Muhammad Ali was also a champion for social causes

Rick Olivares
Muhammad Ali was also a champion for social causes
One writer shares how Muhammad Ali's outspokenness on social issues helped shaped his understanding of the world

MANILA, Philippines – The obituaries for the man they call “The Greatest” have come fast and furious in the wake of his passing. Many try to attain the street poetry of Bundini Brown that the Greatest mouthed. Many count his greatest, famous or infamous moments. If you noticed, the greatest and the famous come far more than the latter. For such a man was Muhammad Ali.

I won’t even attempt to parrot the others. Instead, I’ll share what the man meant to me. 

Ali was my entry point into boxing. I grew up a baseball and football following the New York Yankees and the old New York Cosmos and then Liverpool Football Club. The Thrilla in Manila was the first boxing match that I saw (on television). 

After that fight, I tried to learn more about boxing, specifically, the heavyweight division that featured some of the most interesting characters to lace up boxing gloves. I began to watch and follow other boxers from George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Leon Spinks as well as the Philippines’ own world champions starting with the Bad Boy from Dadiangas, Rolando Navarrete; Dodie Boy Peñalosa; my personal favorite Luisito Espinosa; Gerry Peñalosa, and Manny Pacquiao. 

But Ali, he was Twitter and Facebook before social media. He was a shameless self-promoter yet he was profoundly entertaining. He was brash but not off putting like John McEnroe. 

I’d like to reiterate Ali’s being an entertainer. About a year after the Thrilla in Manila, Ali engaged professional wrestler Gorilla Monsoon (aka Robert James Marella) in a “bout” after the latter took care of Mikel Scicluna. Ali tried to pepper the wrestler with jabs but missed all of them. Monsoon then picked up the boxer and spun him around several times before slamming him on the mat. Ali had enough after that. No one is sure if that was rigged but whatever. That “bout” was my entry point too into professional wrestling, something I keenly follow to this day.

I did get to see him from afar when Ali Mall was inaugurated in 1976. My father took me to the then-newly opened mall in Cubao. Just to see him… wow. He was the first celebrity that I ever saw in person. 

However, more than boxing and pro wrestling, Ali’s social activism got me to understand and know more about social issues. My father taught me that if there was something I didn’t know, in order to make an informed opinion, I had to do my research. 

His conversion to Islam was something I looked into. This was a year after the Munich Massacre that brought the world face to face with the frightening spectre of terrorism. Do you lump everyone of the faith into the category of hooded terrorists? Or should you be more broad-minded and understand that not every one is like that and that there are reasons that gave rise to this violent pursuit of political aims? It is something to this day that needs a lot of soul-searching, understanding, and studying. 

"He was a shameless self-promoter yet he was profoundly entertaining. He was brash but not off putting like John McEnroe." Photo by AFP

And there was Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the US Army because he said that he didn’t have a problem with the Vietcong and it was against his beliefs. That was shocking. I had relatives and friends who served or later would in the US Armed Forces. Or even back home, military service or training (especially during the era of martial law I grew up in) was compulsory. Ali spoke out against the Vietnam War even before Martin Luther King ever did. That was bold and helped give rise to the counter-culture of the 1970s. Given the problems of global terrorism, the thinking that I formed back then about understanding before forming an opinion still holds true.

In fact, many African-American superstars are measured by their willingness to speak out on a variety of social issues. Another of my sporting idols, Michael Jordan, refused to comment about social issues or even politics, drawing the ire of people who looked to him to make a difference like Ali did. That is why people like Ali are a rarity. He said what needed to be said and the heck with anyone who didn’t agree.

I figure that if Ali was growing up in this day and age of social media, the Louisville Lip would still be just as loquacious and social media-active. 

Having said that, one of my fondest memories of Ali is that television film, Freedom Road (and to this very day, I still have that well-thumbed browning novelization of that film) along with actor, Kris Kristofferson. In that 1979 film that was based on a real life person, Ali played a former slave named Gideon Jackson who following the American Civil War battled former slaves and the Klu Klux Klan to keep the land they lived on. It was a powerful film especially for a 12-year old like me as it touched on the issue of racism; something that I experienced later in my adult life working abroad. 

There’s the pacifist way of dealing with racism and the violent manner. Ali, who let his fists — well, mostly — do the talking in the ring, chose a more peaceful manner outside the ring. Although in his early years after his conversion to Islam, his statements were explosive and very radical, I guess, we should all be thankful that he chose another road, the one harder to travel.

In these past few days, people from everywhere have enumerated his top fights, most quotable quotes, and shared 

their own personal experiences. I think it’s great. After all, in my opinion, he was truly a global superstar. The first one (as much as I am a fan of Brazilian footballer Pele, he didn’t have that gravitas that Ali had). Someone who made an impact in the 20th Century and in many people’s lives. 

As for me, I think of how he opened my mind to new, challenging, mystifying, and challenging things when he said, “Don’t count the days; make the days count.” –

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