What Muhammad Ali believed


World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (born 1942) in 1967. PHOTO/Ira Rosenberg.

Muhammad Ali’s political life was as frustrating and contradictory as it was principled and selfless.

Some of the most indelible images of Muhammad Ali come from his 1974 trip to the Congo. He was the feted guest of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko  — who renamed the country Zaire in 1971 — for the spectacular “Rumble in the Jungle” title bout with heavyweight champion George Foreman.

The fight exemplified Ali’s boxing smarts. It was there that he debuted his “rope-a-dope” strategy to defeat Foreman in eight rounds. More significantly, however, Ali framed it as a demonstration of black pride: an African government hosted the fight; black pilots flew him there, and his trip amounted to a kind of homecoming for a descendant of African slaves.

Some of America’s and Africa’s top black musical talent — James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibangu, and others — headlined a massive concert to accompany the fight. All the while, Ali reveled in the love and support of ordinary people wherever he went.

But the “Rumble in the Jungle” was far from the harmonious picture of black advancement Ali and his media acolytes painted. Instead, the fight highlighted the contradictions of postcolonial politics and racial nationalism.

These tensions defined Ali’s lifelong political engagements — at times principled and progressive, at other times opportunistic and or conservative.

After Ali died on June 3, tributes poured out from all corners of the globe and from across the political spectrum. But many people indignantly denounced would-be eulogists whose beliefs and politics the boxer would have abhorred.

On Twitter, young black people rejected the notion that Ali was racially “transcendent,” arguing white commentators and public figures like Donald Trump were trying to co-opt his legacy. “He was black and proud and not part of your liberal project,” was a common retort.

Others suggested that the fact that even reactionaries felt compelled to claim Ali’s legacy was the ultimate sign of his triumph. For example, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who has been implicated in fomenting communal violence, tweeted that Ali “demonstrated the power of human spirit & determination.”

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