Muhammad Ali: Remember the Power of the Fighter

Photo by Tony Triolo /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Someone showed me a video of Muhammad Ali speaking comically about race. I was pretty caught up in his delivery, which is beautiful, but eventually started thinking about the things he was saying about the world. And in the breaking wake of the non-indictment of Eric Garner's killer, these things coming up here make a lot of sense to me. 

I wondered why no mixed martial artist, with the amount of influence they have, has filled those revolutionary shoes. Maybe there aren't big enough struggles. Maybe there's too many struggles to pick from. Maybe these athletes just aren't invested. To each their own, this is just one guy's thoughts on a couple of issues.

I believe that it is everyone’s task to elevate mixed martial arts to a level it has, in some ways, struggled to reach over the past couple of decades. As far as eccentricities in professional sports go, mixed martial arts certainly are colorful. But things are changing with time, and the UFC is doing all it can to make the sport as professional and accessible as possible. MMA has evolved to a point that we’re now more than confident—we’re happy—to share our passion for the sport with those who have yet to be inducted to the ranks of mixed martial arts fans. More and more the sport is being embraced by people around the world, enjoying the viewership of both core and casual fans. In my eyes, however, there seems to be a lack of civic engagement from athletes in the sport. Surely most fighters have a charity they work with, or do in one way or another give back to their communities. I just think that an increased effort from the UFCand the fighters that make it what isin raising awareness not only of charities or missions, but raising awareness of those concepts and ideals—justice, peace, love, whatever you want to add on to the list—that we, as humans, should all strive for, could go a very, very long way.

UFC fighters have all the tools necessary to become role models. Ronda Rousey's got over 600,000 twitter followers. Anderson Silva has over 5 million. And they are always—win or lose—the individual being highlighted. Their victory is, inasmuch as they owe so much to their coaches and trainers, very much their own. The same goes for their losses. Their personalities and characters aren’t—for lack of a better word—diluted in the ranks of a team. Jon Jones could stand alone inasmuch as the New York Knicks stand alone, if he just moved as many people. And this is not at all to demerit Jon Jones, he just is not a fixed cultural figure yet. The Knicks have tradition that spans decades. It's unfair and maybe even unrealistic to expect a fighter to have that kind of tradition with that kind of weight behind him or her, but that only means that it just takes more effort in a shorter period of time. It just means that for a fighter to achieve that status they would have to truly maximize their personal potential. Unless he or she just has no larger aspirations beyond the Octagon, something I find difficult to believe.

The individuality of combat sports, and mixed martial arts in particular because of their popularity, makes them a fantastic platform upon which to build influence to change the world. And, yes, changing the world: it sounds played out. It probably is played out, but it's true. And someone's got to do it, or at least prompt others to do it. Fallon Fox: she’s singlehandedly tackling the issue of transgender people in the sport, and ultimately in the bigger scheme, by opening the discussion to the massive audiences mixed martial arts enjoy. Ronda Rousey and all the excellent athletes in the women’s divisions are making waves, in the sport and in the mainstream, deconstructing one fight a time the myth that mixed martial arts are just for thick headed men, pushing women’s athletics further than any other sport before.

Conor McGregor moves thousands at whenever he whips his tongue around behind those sunglasses. On talking alone he can up the gate revenue of any fight by a shit ton. I just get to wondering, what’s up, dude? Is there nothing in the world that you care about beside shit-talking your way to a title shot? Imagine if McGregor somehow became a figurehead of progress. 

I always ask people if there will ever be another fighter like Muhammad Ali, so invested in his ideals, and influential in his words. 

Muhammad Ali: the greatest fighter that ever graced a ring. The black Superman. The remarkable entertainer whose critics dubbed him a loudmouthed and arrogant egomaniac. There are other fighters who might have more impressive careers—Sugar Ray Robinson, for one, has a 126 fight streak over his amateur and professional career. Anderson Silva, Mike Tyson, Joe Louis. All of those guys could be argued for with ease. But there is no fighter in the world that stands up to Muhammad Ali’s influence and impact outside of the ring. And this is what is lacking, I suppose, in contemporary combat sports. 

There has not been a single issue today—not guns, not poverty, not healthcare, not racism, not drugs, not the systematic sweeping under the rug of rapes at educational institutions—that a professional fighter has taken such a vocal and active stance—for or against—as much as Muhammad Ali did about the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggle of African Americans. You could argue for Wanderlei Silva, who has been exiled from the sport, and his tongue-lashing of the UFC, accusing it of slavery and exploiting the fighters, but in the end that seems to be purely self-serving. During Ali's exile, after being stripped of his boxing license and his passport for refusing to enlist in the armed forces—and famously stating that “no Vietcong ever called [him] a nigger”—Ali toured the US speaking at colleges, criticizing the war and encouraging African American pride and championing racial justice.

Ali's eloquence is unrivaled. The ability with which he commands an audience's attention is subtle and forceful at the same time. Urgent in its calm pace, and his delivery of truth is straight up comedy-infused poetry. He is gentle inasmuch as he is harsh—maybe even too subtle for a British audience in the 70s. But he nevertheless brings the same “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” game to the way with which he touches upon the issues that matter to him. And although some of the truth he dishes out in this excerpt of an interview with Sir Michael Parkinson on October 17th, 1971 can come off as old news, it’s worth digging up, given the contemporary racial spectrum, and the issues which pockmark that landscape. 

In the excerpt, he recalls a time after, returning home to Ohio from winning Gold in the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960, when he was refused service on account of his race. He charmingly recounts that when the waitress notified him that they “don’t serve negroes,” he simply said to her that he didn’t either, so she could just bring him a hot dog or a hamburger. He also quite endearingly explores his questions as a child as to why all good things were white, and all bad things black. He poetically reminds the audience that “angel food is the white cake, and the devil’s food is chocolate cake,” and that the “little ugly duckling was a black duck,” and lest you forgot, that the “black cat was the bad luck.” 

I wonder what some fighters in the UFC—or any promotion for that matter—are saying about Ferguson, or the current shape racial relations find themselves in today in America. Tyron Woodley, for one, has been quiet beyond saying that he's outraged and embarrassed about the looters and violent protests in his hometown of Ferguson following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. Mixed martial artists know fighting, they know conflict and struggle. It comes with the territory. We wouldn't have these sports in the first place if it weren't for their ability to quench a thirst for conflict with a solution. People love watching a struggle and someone coming out on top. And this is true for so many fighters, both in and out of the Octagon. Why don’t more of them take that to the street? Why aren't more of them more vocal about more things? I appreciate Dustin Barca and his environmental efforts, Todd Vance and his fight for better solutions for the PTSD riddled vets who return home, Fallon Fox for her intelligent retorts to Joe Rogan, but we need more from more people. I don't want to accuse anyone of not doing anything, that isn't what I'm doing. These are just observations. It happens that I see a missed opportunity for everyone involved in mixed martial arts. This is a chance to infuse the sport with the transcendental qualities that come from becoming a paradigm of progressive leadership. There is so much influence in these athletes that needs to be tapped into. I'm just calling for someone to stand up like Ali did. I just want to see some of my favorite athletes march or say something for the shit they think is real. Like Nick the Tooth once said, we need a Muhammad Ali to take a stance and become a figure head for some of the change we want to see. Why shouldn't a UFC fighter be Time's Person of the Year?

Just a thought.


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