The Punch in the Voice of Muhammad Ali

11 Jun

Muhammad Ali jabbed not only with his fists, but with his words.  In the boxing ring, both weapons often were working at the same time.  Outside the ring,  Ali’s voice —  bold, original, angry, yet playful — went far to help make him perhaps the most recognizable human on the planet.  Viewed today, even on faded 1960s videotape on Youtube, the relentless rants seem fresh, honest, powerful and poetic, with the added sting of humor.  Give it a listen and you might decide that Ali deserves to be considered the grandfather of slam poetry.

Bust photographic portrait of Muhammad Ali in 1967. World Journal Tribune photo by Ira Rosenberg.

Ali in 1967. (World Journal Tribune photo by Ira Rosenberg)

If you compose or compete in slam, this legacy of language is a gift for you. If you don’t, it’s a voice that is well worth experiencing, admiring and enjoying.  It’s also a form of entertainment.

After Ali’s death, the sportswriter Jerry Izenberg wrote in the New Jersey  Star-Ledger that this “nonstop staccato banter … would become the soundtrack to every major heavyweight fight, and the background music to drastic changes in America itself, during the 1960s and ’70s.”   Henry Louis Gates Jr., writing in The New York Times, called Ali “the Shakespeare of linguistic pugilism.”  Now, some examples.

Polish Press Agency (PAP)

The gold medal winner at the 1960 Olympics. (Polish Press Agency – PAP)


Olympic Champion

Muhammad Ali’s funeral procession through Louisville was nothing like what he experienced when  he returned to his hometown in 1960 after winning the Olympic gold medal. Here is his description at the time of how he was treated back home:

Yeah, I’m defeating America’s so-called threats or enemies. And the flag is going don-ton-ton-ton-tonnn, don-ton-ton-ton-ton—I’m standing so proud—don-ton-tonnn, ton-ton-tonnn—because I done whooped the world for America—don-ton-ton-ton-ton-tonnn. I took my gold medal, thought I’d invented something. I said, “Man, I know I’m going to get my people freedom now. I’m the champion of the whole world, the Olympic champion. I know I can eat downtown now.” And I went downtown that day, had my big old medal on and went in a restaurant. See, at that time, like, things weren’t integrated; black folks couldn’t eat downtown. And I went downtown, I sat down, and I said, “You know, a cup of coffee, a hot dog.” He said—the lady said, “We don’t serve Negroes.” I was so mad, I said, “I don’t eat them, either. Just give me a cup of coffee and a hamburger.”
You know, and I said, “I’m the Olympic gold medal winner. Three days ago, I fought for this country in Rome. I won the gold medal. And I’m going to eat.” The manager—heard her tell the manager, and she says—he said, “Well, I’m not the—I’m not the man—he’s got to go out.” Anyway, I didn’t raise—they put me out. And I had to leave that restaurant, in my home town, where I went to church and served in their Christianity, and fought—my daddy fought in all the wars. Just won the gold medal and couldn’t eat downtown. I said, “Something’s wrong.”


Conscientious Objector

Here is Ali in 1966, famously explaining why he filed for conscientious objector status in the military draft, opposed to fighting in the Vietnam War:


Here’s a transcript of the most famous of these passages:

My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people or some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big, powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality, and rape and kill my mother and father. Why would I want to—shoot them for what? I got to go shoot them, those little poor little black people, little babies and children, women; how can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.

And a bonus photo: With those other poets and worldwide superstars, The Beatles, in Miami Beach, 1964.


(Autore Sconosciuto)

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