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Harry Cassin
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Thomas Fox
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Muhammad Ali Contra Mundum

George Orwell’s brilliant essay Shooting an Elephant starts this way: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”

Muhammad Ali, it now seems, was always important enough to be hated by large numbers of people. He never backed off or let the hate stop him.

Before his first shot at the heavyweight title in 1964, the 22-year-old was already too brash.

Everyone knew Sonny Liston was unbeatable. But Ali — his name then was Cassius Clay — wasn’t afraid. He made fun of Liston before the fight. And then over seven rounds, he beat Liston bloody.

Ali was the heavyweight champion of the world. The next day he announced his conversion to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

In 1966 he said he wouldn’t fight in the Vietnam War. “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” he said. Boxing stripped him of the title and banned him from the sport.

The majority of Americans back then thought he was a disloyal lawbreaker. But three years later, when his draft-evasion case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, he won again. By then, most Americans knew he’d been right about the war too.

He returned to boxing in late 1970. Some of his speed was gone but he was still a great fighter. Twice more he became heavyweight champ. In some of those later fights — against Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Larry Homes — Ali absorbed too much punishment.

Soon after his last fight — a loss to Trevor Berbick in 1981 — he developed Parkinson’s disease. Over the next three and a half decades, his giant spirit was trapped in a mute and failing body. It wasn’t the future anyone had imagined for Ali.

Millions of people — or was it billions? — had watched his fights. Some wanted to see him lose. But it didn’t matter. Ali was so entertaining, so talented, so brave. Most of those who once hated Ali came to admire and respect him, even to love him.

As Cassius Clay he had told the world he was the greatest. Sports writers called him the Louisville Lip and most boxing fans had a good laugh. Did his early memories of the mocking drive him to fight too long? Or did he fight too long because he’d lost three years in the ring, during his prime, when he refused to fight in Vietnam?

Who knows? But he’d had the courage to act on his beliefs, even when it meant standing against the majority. Maybe anyone who does that has to pay a price.


Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog. He’ll be the keynote speaker at the FCPA Blog NYC Conference 2016

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  1. Beautiful article.

    Globally speaking, Ali was hands down the most beloved American of the past 100 years. While many disliked him stateside, the world admired him for having the cojones to speak truth to power.

    Ali reminds us of the greatness of America. For only America could produce such a giant.


  2. 'only America can produce such a giant' is a very insular almost imperialist statement. any country could produce and Ali; never forget 'America' hated Ali (especially White America and the middle class blacks), and tried to jail him for five years for refusing to go kill, rape and torture Vietnamese people. so much for your 'greatness'. RIP Muhammad Ali, the revolutionary.

  3. Name ONE country that has produced an Ali?

    Where else could a black man, the great grandson of a slave, unleash his anger intellectually on the "White" establishment and not be killed in the 1960s? Cuba? Brazil? Dominican Republic? In fact White America had enough true constitutionalist patriots that they made sure he was protected to speak his mind? That is the foundation of America's greatness. The Constitution and the Patriots who protect it. This freedom amazes the world.

    What other country recreates itself every generation by reflecting on its weaknesses?
    What other country treats its revolutionaries with the respect and honor America treated Ali for the last 35 years of his life?
    What other country assimilates immigrants quicker? Harlem is filled with West African and Caribbean black immigrants that are becoming American. This assimilation dynamic continues to apply to every race and ethnicity.

    We are the GREATEST EMPIRE the world has yet known. We are becoming the world's first truly integrated multicultural empire in history. We are becoming a much less insular country because of globalization. Our large metropolitan areas are usually less insular. It is all happening so fast and the evidence is all around us.

    You can bet that Havana is the capital of the North American Union by 2050. Once the Octogenarian pass on in Cuba, Leftist politics as we have known for the past 55 years will be replaced in LatAm with a more cooperate political posture by all sides.

    PS: Ali was a peaceful revolutionary. He had fast mind that understood the power of words to transform people and nations. He had a good heart and that came across.

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