A trailblazing leader who never wished to be one
What? Ali’s dead? Yes, I know. He may have passed away in 2016, but he lives on in the minds of hundreds of millions of people. I’m one of them. As a small boy, I listened to his fights on the radio. Ali singlehandedly lifted the sport of boxing out of its doldrums and became the world’s most prominent sports figure. But more importantly, he was a leader who never really wanted to be one. I thought I’d try and share the reasons why, through an imagined interview with the man himself, taken at the height of his influence in 1970. Some parts of this interview are quoted directly from outside sources, and those sources are noted.
Verney: Ali, you’ve not only become a global sports figure but a world political figure as well. Billions of people are going to watch your fight with Joe Frazier, but just as important, billions more are following your fight against the draft. Are you surprised at how much power and influence you’ve gained for taking such a political stand?
Ali: I ain’t making a stand. I’m just following my conscience and it’s tellin’ me I can’t go over there. Why would I shoot a bunch of poor people who aren’t attacking big powerful America? What have they done to me? 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, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Verney: So you’re saying that because blacks are oppressed in this country, why should they fight for it?
Ali: I’m sayin’ that I aint got no quarrel with no Viet Cong. Why would I? What have they done to me?
Verney: You say “Take me to jail.” That’s making a statement. Taking a stand. If you didn’t take a stand, you would have gone underground or fled to Canada. You would have been a draft dodger.
Ali: I won’t ever dodge my conscience.
Verney: You’re a conscientious objector.
Ali: Call me what you want, but I won’t fight. I’m not a slave and I don’t have no slave name. My name is Muhammad Ali. I’m a Muslim, and Muslim’s don’t fight.
Verney: People say you’re arrogant and conceited.
Ali: I’m not conceited, I’m just convinced.
Verney: Convinced of what?
Ali: That I was born to be great. And now I’m the GREATEST of all timesss! I know where I’m going and I know the truth and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”
Verney: You say you know the truth? The truth about what?
Ali: The truth about black people. The truth about white people. That blacks and whites are better off apart.
Verney: You’re opposed to integration?
Ali: Islam means peace. Islam promotes harmony. And Islam says that in the jungle, lions are with lions and tigers with tigers and redbirds stay with redbirds and bluebirds with bluebirds.
Verney: But the most progressive minds in America favour bussing; they believe the integration of whites and blacks is the only way to promote racial harmony.
Ali: Racial harmony ain’t coming to America any time soon, bussing or no bussing.
Verney: You’re views are far from mainstream, and coming from a black man, they seem almost anti-American.
Ali: I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me — black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.
Verney: How did you get to be so confident in who you are and what you’re doing?
Ali: I think Bird — my momma — instilled confidence in me and my brother Rudy from day one. I can’t remember not being confident. And I had a purpose. Since the age of twelve.
Verney: Is that when you started to box?
Ali: Ha! I was a boxer well before that, according to Bird. She told me when I was two I punched her in the mouth and knocked out a tooth. I ain’t sure that happened but Bird never lied to me about nothin’ so I gotta believe her.
Verney: When did you formally get into boxing?
Ali: When I was twelve someone stole my bike outside the Columbia Auditorium in Louisville. I went to tell the cops and someone told me there was a cop named Joe Martin in the auditorium’s basement gym. He was training amateur boxers part-time, and when I saw the gym and the boxers going at it and the pounding of gloves against bags, I was hooked. I found my purpose. I went to the gym every day after school. In the mornings I would run, looking forward to future golden gloves and Olympic tournaments. I had something to do, which most kids really need. Something they can look forward to — a goal, a purpose to work towards. Something to achieve. Keeps them out of trouble.
Verney: You said you found your purpose. Is that what leaders do? Provide a sense of purpose, a sense of direction so that others can follow?
Ali: I don’t know, man. All I know is that from day one I knew I couldn’t go to places white people went to, and I wanted to rebel and be different and show everyone behind me that you don’t have to be an Uncle Tom, you don’t have to kiss you-know-what to make it. I wanted to be free, I wanted to say what I wanna say, go where I wanna go and do what I wanna do.
Verney: Why did you call Joe Frazier an Uncle Tom?
Ali: You don’t know?
Verney: No, I don’t.
Verney: Really, I don’t.
Ali: Ha. I don’t know either. No, that’s not true. I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said. Called Frazier names I shouldn’t have called him. I apologize for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote our fights.
Verney: You were the villain early in your career. Then you became the hero. So from then on you had to make your opponent into the villain, to create a villain for each of your fights.
Ali: You’re not as dumb as you look.
Verney: Thanks, I think. Your relationship with Elija Muhammad and the Nation of Islam was a complex one. Can you tell me how it developed and why he gave you the honour of calling you Muhammad Ali?
Ali: The Nation of Islam preaches that there is one God, and there is no other God but Allah. NOI preaches freedom and equal justice under the law applied equally to all people no matter what their race or class or colour may be. And the Honorable Elija Muhammad bestowed on me a great honour when he gave me the name Muhammad Ali. It means I am free; I am not a slave or a descendant of slaves.
Verney: You’ve already become heavyweight champion of the world. What do you hope to achieve in the future, as a boxer and a man?
Ali: Just continue to do what I’ve been doin’. Giving speeches, especially to college kids. Hoping to inspire them, whatever their colour or creed or nationality. Someone told me to stop bragging, that I’m intoxicated with greatness. Being intoxicated makes you do things you normally wouldn’t do, he said. Well, it’s hard to be humble when you’re great, I told him. All joking aside, I realized that most of us are intoxicated with life. There’s nothing more important than our lives, so we become intoxicated by it. We always want more, more than we have. We buy that nice couch for the living room and once we have it we want more. America itself is intoxicated. It’s intoxicated by wealth and riches, so much so that it doesn’t see reality; it doesn’t see the plight of its black people after four hundred years.
Ali: I always asked my mother, I said, ‘Momma, how come is everything white?’ I said, ‘Why is Jesus white with blond hair and blue eyes? Why is the Lord’s supper all white men? Angels are white, the Pope, Mary, and even the angels.’ I said, ‘Mother, when we die, do we go to Heaven?’ She said, ‘Naturally we go to Heaven.’ I said, ‘Well, what happened to all the black angels?’ ‘They took the pictures,’ she said. So I said, ‘Oh, I know. If the white folks is in Heaven too, then the black angels were in the kitchen, preparing the milk and honey.’ She said, ‘Listen, you quit saying that, boy.’
Verney: And you never did quit, did you?
Ali: Quit? I ain’t quit nothin’ in my life. Not in my nature. (Ali rises to go. My time is up.)
Verney: Can you give us a prediction about the fight?
Ali: Well, I have a poem for you. 
Joe’s gonna come out smokin’,
But I ain’t gonna be jokin’.
I’ll be peckin’ and pokin’, pouring water on his smokin.’
This might shock and amaze ya, But I’m going to destroy Joe Frazier.
Verney: Thank you, Ali.
Ali wasn’t just a boxer; he was an artist in the ring and a poet off it. He was a political lightning rod everywhere he went because he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and by doing so he changed the way black athletes and black people, in general, saw themselves — and how they behaved. Not passive, not victim-like, but confident, assertive, proud behaviour — like normal people. Tennis great Arthur Ashe once said of him: “Ali didn’t just change the image that African Americans have of themselves. He opened the eyes of a lot of white people to the potential of African Americans; who we are and what we can be.” For that reason alone, his legacy, and his unquenchable desire to be the greatest, will live on in the minds of hundreds of millions of people around the globe for generations to come. He had natural power and great influence, and that is the mark of a true leader — even if he himself never wanted the label.