By Antony Hamilton
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I Am The Greatest

This article is over 8 years, 1 months old
Issue 412

Muhammad Ali is one of the greatest boxers of all time. He won the world heavyweight championship four times — a record he still holds. This exhibition takes you through his life, centring on his fights, but it also celebrates his resistance to the war in Vietnam and racism in society.

After a short film a maze of corridors leads us from Ali’s Louisiana childhood in the 1940s through to his comeback in the 70s. He grew up as Cassius Clay and changed his name in 1964 to X before being given the name Muhammad Ali by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

He started boxing so he could fight the guy who stole his bike, quickly becoming obsessed until his life revolved around boxing. The different rooms focus on his various fights. His charismatic flare made him well loved and the centre of attention wherever he went.

As the tour carries on it reaches the point when Ali was drafted to join the US military and ordered to fight in Vietnam. He refused, giving an iconic statement of resistance: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong… No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” This brave stance polarised public opinion and Ali became the target of the state. He was stripped of his medals and world title, his boxing licence and passport taken from him.

This attack prevented him making a living in the US or travelling overseas to work. He stood his ground and was sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He never served time but for the next three years he fought court cases and toured with the Nation, giving political lectures. The exhibition shows people rallying to Ali’s side to support his fight to get back into the ring.

At the centre of the exhibition is a main area full of memorabilia. Rooms shoot off from the main space. One documents Ali’s time as a political activist showing the politics of the Nation of Islam and distinguishing it from mainstream Islam.

The walls are covered with newspaper clippings and pictures of Ali in the uniform of the Fruit of Islam, holding a copy of the Nation’s newspaper Muhammad Speaks. Footage of Malcolm X and Ali is projected onto the wall.

Ali was inspired by the rhetoric of Malcolm. His influence is clear in Ali’s speeches. He has the same sharp wit to flip a question on its head and challenge the society of the “white devil”.

The tour ends inside a full size boxing ring with a film documenting Ali’s life. It shows the toll of his career with Ali now suffering from Parkinson’s disease. But it also has the words “I am the greatest”, Ali’s way of challenging the second class status of black people.

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