changed from Class 1-Y (fit for service only in times of national emergency) to 1-A, Ali declared that he was a conscientious objector.

Ali stated: “War is against the teachings of the 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.”

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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?”

On April 28, 1967, Ali refused induction into the Army and was arrested, He was tried and found guilty on on June 20, 1967. The case made its way to the US Supreme Court. On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court of the United States in Clay v. United States overturned Ali’s conviction by a unanimous 8–0 decision. Justice Thurgood Marshall had recused himself because he had been the U.S. Solicitor General at the time of Ali’s conviction. During that time Ali’s boxing license had been suspended and he remained free on bail.

After retiring from the ring in 1981, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson Disease in 1984, a result of head trauma from his boxing career.

There have been many tributes to Ali, who became a peace and civil rights activist. On of the best was by Stephen Colbert and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Muhammad Ali, the Political Poet
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York Times

A friend asked me the other day to choose my favorite Muhammad Ali fight. “The Rumble in the Jungle,” I responded. I was thinking of all the rhymes that accompanied it, from “You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned? Wait till I whip George Foreman’s behind,” to the very phrase “rope-a-dope”, as he named the strategy he used to defeat a superior opponent in the heat of Kinshasa. It was an athletic event but it was also a linguistic one.

Almost from the beginning of his career, when he was still called Cassius Clay, his rhymed couplets, like his punches, were brutal and blunt. And his poems, like his opponents, suffered a beating. The press’s earliest nicknames for him, such as “Cash the Brash” and “the Louisville Lip,” derived from his deriding of opponents with poetic insults. When in the history of boxing have critics been so irked by a fighter’s use of language? A. J. Liebling called him “Mr. Swellhead Bigmouth Poet,” while John Ahern, writing in The Boston Globe in 1964, mocked his “vaudeville” verse as “homespun doggerel.” Time magazine, in a particularly nasty triple dig in 1967 over Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his embrace of the Nation of Islam and his name change, called him “Gaseous Cassius.”

But the same verse can strike one critic as doggerel and another as art, and not everyone missed the power — and the point — of Ali’s poetics. Even Ahern admitted that “the guy is a master at rhyming,” and The New Yorker editor and Ali biographer David Remnick would eulogize him as “a master of rhyming prediction and derision.” Perhaps Maya Angelou, whose own poetry is sometimes labeled doggerel, said it best: “It wasn’t only what he said and it wasn’t only how he said it; it was both of those things, and maybe there was a third thing in it, the spirit of Muhammad Ali, saying his poesies — ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’ I mean, as a poet, I like that! If he hadn’t put his name on it, I might have chosen to use that!”

Edmund Wilson once said that “we have produced some of our truest poetry in the folk songs that are inseparable from their tunes.” Likewise, the power of Ali’s poetry, often bland on the page, is inseparable from the compelling resonance of his voice.


  1. thank you TMC for the memorial to one of the greatest and most important Americans of our time.

    He was so important as an athlete that I can’t easily put it into words, and that wasn’t the biggest part of him.

    For Black Americans he was a prominent, outspoken and proudly Black man, at a time when that was very controversial. Many American athletes had lost years of their career to service in the armed forces; Ali was willing to lose years in refusal to serve.

    As an athlete, he was Heavyweight Champion in a day when that was much more important than it is now. In the 70s there weren’t too many sports figures at his level.

    And after saying all that, what really got me among all the tributes was that everyone who had ever met him wanted to tell the story, and there was no story anywhere that you wouldn’t be proud to have told about you. By EVERY account a good person.

    • TMC on June 11, 2016 at 09:55

    Ali stood by his principles, something not everyone is willing to do. I have great deal of respect for him because of that.

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