Muhammad Ali was a champion in the ring, but his most important fights were outside the ring – for social justice, equality and humanity.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay in 1942, to working-class parents who were themselves descended from pre-Civil War slaves. In racially segregated Kentucky, where it was commonplace to see “Whites Only” signs on the doors of restaurants, waiting rooms and drinking fountains, Ali developed an awareness of systemic injustice that would stay with him for life. His candid – sometimes aggressive – refusal to accept the status quo was rooted in these memories
Shortly after winning the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in 1964, Ali joined the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim movement whose association with anti-Semitism and “black separatism” made Ali a polarizing figure with the American public. When Ali was called up to fight in the Vietnam War in 1966 he refused, citing, with unmatched eloquence, both his religion and his aversion to fighting for a country that was still deeply and institutionally racist: “Why should they ask me to 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?” Ali was stripped of his championship, indicted for draft evasion, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. Three years later, his conviction was overturned.
Known for his inimitable “trash talk” and sense of humour (“I’ve seen George Foreman shadow boxing and the shadow won”), Ali’s famous ego seemed to mellow over the years, when he was more likely to shout about human rights violations than his own talents. Still, when he travelled to Israel to try to secure the release of 700 Muslim prisoners, he was dismissed as a do-gooder by many. It wasn’t until his landmark journey to Iraq in 1990 to release American hostages captured after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait that he was finally taken seriously as a champion of social causes.
Credit for the film “Ban the Stun Belt”: Robin Raj, Creative Director; Matt Morin, Copywriter; Chris Friere, Art Director; Fred Murphy Cinematographer.