Boxing. It’s just never interested me. I grew up in an era of ear biting, mismanagement, and head injuries. All of the boxers I was familiar with were mocked or disappeared from the sport. Muhammad Ali was nothing more than one line in my history book as a kid. I knew that he was outspoken and a heavyweight champion.
I had no idea how extraordinary he was.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali is not just about his fight to be a conscientious objector or his fights in the ring, but also about his constant fight outside the ring to be the person he wanted to be.
Muhammad Ali grew up as Cassius Clay, named after a white abolitionist. He began boxing in Louisville, Kentucky at the age of 12 and became an Olympic champion at the age of 18. After winning at the Olympics, Cassius was driven to become a heavyweight champion. He was managed by a group of white men in the Louisville area who paid for everything using what they called an “Orange Juice” fund. In those times, Clay was taxed by the government at 91% because of the tax bracket he was in, but was so poor that he couldn’t afford to eat without assistance. The men that managed him never really considered him anything other than a second-class citizen. In the documentary, they made references to “owning” him and comparing him to a horse.
Cassius was always a strong personality, called polarizing because of his strong views to include race. Early videos of Cassius shows the media asking questions or making statements that were often disrespectful, but he never wavered from what he believed. The beginning of this documentary opens with a media personality calling him “a disgrace, a felon, a simplistic fool and a pawn.” He wasn’t afraid of speaking out, he didn’t need a spokesperson like other boxers – he craved the spotlight. He had a high sense of self worth and never allowed anyone to tell him that he was anything other than great. He was fearless and confident.
He converted to Islam at the age of 22 and that same year won against Sonny Liston in an upset and to become the heavyweight champion in 1964. He renounced his “slave name” Cassius Clay and became Cassius X – later that year he finally became Muhammad Ali, which stands for “worthy of all praises and the most high.”
One of the biggest issues for Ali was the fight for his name. For years after changing his name people refused to refer to him as anything other than Cassius Clay – even though it wasn’t uncommon for a celebrity to change their name; like Rock Hudson or John Wayne. However, it was definitely uncommon for a black man to make such a bold move.
Two years after winning the heavyweight title, he was ordered to report to the draft for the Vietnam War and refused, citing his religious beliefs. He was warned of the consequences including a loss of money and his titles, but he made it clear: He didn’t believe in fighting for a country that never fought for him saying “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.” He was arrested, his titles were stripped, and he was not allowed to fight in a boxing ring for three years. In a press conference he dropped bars saying “I will say here boldly now on television. No. I will not go 10,000 miles from here to help murder and kill another poor people simply to continue the domination of white slave masters over the darker people of the earth.”
He was found guilty in court, fined $10,000, and given a 5-year sentence that was eventually taken to the Supreme Court and overturned with a decision of 8-0. During that time he became a prolific speaker who went across the country speaking out against the Vietnam War and the treatment of black people all the while being attacked. He famously said “I can’t go over there and shoot those people and then come home and be called a nigger.”
In the end, Ali prevailed. He later went on to win two more heavyweight titles and a long list of achievements to include lighting the torch for the 1996 Olympics. No matter how tough the obstacles were, Ali never denied who he was and what he stood for. His courage to say no gave others courage as well. He refused to allow anyone to tell him he was anything other than the best, even when the odds were stacked against him. He wasn’t going to stop becoming Muhammad Ali just because the world didn’t understand the Muslim religion. And he certainly didn’t allow fear to stop him from objecting to a war that he didn’t agree with. He was really the greatest of all time.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali was an excellent documentary. It was raw and powerful. Using the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan was a controversial decision, but the right one because they were able to exemplify who he was at that time in his life.