How would Muhammad Ali respond to protests, looting after George Floyd's death?

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
A weekly look at boxing's hottest topics.

Muhammad Ali’s voice much needed in 2020

The fourth anniversary of the legendary former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali’s death is on Wednesday. Ali has been missed terribly, and his voice would have been so important at a time of strife like now, as protesters speak out against the murder of black men at the hands of the police.

Ali’s words have been quoted extensively, but in March 1967 during race riots in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, he spoke words that carry significant meaning more than 53 years later.

A little over a month before he would refuse induction into the military service, Ali spoke to demonstrators in a predominantly black neighborhood in Louisville.

As recounted in Michael Ezra’s book, “Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon,” Ali explained to the protesters that he felt the need to speak out despite the Nation of Islam’s rule against participating in civil rights protests.

“In your struggle for freedom, justice and equality, I am with you,” Ali said. “I came to Louisville because I could not remain silent in Chicago while my own people, many of whom I grew up with, went to school with, and some of whom are my blood relatives, were being beaten, stomped and kicked in the streets simply because they want freedom, justice and equality in housing.”

A controversy arose briefly when Ali appeared to say that he didn’t support an open housing plan that had been proposed.

Ali only weeks earlier had made a famous statement against the Vietnam War in which he said, “I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

His anti-war statement gained him considerable support in the black community and helped lead opposition to the war. But his statement that was apparently against open housing caused some to question him.

So Ali spoke out again.

“First, let me make it emphatically clear that I strongly support my people in their courageous struggle to secure some measure of freedom, justice and equality by whatever means they find necessary,” Ali told The Louisville Defender newspaper.

Later, he added:

“If by open occupancy it is meant the simple right of black people to live and occupy decent homes in any area of Louisville or any other city … then I join with them in fighting for that right.”

Ali’s voice would have been an important one now, as looters are detracting from the important message that the protesters are attempting to convey. The crimes that are being committed by some are being covered by the media and are suffocating the much-needed conversation about racial inequality in this country and the need for reforms in the way people of color are treated by police.

It’s not hard to imagine Ali speaking out against the looters while at the same time standing strongly on the side of the protesters. In an interview with TMZ, Ali’s ex-wife, Khalilah, said as much:

"I know that Ali would retaliate. He would really go off on people and I would love to see him romp and rave over these people hurting people, and burning up our businesses, and hurting people in the streets and burning up police cars.

"That is uncalled for. Ali would not like that at all."

Ali’s views changed over the years, and he once said, “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

Ali always involved himself in such issues. In 1979, less than a week after Iranian revolutionaries took 60 American embassy personnel hostage, Ali offered himself in exchange for the people being released free.

FILE - In this May 10, 1967 file photo, Muhammad Ali, former world heavyweight boxing champion, speaks at an anti-war rally at the University of Chicago in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Harrity, File)

In 1985, he went to Lebanon in an attempt to free four Americans who were being held hostage in Beirut. In 1990, Saddam Hussein held 15 Americans hostage in a buildup to the Gulf War. On Nov. 23, 1990, Ali traveled to Baghdad, Iraq, and stayed in the country for six days waiting for Hussein to meet with him. Ali ran out of medicine to treat his Parkinson’s but continued to work to find a solution.

They finally met on Nov. 29, 1990, and Hussein agreed to release the hostages. At a news conference with Ali, the Iraqi dictator said, “I’m not going to let Muhammad Ali return to the U.S. without having a number of the American citizens accompanying him.”

Ali was known as “The Greatest,” for his work in the ring. But he was great for reasons far beyond his boxing ability.

One of his more famous quotes was, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” Even though by the time of his death his voice was silenced by Parkinson’s, one suspects he would have made a wise statement supporting the protesters and condemning the looters had he been alive today.

The sounds of silence

It took all of a few minutes to get used to the eerie silence from the empty arenas when mixed martial arts returned to action after being sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic when UFC 249 was held in Jacksonville, Florida.

But the return of boxing on ESPN is going to be a little different.

While there will be no fans inside of the ballroom at the MGM Grand Conference Center where the fights will take place on June 9 and 11, neither will there be any announcers.

Play-by-play man Joe Tessitore will call the bouts from ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. Analysts Andre Ward, Tim Bradley and Mark Kriegel will do the fights from their homes.

And so while UFC fighters had the distraction of the voices of play-by-play men Jon Anik and Brendan Fitzgerald and analysts Joe Rogan, Daniel Cormier, Michael Bisping and Paul Felder, the boxers will have no such luxury.

The only sounds the fighters will be able to hear will be their corners. And since in boxing, most corners don’t have a running string of commentary going, for the most part the ballroom is going to be dead silent.

Several UFC fighters said that Cormier’s commentary on what they should be doing impacted their actions in the fight. Others said they could hear the instructions their opponent’s corner was providing and reacted accordingly.

The near-total silence will be a new experience for the boxers. Even in the amateurs, when there isn’t a big crowd, there are friends and family in the audience who fill the venue with sound.

It’s certainly not going to determine the outcome of a fight, but it’s going to be an adjustment for fighters nonetheless.

R.I.P. Curtis Cokes

Former welterweight champion Curtis Cokes, a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame who held the title from 1966 through 1969, died on Friday in Texas.

Cokes would go on to become an elite trainer and worked with heavyweight Ike Ibeabuchi. Ibeabuchi was a brilliant talent whose career was ended by mental health issues.

Cokes, who was 62-14-4 with 30 knockouts, was 82.

He said it

“[Anthony Joshua’s] style is tailor-made for mine. Upright, walking forward, classic defense. Strong and powerful, but no footwork, hardly any resilience and a bit gutless when it comes down to getting clipped. I’ll knock him out around two to three rounds. First time I connect, his legs will do a dance. I’ll just jump on him like that fat kid [Andy Ruiz]. I’ll tell you what shot it’s going to be, should I? Left hook to the temple. You’re gonna see him do a Bambi dance all over the ring.” — WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury on the Sky One show, “Redknapp’s Home Fixture.”

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