By Ibrahim Abdul-Matin
People involved with boxing like fighters, promoters, trainers, and die-hard long-time fans are fond of the saying: “styles make fights.”
Styles are the different ways that boxers use their physical abilities to their advantage in the ring. Some styles perform better against others. Each style has pros and cons. Fighters change styles over the course of their careers as they themselves change. The young Clay was known for his quick footwork, lightning fast hands, and incredibly long reach (a reach is defined as the distance from a fighters shoulder to their finger tip and the distance from their finger tip to finger tip). He was what you would call an “out boxer.” Out boxers keep a distance from their opponents and attack opportunistically. Also part of Clay’s style was his accuracy, which spawned his famous quote, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” This quote came to life in his first bout with Sonny Liston – the fight where Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.
It is important to understand Sonny Liston. In 1950, Liston served a short prison sentence for armed robbery. He found boxing in prison. Upon release, he attached himself to members of organized crime. He was known to be an intimidator for the mob. In the ring, Liston’s style was “a slugger,” someone with raw power but slower footspeed. If he caught you with his left or right hand, it might feel like a pile driver ramming into your skull. In 1962, Liston defeated Floyd Patterson to earn the heavyweight title and defended it again against Patterson the following. Liston was universally feared. For Clay and Liston, the narrative was kid from Louisville vs. grizzly, mob-connected, veteran.
Sonny Liston was the favorite with 7-1 odds in the betting circles. However, as soon as the fight started, Clay exuded confidence. His “out boxer” style emphasized Liston’s “slugger,” characterized by flat feet and heavy fists. Clay captured the title that night and shocked the world. You either fell in love with the young champ or hated the “new negro.” He was at once brash, unintimidated, and fierce, with confidence, beauty, grace, and a smile that could light up Broadway. He spoke poetry. He was a young champion who reflected a new era of Black America. Dollar signs were in view. Cassius Clay was the future of the sport and the potential to make big profits was intoxicating.
In this exact moment, Cassius Clay was in the midst of a spiritual transformation. Shortly after the fight, he proclaimed himself to be Muhammad Ali and a member of the Nation of Islam. His Islam compelled him to refuse the Vietnam War draft and between the ages of 25 and 29, his physical peak, he was barred from boxing in every state for this revolutionary refusal. This is when Muhammad Ali the fighter became Muhammad Ali the freedom fighter.
Upon returning to the sport, Ali changed his boxing style. Billed as the “Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier, Ali employed the “rope a dope” style. He allowed Frazier to barrage him though he was seemingly stuck along the ropes, giving all these punches got Frazier exhausted. Then, Ali pounced. His first fight using this style he lost. The second, he won. The world started to see a more cerebral fighter. Over the years, “The Champ” would win, lose, and hold the title three separate times. Very few fighters have done that and it is a testament to his will, focus, longevity, and ability to transform to the style that best fit the times.
Beyond boxing, Muhammad Ali was a poet.
In the classic tradition of African griots and Muslim storytellers, Ali used his words to communicate and to inspire. His words were more precise than his fists. “I done wrestled with an alligator; I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning; thrown thunder in jail; only last week I murdered a rock; injured a stone; hospitalized a brick; I’m so bad I make medicine sick.” He transformed the lives of millions by translating the complexities of race and class and spirituality into clear and understandable terms. He traveled widely and visited oppressed peoples and spoke truth to power. He was a contemporary, mentee, and friend of Malcolm X. Their ability to “make it plain” was extraordinary. Ali, like Malcolm, spoke to and for black people, his people. He never wavered and maintained honorable stances based on religious and spiritual principle.
Muhammad Ali was a committed Muslim.
As his fighting career waned in the late 1970’s he stayed deeply connected to the Black Muslim community. Like many in this era, Ali made the leap from the Nation of Islam to mainstream Sunni Islam. I remember an early 1980’s video produced by members of Imam WD Mohammed’s community where Ali encouraged Black American Muslims to start businesses, create their own wealth, and support the black community. He was, above all else, a Black man in America. However, it was his faith that bound him to a personal mission far greater than himself.
His final act of unapologetic blackness and unapologetic Muslim-ness was to orchestrate a beautiful funeral and memorial that brought heads of state, artists, activists, and the common folk all to the place where he was from. In his final act he had the ability to uplift unapologetic Black folks and unapologetic Muslim folks, showing the world just how great he was and how great we could be.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is the author of Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet and contributor to All-American: 45 American Men On Being Muslim.