Posts Tagged ‘Muhammad Ali’


I know that someone already used this photo for part of their blog, but as and Ad student, I just couldn’t turn down the chance to talk about George Lois (I mean… Muhammad Ali). One of the most famous admen of all time, Lois liked to make a statement — see any of his other covers  for Esquire — and he used pop culture to do it.

The image mirrors a painting of Saint Sebastian, a Christian martyr who, according to legend, was then saved by Irene of Rome. About the cover Lois said to Juxtapoz Magazine:

“It’s a symbolic thing. Anyone in the world can look at this thing and understand the imagery. And the imagery doesn’t say that you’re a Christian, the imagery says that you are a martyr. And what I am saying is that you are a martyr to your race, you are a martyr because of the war. It’s a combination of race, religion, and war in one image, you’re symbolizing it in one image.”

Here, Lois is using Ali in the way Oriard described him. A man with multiple identities who could function as both heroic symbol and antagonistic celebrity. While he was being criticized for “dodging the draft” and refusing to fight in the Vietnam war, earning him negative attention in the media spotlight, he was still able to be seen by some — including Lois — as a type of hero.

It’s important that Ali, like Saint Sebastian, is able to be saved from his martyrdom. Part of this is because Lois was vocally anti-war and so had no qualms about using Ali as a statement piece. Part of it is Ali’s attitude towards his media representation. Oriard discusses the “control” that Ali maintained over his image. This is part of that. Once hesitant, he finally gave in to Lois’s ploys and chose to represent himself as an icon being targeted. Lois explained:

We got Ali in his pose, got the arrows hanging, and start shooting. And then Ali say, “Hey George,” and I just want him to [explicative] pose, but I said, “Okay what?” So one by one, Ali starts to point at the arrows… “Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara.” Each guy that had given him shit was an arrow. It was [explicative] brilliant!

Ali’s participation in this cover exemplifies his ability to control his representation in the media. This is why Ali was able to overcome a period of time where he was hated as an American icon. The man was able to make a statement, no matter what position he was put in. He had so many facets in the public eye that at any given point he was able to capture the heart or mind of someone out there, which allowed him to adapt to any side of any issue.

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In 1964 Muhammad Ali became the World Heavyweight Champion by defeating Sonny Liston. This is the feat that made Ali famous. He was the underdog in this bout. Winning this match meant that Ali achieved the “American Dream.” He took full advantage of “the land of opportunity.” However, the road to success, like most, was not easy for Ali. He changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali after converting from Orthodox to Muslim. He was Black and although that fact alone made living in America more difficult, he was not going to take the ordinary path just to live the so-called “normal lifestyle.” He was different and embraced that fact. Colored, poor, and born in Louisville, Kentucky, the odds off becoming success were slim at best. He had seen and experienced true segregation. He witnessed how segregation affected everyone around him, including friends and family. Ali knew he had to find a way out and boxing was his way. He loved the confidence that boxing gave him and never minded the hard and rigorous training. When people began to follow him, he began to receive more freedom in and out of the ring. This is when he started talking to the press. He expressed his views on anything and everything that was on his mind. He is famous for challenging political issues on live TV. Ali soon became a role model for not only African Americans but for all Americans and fans around the world.

However, one issue that raised a lot of attention was Ali’s Draft Dodging. He publicly protested the war and refused to serve because Vietnamese never did anything to him personally. This caused major controversy. Some people praised him and others resented him. The people that resented him argued that there were a large number of men that did not believe in war or killing, but when their country called, they manned up and many paid the ultimate sacrifice. Those soldiers were, in my opinion, more manly and courageous than Ali, dubbed one of the greatest fighters of all time.

On the other hand, it is an undeniable fact that the years Ali spent in the heavy weight division were spent among the most powerful and fierce men who ever boxed. Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson, and Ken Norton are just a few of those men. In 1984, Ali would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Although Ali formally retired in 1981, this diagnosis would “put the nail in the coffin” of his career. This disease is a neurological disorder, which causes symptoms such as muscle tremors and slowness of speech. This devastating diagnosis caused Americans to fall in love with him all over again. Many felt bad for him due to rapid and polar lifestyle changes he faced. This is love is evident from the audience’s response at the 1996 Summer Olympics, when he carries the Olympic torch and ignites the cauldron to initiate the games.

Ali may be famous for achieving the “American Dream,” but I think he better represents the aftermath of the American Dream. What happens after you achieve the American Dream? Isn’t the American Dream the pinnacle of a person’s life? Why would so many people strive for something that essentially ends their life? What is left to desire when you have accomplished your ultimate goal? Ali was left with an untold amount of physical and mental injuries. He went from being an idol to becoming an invalid. If I could ask Ali one question, I would ask him, “was it worth it?” Is achieving the American Dream worth the fight?

