Muhammad Ali was an athlete who was not just ahead of his time, but unduplicated by any other athlete since that time. Dave Kreissman understands this, which is why he is writing a series of articles for The Huffington Post on Ali’s contributions to society and to sports. The greatest thing about Ali is that he was far more than just an athlete. He was iconic, prophetic, conscientious and fearless.
“I am America. I am the past you won’t recognize; but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goal, my own. Get used to me.” — Muhammad Ali
Kreissman starts the conversation where it should begin, with the extraordinary legacy of Jack Johnson, who defied the racism at the time by being his own man. Johnson dominated his opponents so handily that whites rioted as a result. When Johnson retired and Joe Louis became heavyweight champion, he was given opportunities under the strict condition that he not behave the way that Jack Johnson did. Louis followed orders, but was ultimately left hanging out to dry by the white establishment, who allowed him to die broke.
In 1908, Jack Johnson shook up world of boxing, becoming the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Determined to prove “that a white man is better than a Negro”, former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement just to fight him. Johnson demolished his opponent, causing riots to break out across the country. No racial event until the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. would have such a violent reaction. As a black man with unrepentant masculinity and confident assertion of superiority, Johnson embodied the fear of White America. Subsequent African-American boxing champions such as Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson were careful to present themselves as clean, patriotic and non-threatening black men. Louis in particular was beloved by White America for his humility and service in World War II. But Johnson represented the potential that boxing had to shake the racial hierarchy, a potential that would not be realized until Muhammad Ali.