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Vilified in the 1960s for his religion and politics, he has since beenmythologised as a peace emissary, negotiating the release of UShostages in Iraq, and commodified as a brand: he has been used toadvertise Coca-Cola and Adidas.
48American Culture in the 1960sMuhammad AliThe cultural impact of Cassius Marcellus Clay (1942–64) and MuhammadAli (1964– ) reflects the divisions of the 1960s and unlike most sportingfigures he has been the charismatic subject of writers who have little to dowith sport: Alex Haley, Joyce Carol Oates, Gary Wills and Ishmael Reed.When he fought Joe Frazier in what was heralded ‘the fight of the century’he was so iconic that Frank Sinatra took photographs for Life. In April 1960he was registered for the military draft. Two years later he was called butwhen he failed the aptitude test, he was reclassified ineligible (‘I was thegreatest, not the smartest’27). That decision was challenged in 1966 bywhich time he was world heavyweight champion (from February 1964when he defeated Sonny Liston). When the aptitude requirement waslowered as President Johnson’s government increased the volume ofyoung men called, Ali refused to go, stating unequivocally that ‘I ain’t gotno quarrel with those Vietcong’. In more measured tones he explained atthe hearing at which he failed to gain exemption as a conscientious objec-tor: ‘It would be no trouble for me to go into the Armed Forces, boxingexhibitions in Vietnam or traveling the country at the expense of the gov-ernment . . . not having to get out in the mud and fight and shoot. If itwasn’t against my conscience to do it . . . if I weren’t sincere’.28Ali wassincere in his belief that to fight a ‘Christian’ war as a ‘Muslim’ who had notbeen attacked by the Vietnamese was to deny all that he had learned fromthe Nation of Islam; after the Hon. Elijah Muhammad had been denouncedand died, Ali remains true to his beliefs.Norman Mailer’s profile of Ali which appeared in Life in 1971 was enti-tled ‘Ego’ and Ali’s self-fashioning as the conscience of young Americawas as, if not more, important than his boxing prowess. He was mytholo-gised as a boxer by Mailer: ‘What separates the noble ego of the prize-fighters from the lesser ego of authors is that the fighter goes throughexperiences in the ring which are occasionally immense, incommunicableexcept to fighters who have been as good’.29But he was a sign of the timesrather than solely a sporting hero. The famous statement ‘I don’t have tobe what you want me to be. I’m free to be me’ is indicative of the choiceshe made that led to the ban on practising his sport. Ali was prohibited fromboxing from 1967 to 1971, some forty-two months during which he sharp-ened his political performance speaking on college campuses around thecountry. When he returned to prizefighting, Mailer could claim Ali as themost prominent American after the President, ‘the prince of mass man andthe media’ and ‘the first psychologist of the body’.30The psychology of the