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.