Before Muhammad Ali Became “Muhammad Ali™”

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The man who shocked the nation by changing his name has sold that name for cash.  Last month, Muhammad Ali™ was paid $50 million by CKX, an entertainment and licensing firm, in return for an 80 percent interest in his name and likeness.

So, before Muhammad Ali™ becomes a corporate logo, let’s pause to recall the brave young firebrand who told the world: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

The battles with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Ken Norton remain part of his legend.  His rhyming speech, shuffling feet, rope-a-dope, and his eventual decline and rebirth as a sanitized hero –these are common knowledge.  Speeches like this have been erased from the public record:

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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?  No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.  This is the day when such evils must come to an end.  I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars.  But I have said it once and I will say it again.  The real enemy of my people is here.”

On June 19, 1967, an all-white jury in Houston found Ali guilty for refusing to submit to the military draft.  Although the standard sentence for such a charge was 18 months, Ali was given five years, his passport was confiscated, and he was stripped of the heavyweight title . . . eventually leading to three-and-a-half years of inactivity in the prime of his athletic life.  All because he stood up for what he believed in.

Ali was roasted by the American press but his stance had immediate global impact.

“When Ali refused to take that symbolic step forward everyone knew about it moments later,” said civil rights leader, Julian Bond.  “You could hear people talking about it on street corners.  It was on everybody’s lips.  People who had never thought about the war — black and white — began to think it through because of Ali.”

Anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan added, “It was a major boost to an antiwar movement that was very white.  He was not an academic, or a bohemian or a clergyman.  He couldn’t be dismissed as cowardly.”

“Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam was front-page news all over the world,” writes journalist Dave Zirin.  “In Guyana there was a picket of support in front of the U.S. embassy. In Karachi, young Pakistanis fasted.  And there was a mass demonstration in Cairo.”

Even Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out in solidarity, declaring: “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all — black and brown and poor — victims of the same system of oppression.”

As Ali explained during his exile: “I’m expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam and at the same time my people here are being brutalized, hell no!  I would like to say to those of you who think I have lost so much, I have gained everything.  I have peace of heart; I have a clear, free conscience.  And I am proud.  I wake up happy, I go to bed happy, and if I go to jail I’ll go to jail happy.”

That’s the Muhammad Ali I’ll choose to remember.

Mickey Z

Mickey Z. is the author of several books, most recently 50 American Revolutions You’re Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism (Disinformation Books). He can be found on the Web at