As I think back on Muhammad Ali and his impact on American culture in the aftermath of his demise, I’m stuck by a couple of comparisons. Specifically, Jack Johnson and Donald Trump come to mind, and I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.
Ali transcended his professional boxing career by thrusting himself head-first into the struggles of his time. If you remember him in his prime, you know he was not only a great boxer, he was also a polarizing figure:
• Shortly after defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title in 1964, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. converted to the Nation of Islam, dumped what he called his “slave name” and changed it to Muhammad Ali. For years after that, his detractors would continue to call him Clay, and on an occasion or two, he punished in the ring those who refused to call him Ali.
• About two years into his undisputed reign as heavyweight champion, in the middle of the Vietnam War, Ali said he had “no quarrel with them Viet Cong” and refused to be drafted into the military. In 1967, he was convicted of refusing induction into the military, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. He was stripped of his title and barred from boxing for three and a half years, during the prime of his boxing career. Eventually he would win his case in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but for three and a half years, in the prime of his athletic career, he couldn’t box.
• What’s more, he had a real mouth on him. Ali was a loud and proud young black man, something that white America wasn’t used to, or fond of, while in black America he was loved and admired for his outspoken ways.
Like I said, Ali was a polarizing figure.
About a half-century earlier, Jack Johnson was a loud and proud black man, and by far the greatest boxer around. His skills in the ring as well as his personal behavior was such an affront to white people that the famous writer Jack London longed for a “great white hope” who would put Johnson in his place by beating him in the ring. Johnson taunted whites, in the ring and outside the arena, and when he won the “Fight of the Century” in 1910, against James Jeffries, race riots and lynchings were the result.
Perhaps Johnson’s greatest offense was his penchant for white women—he married three times, all to white women—and it eventually led him to a prison term on fabricated charges.
I once did a college history paper about Johnson and was fascinated by the man and his fearlessness. My favorite story about him relates to his love for fast cars. One day he was speeding through Georgia and got stopped by a police officer, who told him he’d have to come up with $100 to pay off his speeding ticket.
Johnson, the story goes, pulled out a wade of cash and handed the officer $200—twice the cost of the ticket because, he said, “I’ll be coming back through.”
Imagine the Jim Crow Georgia that he was traveling through at the time and Johnson’s audacity, humor and guts really stand out.
But still, there are differences between the men, especially when it comes to character. Muhammad Ali stood for something more than fast cars and women. He stood up for his race and his religion, and unlike Johnson, who may have thrown a fight years later to get the law off his back, Ali stood on principle.
As for how Ali compares to Donald Trump, he’s like Ali in the way he mouths off to the established status quo. Trump bucks up against political correctness, as did Ali in his day. Trump isn’t above cheap shots, nor was Ali (it would take years before Joe Frazier would forgive him for things he said at the “Thrilla in Manila” match in 1975).
Plus, they’re both showmen. Ali knew how to get the media’s attention, just like Trump does now.
But that’s about as far as I can take the comparison, because in words and message, they’re dramatically at odds. Ali was more than talk. He put his body on the line to back up his smack talk, and he laid his career on the line to stand on religious principles.
Trump, on the other hand, has done neither—and that’s where the comparison falls flat.
Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.