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Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight

In regards to HBO’s premiere of the film “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” at Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Center last Wednesday, Howard Cosell may very well have said: “This was a potent documentary about the greatest pugilist of all time.”


HBO spokeswoman Valerie Harris told the invitation only audience, “When Ali was drafted into the Vietnam War at the height of his boxing career, his principled claim to conscientious objector status on religious grounds led to a lengthy legal battle that rattled the U.S. judicial system right up to the highest court in the land. After being widely denounced for his refusal to be drafted in the U.S. military, Ali was stripped of his title, banned from the sport and lost nearly four years of his boxing prime to legal battles. Set in 1971, the film goes behind closed doors of the United States Supreme Court as the nine Supreme Court Justices decide the outcome of Muhammad Ali’s landmark appeal.”

Prior to the screening, there were photo ops and red carpet interviews with members of Ali’s family, including Laila Ali, the intoxicating beauty, the intimidating boxer, the accomplished writer, actress, model; Len Amato, president of HBO Films that made this work a reality; Donald Lassere, president and CEO Muhammad Ali Center; and renowned musician, actor, executive producer Michael Bolton. As the event was global in scope, Ambassador Martin Andjaba from the Embassy of the Republic of Namibia was on hand to offer his respects to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s “Sportsman of the Century” as well as the Ali family and Center.

Frank Langella and Christopher Plummer in "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight." The film airs Saturday, Oct. 5, on HBO at 8 p.m.

Frank Langella and Christopher Plummer in "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight." The film airs Saturday, Oct. 5, on HBO at 8 p.m.

Former Kentucky governor John Brown; Louisville mayor, Greg Fischer; and philanthropist Mark Hogg were introduced but declined to speak illustrating actions, not words, define a man. I also got the feeling that they did not want to distract from the center’s “Three Days of Greatness” festival by diverting any attention to themselves from the Ali Center’s humanitarian award winners which included:

  • Muhammad Ali’s Humanitarian Lifetime Achievement Award that will be bestowed upon former president Jimmy Carter.
  • Humanitarian of the Year Award to Christina Aguilera for her projects dealing with issues of world hunger.
  • The Gender Equality Award will be presented to Michael Bolton for his numerous programs that assist abused and disadvantaged women.
  • The Kentucky Humanitarian Award went to Mark Hogg for his safe water programs.

Regarding Ali’s six guiding core principles, the ones used as a basis for stripping him of his heavyweight title over 4 decades ago:

  • The Confidence Award was won by Tanvi Girotra, 22, of India for her empowering women projects that included educational programs and sex trafficking prevention.
  • The Conviction Award went to Muhammed Kisirisa, 25, of Uganda for his programs to assist orphans created by AIDS.
  • The Dedication Award was given to Craig Kielburger, 30, from Canada for establishing a network where children are able to help other children.
  • The Giving Award was picked up by Nick Lowinger, 15, of Rhode Island for donating over 10,000 pairs of shoes to homeless children.
  • The Respect Award was achieved by Zachary Certner, 17, of New Jersey for his programs with special needs children.
  • The Spirituality Award was presented to Zahra Mahmoodi, 22, of Afghanistan for programs relating to gender equality in that war torn country.

During my 30 years of teaching prior to this event, I always informed my students there was never a “stupid question;” however, my media colleagues have given me cause to reconsider this position. Donald Lassere, CEO Ali Center, received more than one inquiry questioning the title of the film, more specifically, a misunderstanding (ignorance)of not being able to relate to “how” the “greatest fight” can unfold in a court room as opposed to an athletic venue?

During 1970s Alabama, Ali was generally discounted as a “big mouth (black person)” that “did not know his place.” All this changed after he beat Sonny Liston and became world champion. We young folks loved Ali, we did not see skin color. We saw a rebel, a showman, an entertainer. On the other hand, our elders saw a serious threat to the plantation social order of the South.

Martin Luther King’s non-violent protests were despised by Deep South racists; but King was never really feared like Ali’s mentor, Malcolm X. After Ali refused induction into the military, the establishment saw a way to not only terminate the threat they perceived in Ali, but to prevent others from following in his path.

Some of Ali’s more memorable quotes of the period were: “I’m not going to fight the white man’s war in Asia….the Vietnamese never called me ‘nigger’…the Vietnamese never attempted to make me their slave….the Vietnamese never attempted to rape my mother….I have nothing against those (Vietnamese) people…”

To mask prejudices, Southern whites rallied around the image of the “good Negro boxer,” Alabama native Joe Louis, whose grandparents were slaves. As a result of their subservient condition, Louis was part white (result of a rape.) Louis served honorably in the military-a fact mentioned routinely when the conversation about Ali came up.

