Muhammad Ali loved magic. He loved to entertain crowds with his parlor tricks. Even when Parkinson’s disease stole his voice, he could still engage fans with a little sleight of hand.
But without a doubt, his greatest magic was the spell he cast on the American public.
Over the course of four nights this week on PBS, Ken Burns and his team showed how he did it in the documentary titled “Muhammad Ali”.
How did the most reviled athlete become the most loved in the space of 10 years? It is the most extraordinary role reversal in the history of sport.
In the early 1960s, when athletes were supposed to be calm, humble, and low-key, Ali was rambunctious in his claims of greatness. Add the fact that he’s a black man coming of age in the Jim Crow South and it’s easy to see why he would be so unpopular with much of America who wanted to hang out with the Cleavers and yearned to live in Mayberry.
He had the audacity to upset the boxing establishment by taking down his champion Sonny Liston and then proclaiming himself a member of the controversial Nation of Islam, changing his name in the wake of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, giving it another blow. whip to the country. .
Many saw him turn his back on Christianity and embrace a cult, so his unpopularity only grew in the United States. He was also a lightning rod in the black community and with young white liberals the separatist tendencies he espoused ran counter to the broader civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King.
Soon Ali’s Q score would collapse further when his conscription status changed and he refused to be part of the country’s war in Vietnam.
In the late 1960s, this is what it was for much of America:
A dangerous and protesting black;
A boastful mouthful and loud;
A black Muslim;
A separatist who was not fighting for integration;
A rebellious refusal to support the fight in his county.
Ali went against all American conventions at the time, so no wonder he was despised, vilified and hated by so many people in this country.
And yet, when you think of Ali today, five years after his death, does that come to mind?
Or do you see him as a champion? As a warrior? As a truth-teller? As a manager? As a person of peace and inclusion? As an American original?
His transformation in American consciousness is certainly the most remarkable achievement of any public figure – athletic or otherwise – in the past half century.
It’s a fascinating story. After his three-and-a-half-year exile from boxing due to his conscientious objector to war, the country began to return.
By the time he returned to the ring in 1970, public opinion about the Vietnam War shifted in his favor. His willingness to quit his career and go to prison for five years if necessary revealed that he was a man of character and conviction who deserved respect.
His association with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, once a priority issue, has largely receded as Ali’s faith evolved and matured into a broader understanding of religion and his rhetoric abated.
In the second half of his boxing career, Ali proved to be a bottom athlete, not a talkative athlete. He faced the toughest men in the 1970s and beat Joe Frazier twice, took Ken Norton twice and upset George Foreman, showing unparalleled tenacity to absorb punishment and always overcome.
By the mid-1970s he was everywhere, selling merchandise, hanging out with celebrities, doing variety shows, getting roasted by Dean Martin, directing a Saturday morning cartoon, traveling the world and embracing a message of peace.
America loves to tear down idols, but she loves redemption stories even more.
Ali is the ultimate redemption in the consciousness of a society, moving from hated to admired, vilified to appreciated, lambasted to praised, hated to loved – and within 10 years.
No one before or since can claim that.
It speaks of America’s ability to evolve, but more so, it speaks of Ali’s remarkable reserve of charisma that has helped coax that evolution.
It’s just hard to despise someone who is ultimately likable, entertaining, and a joy to watch and an even greater joy to listen to.
Ali didn’t use the sleight of hand for his biggest magic trick. Instead, he used charm and magnetism to conquer America, something the rest of the world had long had.
When the world’s most talkative athlete was finally silenced by illness, the fact that he persevered and pursued good works of peace despite his infirmities only added to his legacy.
In 2021, Muhammad Ali is one of the most beloved figures of all time. Try to convince someone in 1961 or even 1971 that this would be the case.
Yes, Ali has cast a spell on America. And it is a spell that we are the best to live with.
Rob McCurdy is the sports editor for The Marion Star and can be reached at [email protected], 419-610-0998, Twitter @McMotorsport and Instagram @rob_mccurdy_star.
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