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Muhammad Ali was born with the name Cassius Clay, and changed it when he ‘converted’ to the Nation of Islam, the same radical group that Malcolm X belonged to for much of his life. Both men knew and respected each other before Ali joined the Nation, and their friendship rapidly grew once he joined. But ever since I first started learning about Malcolm X, everything about the Nation of Islam completely boggled me. I was born into a Muslim family from Pakistan, and nothing about the so-called Nation of Islam sounds remotely like the Islam that I know. What I never understand was why the Nation of Islam continued to exist, when it so obviously had nothing to do with the actual religion of Islam. I wondered why Muslim leaders never denounced the group. The Nation of Islam teaches this crazy idea of human living on a giant island, until white people exiled black people and became devils in the eyes of the black people. There was a whole bunch about some scientist-devil figure who actually created the white people, but essentially the Nation of Islam was completely made up by a man who turned out to break most of his own so-called religious laws.

Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X shake hands.

After Malcolm X actually traveled to Mecca and met real Muslims, he realized how false the Nation of Islam is, and discovered the alleged affairs Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader, had been having with his secretaries. When Malcolm X broke from the Nation, he tried to convince Muhammad Ali to join him, but Ali refused. Even after Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam, still Ali stayed a member. I am a huge fan of Muhammad Ali in all aspects of his life, and respect and honor him as a true American icon, but I can never forgive the fact that his supposed conversion to Islam which garnered so much attention was just him joining a fake radical group.

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Honestly, till this week.. I had no clue how incredible Muhammad Ali was as a boxer and as an American. I decided to go on YouTube to see what I could find about Ali that we have not discussed in class already. There are MANY strange yet incredible facts of this American Icon. He has done it all, from winning the heavy weight championship 3 times to even talking a man out of committing suicide.

In 1995, Muhammad Ali was invited to North Korea at the request of leader of Kim Jong-Il to join an event dubbed the International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. It is said that at one point a North Korean official was said to boast about how North Korea could cripple the US with a missile. And Ali responded, “No wonder we hate these Mother******s.” At this point, Ali had Parkinson disease and did not for one moment allow to be disrespected as an American visiting a nation that probably hates Americans the most. If Ali was in his 20s, I would not think he would have said what he said.

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The world doesn’t view Ali the same as he was at 20 either. I’ve been trying to justify in my head ever since class on Thursday how an entire nation can go from hating an individual to regarding that person as a hero. This was the case with Muhammad Ali. His case is so rare. We hear all the stories all the time about how artists or writers were not appreciated in their time and then considered geniuses after they died – Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe, Bach, to name a few. But these people weren’t hated; they were just struggling in their craft. Ali was actually quite the opposite of these people, because he was hated despite the fact that he was on the top of his game.

I understand how this can happen based on all the reasons we discussed in class. One, we depoliticize figures with time in order to appropriate them to whatever cause we wish. This is how you end up with our classes favorite example, Benjamin Franklin as the model for a plumbing company. The fact that Ali was a considered a radical because he converted to Islam and dodged the draft has been twisted to mean he stood up for what he believed in and was a marauder for individual rights. It’s obviously why we would not only accept this trait but revere it now versus in the 60s. We encourage people to fight for their rights now and express their own form of truth while Ali came from a time of conformity in America.

I’ve been trying to figure out the point in time where we turned around and decided Ali was one of the most beloved American figures. An article in The Guardian said that it was 1991 when his wife helped him publish his autobiography that began his revitalization. It shows him as a symbol of a torn generation who was a tamed leader of black activism rather than a radical who frequently spoke out against his country. The article argues that Lonnie’s plan worked. By tiptoeing around the most sensitive aspects of his personality, such as he devotion of the Islam faith or his views on segregation, he could become a textbook American Dream story.

Here’s the difference between Muhammad Ali and every other icon we’ve studied this semester: he’s cocky. Rocky was supposed to be the anti-Ali – The guy who let his talent and hard work speak for itself. Muhammad Ali made sure you knew that he knows he’s the best. He’d constantly ask “Ain’t I pretty?” None of our other icons did this. Lincoln, similar to Ali wasn’t regarded as a hero at first but all the readings we have of him suggest he was a humble figure. You can strip Ali of his politics if you please, but you can’t strip him of his ego. Jimmy Rollins recently said that Philadelphia isn’t conducive to a superstar because, no matter how good you are, you’re expected to keep your mouth shut. I’d argue that’s America in general and it’s one of the beautiful contradictions about this country. Be the best, but don’t talk about it. You’re not allowed to know it either. Or else you’re smug. No one likes someone who’s smug.

Ali talks. Loudly. He’s simultaneously one of the most controversial figures in recent American history and one of the most beloved. He’s known better for “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” than draft dodging these days. I don’t think a lot of people know why they love him anymore…other than the fact that they know he was a boxer and damn good at it too. People don’t know why they love Marilyn either though; just that they do. Both hang emptily in dorm rooms.

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Ali vs supermanI feel like I hit the jackpot when I came across this 1978 comic pitting two of our American icons against each other in the ring. In one corner, stands Muhammad Ali. In the other corner, stands The Man of Steel himself, Superman. While you could superficially gloss over this comic as merely a test of strength and masculinity for two heavyweight icons, this comic surely has much more to tell about the state of the collective American mindset. The biggest tell-tale surprise of all from this DC comic is who ends up winning the fight.

