Vilified in the 1960s for his religion and politics he has since been

Vilified in the 1960s for his religion and politics

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Vilified in the 1960s for his religion and politics, he has since been mythologised as a peace emissary, negotiating the release of US hostages in Iraq, and commodified as a brand: he has been used to advertise Coca-Cola and Adidas.
48 American Culture in the 1960s Muhammad Ali The cultural impact of Cassius Marcellus Clay (1942–64) and Muhammad Ali (1964– ) reflects the divisions of the 1960s and unlike most sporting figures he has been the charismatic subject of writers who have little to do with 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 1960 he was registered for the military draft. Two years later he was called but when he failed the aptitude test, he was reclassified ineligible (‘I was the greatest, not the smartest’ 27 ). That decision was challenged in 1966 by which time he was world heavyweight champion (from February 1964 when he defeated Sonny Liston). When the aptitude requirement was lowered as President Johnson’s government increased the volume of young men called, Ali refused to go, stating unequivocally that ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong’. In more measured tones he explained at the 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, boxing exhibitions 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 it wasn’t against my conscience to do it . . . if I weren’t sincere’. 28 Ali was sincere in his belief that to fight a ‘Christian’ war as a ‘Muslim’ who had not been attacked by the Vietnamese was to deny all that he had learned from the Nation of Islam; after the Hon. Elijah Muhammad had been denounced and 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 America was 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 through experiences in the ring which are occasionally immense, incommunicable except to fighters who have been as good’. 29 But he was a sign of the times rather than solely a sporting hero. The famous statement ‘I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be me’ is indicative of the choices he made that led to the ban on practising his sport. Ali was prohibited from boxing from 1967 to 1971, some forty-two months during which he sharp- ened his political performance speaking on college campuses around the country. When he returned to prizefighting, Mailer could claim Ali as the most prominent American after the President, ‘the prince of mass man and the media’ and ‘the first psychologist of the body’. 30 The psychology of the

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