Muhammad Ali, GOAT, and the geo-economics of boxing

Updated on: Jun 08, 2016
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The Greatest of All Time, which he inarguably was. Particularly when you consider the social, political, cultural and economic context of the times when he came to dominate the world of heavyweight boxing.

And what context was that?

Not just his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War in the 1960s, which is sufficiently well chronicled. Or his principled advocacy of civil rights for the black community, from which he hailed. Ali rewrote the economic structures of heavyweight boxing — and established his personal brand — in a way that ought to be a case study in business schools.

This descendant of slaves, who grew up in a racially segregated America, built up a networth in excess of $80 million. His life story is an encapsulation of much of the tensions that wracked heavyweight boxing, to say nothing of the larger world.

Tell me more.

As John Sugden observes in his book Boxing and Society , by the middle of the 19th century, prize fighting (a precursor of professional boxing) was the stage on which the socio-economic themes of those times played out: urban poverty, racial and ethnic discrimination and relative deprivation.

And although professional boxing today is backed by corporate sponsorships and other commercial interests, not too long ago, it was tied up with gambling and the Mob, which could influence outcomes and exercise outright control over boxers. And, worse, sociologists saw the very sport as a metaphor for other darker failings in Western society.

Because it’s a bloody contact sport?

Not just that. There is no way to say this nicely: boxing was optically racist. Ali himself pointed to this by noting that typically two black men slugged it out in the ring, for the amusement of (predominantly) white, affluent spectators. And even the promoters and investors who backed the fight were almost exclusively white (until the flamboyant and edgy Don King broke that monopoly). Ali resolved to change that racist arrangement.

With a powerful uppercut?

Not quite. In 1966, he formed a corporation, called Main Bout Inc, to manage the promotional rights to his multi-million-dollar bouts. He said he wanted to see blacks becoming stockholders, and not just be used as fronts for others to make money. As Michael Ezra notes in The Economic Civil Rights Movement , the rise of Main Bout gave African-Americans control of boxing’s most valuable prize, the world heavyweight championship. But not before it faced backlash from rival promoters, CCTV theatre chains (which profited from pay-per-view proceeds) and even organised crime gangs.

That’s quite a murky world for a sportsman to stray into. Should he have?

Well, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t Ali who picked these fights. He happened to find himself at the intersection of so many socio-politico-economic issues of the times: the Vietnam war (to which he was drafted, but refused), the civil rights movement, and the white economic stranglehold on the sport to which he gave his blood, sweat and toil. And he refused to be knocked out.

So, how will history assess Muhammad Ali’s legacy?

Outside of the ring, Ali was far from perfect: some of his public pronouncements during the time when he embraced the Nation of Islam movement (which he subsequently renounced) are black supremacist and otherwise misogynistic and regressive. And the ease with which he allowed himself to be used by dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko (of Zaire) and Ferdinand Marcos (of the Philippines) was disquieting, particularly given his seeking of a high moral ground on many issues.

But inside the ring, he was — and will always be — the GOAT.

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Published on January 20, 2018

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