Check Out the Campaign to Make Muhammad Ali a Knight of the British Realm

Photo by Autore Sconosciuto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This Friday, a long-anticipated exhibit honoring the life and deeds of former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali opens at the O2 Arena in London, and Ali himself, now 74 years old and debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, is expected to make an appearance, most likely the last trip the Greatest will ever take to Great Britain.

In anticipation of Ali’s arrival, British boxer David Haye has organized an online petition calling on Great Britain to bestow upon Ali an honorary knighthood, the greatest title the country can grant to a non-citizen. “Honorary Knighthoods are to recognise non-British citizens who have made major contributions to this country and its well-being,” Haye writes on his petition’s page. “I believe Muhammad Ali is the perfect recipient, and it is long-overdue that this country awarded him one.”

As I write this, Haye’s petition has 19,333 supporters, 5667 short of the 25,000 needed to send it to the desk of British Prime Minister David Cameron.

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Honorary knighthoods are not given out by the prime minister, however, but rather conferred by the monarch of England upon citizens of countries where that monarch is not the head of state. Honorary knights and dames are chosen by Queen Elizabeth II on the advice of the country’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in honor of contributions made to relations between their country and Great Britain. Despite the title, recipients of honorary awards can’t actually use the pre-nominal “knight” or “dame” unless they later acquire citizenship in a commonwealth realm, at which point the queen can choose to dub them “sir” or “dame” or not.

Honorary knighthoods are given out for achievement in the fields of, among other things, arts and entertainment, politics, business, religion, humanitarianism, and exploration.

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If David Haye and his 19,000 fellow signers get their way, Muhammad Ali would become the first Muslim ever made an honorary knight of the British realm.

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The “I Am the Greatest” exhibit, which is being curated by Davis Miller, a longtime friend of Ali’s and author of the bestselling The Tao of Muhammad Ali, will feature a full-size boxing ring; films and videos chronicling Ali’s boxing career, his emergence as a civil right activist, his refusal to be inducted into the American armed services during the Vietnam War, and his work as a hostage negotiator following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990; a pair of gold boxing gloves given by Ali to Elvis Presley in 1973; his “Three Times World Champion” ring from 1974; and the champion’s participation medals from the 1960 Rome Olympics. Ali, then Cassius Clay, won the gold medal that year in the light-heavyweight division, but after returning home, he threw it into a river in disgust after being denied service at a whites-only restaurant in Ohio.

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A very short list of honorary knights and dames:

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, actress Angelina Jolie, comedian Bob Hope, filmmaker Steven Spielberg, musician Ravi Shankar, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (annulled in 1989), U.S. President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, rock and roll singer Bono, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Japanese Emperor Hirohito (annulled in 1941), and Deputy Master of the Horse to the German Emperor Walter Asmus Charles Frederick Eberhard, Baron von Esebeck.

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Earlier today, Irish rock star, Band Aid impresario, singer of “I Don’t Like Mondays,” and honorary British knight Bob Geldof threw his support behind the campaign to award Muhammad Ali an honorary knighthood.  “Muhammad Ali is one of the great men of honour and God knows there’s few enough of those,” Geldof told The Standard.

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Davis Miller: “I don’t think if this [exhibit] was happening anywhere else in the world Ali would do it. He connects with people in the UK, he connects with the Brits. He used to just get out on the streets and walk and talk with people.”

David Haye: “Muhammad loves the UK … Ali’s [is] a great human being who has campaigned against poverty and discrimination and for young people and the sick throughout his life, and in particular here in Great Britain.” 

In 1977 Ali and his then-new wife, Veronica, on a charity tour of England, visited a mosque in the northern industrial city of South Shields to have their marriage blessed. When they arrived by motorcade the champion was greeted by hundreds of fans and Muslim acolytes who reached out to touch the hem of his garment, an all-white suit perfect for a wedding day.

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The campaign to knight Muhammad Ali has resulted in a rare burst of bipartisanship in English politics. Libertarian London Mayor Boris Johnson has thrown his support behind Haye’s petition, as have members of parliament from across the political spectrum, including Hackney North and Stoke Newington’s Labour MP, Diane Abbot, Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, and Conservative David Burrows from Enfield Southgate, who called Ali “the greatest not just for his past use of his boxing gloves and words, but his service to good causes.”

The push to make Muhammad Ali a knight of the realm has made for strange bedfellows.

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Speaking of strange bedfellows, if Ali is granted an honorary knighthood, he will not only be joining Bono and George Bush but J. Edgar Hoover, the former head of the FBI who famously investigated and tried to undermine the Civil Rights movement and Ali’s beloved Nation of Islam. On March 3, 1964, Hoover was informed that Ali (then Cassius Clay), who not two weeks earlier had defeated Sonny Liston to become the youngest-ever heavyweight champion of the world and then announced to the world his conversion to Islam, was becoming part of a power shake-up in the infamous (and much-hated by Hoover) Nation. That day Hoover read an FBI surveillance report that said, “Malcolm X might oppose the Nation of Islam leadership of Elijah Muhammad with the assistance of Cassius Clay.” Hoover responded to the news by immediately opening an FBI file on the new heavyweight champion.

Shortly thereafter Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam. Ali stayed behind.


Check out these related stories:

A Brutally Honest Look at Mike Tyson versus Muhammad Ali

Robert Goulet: An Omen of Madness at Ali-Liston II

Cassius X: When Muhammad Met Malcolm