The late 70’s were a sort of watershed moment in American history. Gerald Ford, himself a sort of somber reminder of the mess of the Nixon years, had been defeated in the 1976 election by Democrat Jimmy Carter (as a fun side note, both Carter and Ford can be spotted on the celebrity-laden cover of this comic) whose entire campaign harkened back to the simplicity of small-town American values. Of course, these same values are the ones which Superman himself so adamantly defends. But, on the other hand, America was really not so simple in the 1970’s as Carter or Superman would wish for it to be. The Vietnam War was a failure, and America’s most famous artists such as Andy Warhol, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jerry Garcia (all of whom are also on the cover of this comic) had made huge careers as figures of the counter-culture. Even more radical was the fact that America’s most famous athlete was a member of the Nation of Islam! Arguably, there had been no other point in American history in which the ideals of “America as simple” and “America as diverse” had been so much at odds. DC brought both of these ideals to life in the forms of Superman and Muhammad Ali respectively and had them duke it in the boxing ring.

When I first come upon this comic in google images, I assumed that Superman HAD to win. I mean, he’s invincible! At the very least, I assumed it would end in a sort of tie, like the first Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed fight. It seemed inconceivable that DC would publish a comic in which Superman was defeated by a “draft-dodging Muslim” who seems to represent everything Superman would hate in an American! However, after some further investigation, I discovered that Ali not only won the fight, but he pummeled the daylights out of Superman! In 1978, by making the “greatest American hero” lose, DC writers seem to be admitting that simplicity isn’t always the winner in America. Superman’s version of the ideal America is no longer the only acceptable version of the ideal America. Now, even radical viewpoints such as those of Muhammad Ali can be accepted. Of course, it is worth noting that DC seemed to in a sense whitewash Ali and remove all of his stigma of radical Islam in this comic; however, at this point, the American public would rather have their own conceptions of Ali which they could place onto this comic.

Knock Out

In the comic’s ultimate double-page spread, Superman and Ali are shown shaking hands as Ali is exclaiming, “Superman, WE are the greatest!” In a sense, this is a sort of corruption and whitewashing of the conceptions of narcissist and radical that the American public had of Ali at this time. But, from a more symbolic standpoint, this reconciliation of ideals represents America as a place where even the unpopular or losing ideals can still be accepted, and they all come together to make America the great nation that the writers want to portray it as. Ultimately, the great irony of this entire comic as that only through brutal violence could such a peaceful reconciliation of conflicting ideals occur. Of course, this battle represents the greater American battle of racial politics. Like a Flannery O’Connor shortstory or a bit of Black Panther rhetoric, non-violence is shown not the solution to the problems of race and religion in America in this comic book. So, when Muhammad Ali is beating Superman to a bloody pulp, he is not only doing it for himself, but for the promise of a peaceful America in the future.



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Ali in the Media

ali image

Muhammad Ali has become a powerful American icon. His achievements in the boxing ring distinguished him as a successful American athlete admired by many. However, Ali’s politics ostracized many people during the sixties. His views were seen as radical, and he lost the support of much of white America. But, as discussed in class, Ali was eventually de-politicized, thus allowing Americans to accept and praise the figure. Through this erasing of Ali’s history people are able to use the boxer’s image in selective ways.

The media plays an important role in Ali’s story. As Oriard points out, multiple variations of Ali exist, and these representations of him mean different things to different people. The icon’s image is manipulated to serve certain purposes, and certain aspects of his character are ignored. An example of this reimagining of Ali can be seen in the above advertisement. This picture was taken from Beyond Morale, a company that works with other companies to improve employee engagement and customer relations. The advertisement is a part of the corporation’s “leadership quotes.” The image contains a photograph of Ali with a quote from the athlete: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” The ad sends the company’s message, but it actually reveals very little of Ali’s character and actions. The image is simply using Ali because he is iconic enough that anyone will recognize him and associate him with America. This advertisement does not reflect any of Ali’s opinions on race or the Vietnam War, two subjects that garnered Ali a great deal of negative attention at one point. None of Ali’s political beliefs are referenced, nor is he depicted as an athlete. This lack of historical substance in the image reflects the way that Ali has become an admired icon through the erasing of his story. By looking at this ad, people are reminded that Ali is an influential person, and, although most people generally know what Ali’s beliefs were, the image does not conjure up these thoughts. Most people just think of Ali as someone who fought for what he believed in, but they do not necessarily consider what he was fighting for precisely. In this way, this use of Ali is a very passive reference to the icon. People see his image and are reminded of his influence, but they are not asked to think about him on a deeper level. The company is able to associate their message with a widely respected American without alienating anyone. Ignoring history is something that occurs with many American icons. When people look at Ali, they filter out what they do not agree with until they are left with just the image of someone who became very successful and stood up for what he believed in.

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