Muhammad Ali and Identity Development
The Greatest of All Time On a bright summer evening in 1972 Muhammad Ali continued his quest to regain his birthright, the heavyweight championship of the world. Ali was/is the greatest fighter of all time. He needed to regain the championship because of the white supremacist culture of America and the white supremacist policies of the government of the United States.
Because of his political views, because he was unrelenting in his exposure of the United States as an imperialist country, a country which at home imprisoned and enslaved the of-Color peoples, particularly African Americans, and a country which fought the peoples around the world, in Vietnam, Cambodia, Puerto Rico, South Africa on the side of greed and ill-gotten wealth, Ali was loved by the peoples world-wide. Ali openly opposed the slaughter being perpetrated then against the Vietnamese people by the invading U.S. military. As a punishment for these openly political stands, the U.S. government in collusion with the U.S. Boxing Commission banned Ali from boxing and took his crown.
The specific tactic they chose in this punishment was first to draft him into the army. When Ali predictably refused to enlist, stating that “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” he was stripped of his title and put on trial for draft evasion, prosecuted as a draft dodger.
Muhammad Ali-Jerry Quarry II Ali’s right to box in the United States was reinstated after three years of being banned. His first fight back was against Jerry Quarry, a White American who was considered to be one of the top boxers in the world. Ali defeated Quarry in a technical knockout after three rounds. 18 months later, as part of Ali’s ascent to fight again for the championship, he faced Quarry again on June 27 1972.
Everything Ali did, and the way everyone experienced him was in the context of the volcanic political landscape of the times. The war being perpetrated by the United States against the people of Vietnam was a war of genocide. The Black Liberation Movement in the United States, four years after the U.S. government assassinated Martin Luther King, was in the midst of the vicious COINTELpro, the FBI’s program to eliminate the Black Panther Party — it was in the face of these basic, defining elements of the times which Ali performed his artwork. Ali-Quarry II was viewed as a political event by many people preparing to watch at that time.
Skyview Acres and Muhammad Ali I grew up in an upper middle class White neighborhood called Skyview Acres. The good fathers presented themselves as liberal progressives. There were a couple of Black families in the neighborhood, and Ricky Williams and Chip Williams were sons of two doctors, very well-off Black residents of the community. The father Sam Williams was a professor of psychology at Princeton University. As I experienced it at the time, and this is definitely not God’s version, but my experience, the Williams’ were considered by the good fathers of the neighborhood to be “good Negroes.” Meanwhile, my father was one of the attorneys for the New York Chapter of the Black Panther Party. We were “the bad niggers.” The good fathers were terrified of my father.
It is in these social circumstances that Simon Levsky, a then twenty-four-year-old White American college student and very good athlete, called us to his house for the airing of the Ali-Quarry bout. Again, it was in the above-described social circumstances that Ricky and Chip, on their side, and myself on my side, never really hung out together. We played sports — always the captains of the two opposing teams. We were the best athletes in the neighborhood, each of the three of us African Americans. So, when sides were chosen to play football, baseball or basketball, it was always the Williams, on one side, and myself on the other.
So, when Simon invited us, first of all, this was not merely a sporting event. He was inviting us to a political event. Simon was ensconced in enough liberal ideology at that time to realize that this was first of all a political event, and secondly a sporting event. He invited four or five White kids. Bye the bye, Ricky, myself and Chip are 19, 18 and 17 years-old respectively.
The Undercard The fight before the fight, otherwise known as the undercard, featured legendary light heavyweight knockout artist and African American champion Bob Foster against undefeated Mike Quarry, brother of heavyweight contender Jerry Quarry, who was going into this exhibition with a record of 35–0. Quarry being White made this match politically charged by being associated with the Ali fight.
In our group of five or six young men in Simon Levsky’s living room, we were already laser focused, even though this was the preview. Mike Quarry, though 35–0, was the underdog by far. He seemed game and was mixing it up with Foster for most of four rounds. Foster, very much unlike Ali, was not graceful, did not look beautiful in the ring. His movements were herky-jerky if anything. His identity was that of the predator, he coolly waited for his chance to get his legendary left hook in… once.
With two seconds left in round 4, Foster did this: he sliced a vicious left hook to the head of Quarry and Quarry fell all in a heap.
Foster took two steps away then stopped and looked back — at the sight of a knocked-out Quarry. Foster flipped his hand in a quick twisted motion; the flip said “He’s done.” His countenance in the moment of that gesture encapsulated a wealth of social, political and cultural meaning. In that moment Ricky Williams and I locked eyes with each. We were not friends. We were two Black kids basically separated from each other by overarching social, cultural and political circumstances. That gesture of Foster’s basically said:
“Y’all set up these fights, so you can make money. You send this poor White boy into be slaughtered by me. Oh well, this is what you get.”
Foster went back a few seconds later to the limp body of Mike Quarry out of concern for his unconscious foe when it became clear he wasn’t getting up. Quarry’s cornerman lifted his head and dropped it repeatedly. Quarry was gone.
Ricky and I, in that moment heard Foster “speaking” for a people, speaking for the times we lived in. In that moment, in response to that single second gesture of Foster, Ricky and I found something in common beyond all that had separated us. I can’t speak for Ricky, because we never spoke about it, but I would not be surprised if, like me, his sense of himself as an African American was boosted. Our identity was challenged for the better. My personage, in that moment with Ricky, took a revelatory spike. We never became friends. Ricky is now, if I heard correctly, a sociology professor at University of Texas.
And Bob Foster was also more than he appeared in that moment. He was portrayed as a Black assassin; someone who could kill you with one stroke of either hand. However, as we investigate the story of this fight, a fight which eclipsed for this viewer the import of the feature card of the night, Ali-Quarry II, it turns out that Foster was extremely concerned that he had killed this boy, and he lamented in years after that the powers-that-be are so bloodthirsty for profits that they set up “cultural events” such as this one.
Now, fifty years later, I have no interest in boxing. I do not consider it art or sport. It is merely inhumanity, gratuitous violence. That it remains for poor Black, of-Color and a few White people (and now women also!!) to annihilate each other as the presentation of modern-day gladiatorial spectacles…., is only part of the reason to boycott boxing. However, back in that day, Ali’s political message loomed, and it even passed over into the undercard. Bob Foster would keep the light heavyweight title until retiring in 1974. He has gone down as one of the most dangerous punchers the division has ever seen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQgA41C3fCs