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The inequality between whites and blacks in America was never seriously considered. The difference between WWII and Vietnam was never debated as governmental policy was “if you would have fought in one war, any war, then you cannot claim conscientious objector status.” Germany and Japan were actively seeking world domination whereas the Vietnamese never invaded or threatened the United States.

It was not common knowledge then, and still even today, that Ho Chi Minh actually travelled to the United States in an attempt to avoid the French re-colonization of Vietnam. After all during WWII Ho Chi Minh actually assisted the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) in rescuing downed pilots, including Americans, from the Japanese. However, the U.S. Congress refused to hear this “strange looking foreigner” who did not “possess the proper credentials to address such an esteemed institution.”

Danny Glover as Thurgood Marshall

Danny Glover as Thurgood Marshall

Ho Chi Minh did not realize that the fate of Vietnam had already been settled at the Potsdam Conference (1945), as verified in the “Pentagon Papers.” I have always found it amazing what historical documents can be uncovered but are never located in history books when such facts challenge accepted versions of historical events. The Vietnamese looked like easy marks for exploitation, after all, what could an undeveloped third world country possibly do with all that rubber, gold, and oil so desperately needed in the West? One could never ask a mother or wife to sacrifice their son or husband to enrich a corporation’s bottom line, on the other hand, a government could ask for blood sacrifice when it came to “stopping Communist expansion.”

Excuse me, no one ever seriously debated (except General George Patton) our pal Stalin and Russia’s quest for world domination while, at the same time, overlooking and ignoring the vast amounts of literature Ho Chi Minh generated about a “people’s right to self determination”. Nowhere in Ho’s writings was there even a hint of taking any style of Vietnamese government outside the boundaries of Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords of 1954 guaranteed national Vietnamese elections in 1956; but, as pointed out in the “Pentagon Papers” this would have been “bad for U.S. businesses” and therefore had to be stopped under the smoke screen of some “domino theory” that actually stated “If Ho Chi Minh were allowed to seize control of the South (through peaceful national elections is always omitted) then he (Ho) would be in Malibu Beach next!” I spoke to Vietnamese during the late ‘60s, not one had even heard of Malibu Beach…

It is sadly ironic that while the Nixon administration was so focused on highlighting the alleged unpatriotic criminal wrong doings of a young black professional athlete and the United States Supreme Court justices were wrestling with legal and Constitutional issues; real criminal wrong doings, real unpatriotic acts, real Constitutional violations were being ignored, over looked and rewarded.

Both Johnson and Nixon were involved in and approved aspects of the Phoenix Program, an operation that allowed U.S. and Vietnamese assassins to execute, without charges or trial, alleged “Communist agents.” It is estimated that during the presidencies of these men over 26,369 Vietnamese were murdered as a direct result of the Phoenix Program.

To justify escalation of a war that was becoming unpopular, Johnson created the Gulf of Tonkin lie that resulted in the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and over a million Vietnamese. Can this be categorized as anything but unnecessary murder and genocide? Yet, even today, unjust escalation of the war is paralleled with “patriotism” and “our sacrifices” as “noble.” We have short memories, politicians sacrificed nothing and when war deferments ran out for members of their families in the early 1970s, for all practical purposes, the war was “over.”

Nixon, not wanting to become the first American president to lose a war, dropped more bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia than were dropped during WWII! Had it not been for Daniel Ellsberg exposing the “Pentagon Papers”, recent historical documents reveal Nixon planned to drop an atomic bomb on Hanoi.

Approved utilization of American chemical and biological weapons in Vietnam has never been acknowledged by any U.S. president or governmental official. Now into the FOURTH generation of herbicidal poison victims in Vietnam, our Christian nation still turns a blind eye and deaf ear to what we did to a country and people that would have voted “wrong” in the national elections we cancelled in 1956. Their only crime was to be on the incorrect side of U.S. foreign and economic policy. We still discount them as human beings and cast blame upon them for the ills generated and created in our nation.

[dc]D[/dc]irector Stephen Frears; writer Shawn Slovo; executive producers Frank Doelger, Tracey Scoffield, Jonathan Cameron; and biographer Howard Bingham realized they had a “winner” with this production; but, much like their average viewing audience will fail to realize just how significant and truly important this documentary is and the value it will serve for future generations.

james rhodes

Muhammad Ali is a bona fide American hero and national treasure. This film only scratches at the surface of how great Ali really is -- and as Ali would say “and also pretty.”

James Rhodes

Saturday, 5 October 2013