Priority One Alert: Muhammad Ali 1942-2016

There are a great many people and things that Star Trek Debriefed has allowed me to talk about and wax poetic about, and even more to come. However, this weekend, one of the people I have most enjoyed writing about, Muhammad Ali, died this past weekend (I’m sure you heard about it). I’ll spare a recanting of Ali’s backstory since I covered the basics in last year’s Ali/Liston II post, but that post was really only the beginning. I’ve yet to talk about his conscientious objector status to the Vietnam War, or his brave condemnation of America’s inherent racism, and really, the entire larger legacy that the man left.

Yes, Muhammad Ali was an incredible athlete, and an epic trash talker, but it’s what he did-and how he did it-outside of the ring that is why his passing was such huge news. Ali not only stood up to power, he punched it in the face with the same ferocity as his opponents in the ring. In defying the Draft Board, he correctly and bluntly explained why no person of color ’60s America would ever want to fight in any war, much less Vietnam. It wasn’t so much as objecting to the war as it was objecting to an entire corrupt society. Not shockingly, most everyone in the establishment turned against Ali, who was widely loathed for his religion and his brash behavior.

However, Ali never buckled, and took his fight all the way to the Supreme Court, and won in a unanimous decision. The Muhammad Ali of the ’70s was not only wiser, but more emboldened: he cast himself even more strongly as someone fighting against the corrupt, white system and his foes were even more brutally dismissed as Uncle Toms (with Joe Frazier getting the worst of it, being dubbed “The Gorilla”). The irony, of course, was that Ali had more whites in his entourage than most of his opponents, to say nothing of his famous friendship with Howard Cosell. However, it was also during the ’70s that Ali took the physical punishment that most agree resulted in the Parkinson’s that slowed him down in the last three decades of his life, as a result of his famous “rope-a-dope” strategy.

Ali’s greatest impact, though, may have been on hip hop culture. His interviews and press conferences were biting and filled with rhymes, and seemingly crafted on the fly. That, of course, is the very definition of freestyling, one of the cornerstones of rap and hip hop, especially on the streets. LL Cool J even admitted to Ali’s influence, and Public Enemy definitely continued with his condemnation of the white establishment. (This, of course, is one of the things that people are trying to whitewash out of remembrances of Ali.) In fact, calling Ali an influence is grossly understating things: he was a part of hip hop culture, and quite arguably started it himself.

There have been far too many words said and written about Muhammad Ali in the past week, but it’s vital that we remember him as a revolutionary figure. Whitewashing his image (if you’ll pardon the pun) or downplaying the sheer influence of Ali outside of the ring is cheating history of its true shape. Yes, he was a superb boxer, but he was so much more.

Next week, it’s time to discuss a Supreme Court decision whose most visible legacy was its effect on TV cop shows.

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