How word power made Ali ‘the Greatest’

The late boxing great was an early rapper and a political poet as well as a pugilist.

Ruth Walker
A law enforcement officer (on duty at the house) mugs for a visitor in front of Muhammad Ali's childhood home in Louisville, Ky.

In retrospect, it seems odd that, back in 1964, my fellow fourth-graders and I were as aware of the coming Liston-Clay fight as we were. 

But so it was. We fully expected Sonny Liston to clobber the “mouthy underdog,” Cassius Clay – to use the name he was about to jettison. The morning after, we were abuzz over the upset; but, hey, most of the bookies had gotten it wrong, too. 

I would never have imagined then that three days after the death of Muhammad Ali, as the erstwhile “underdog” would by then be known, I would find myself on the front lawn of his childhood home along with a gaggle of others paying last respects.

But so it was. I’d planned to be in Louisville, Ky., Mr. Ali’s hometown, anyway, as part of a tour of heartland cities. Our group was interested in, among other things, affordable housing and social justice. We just had to swing by the modest pink house on Grand Avenue in west Louisville. 

Ali’s death was noted in lexicographical as well as sporting circles: “He was known almost as much for his verbal sparring as for his agile boxing style,” the Merriam-Webster dictionary website notes. 

The word truculent “trended” June 4 as people were reminded of an exchange Ali had had with sportscaster Howard Cosell before one of Ali’s big fights: “I’m always confident,” the boxer had said. “I’ll whup all of ’em.” 

Cosell responded, “You’re being extremely truculent,” to which Ali replied, “Whatever ‘truculent’ means, if that’s good, I’m that.” 

For the record, Merriam-Webster defines truculent in this context as “aggressively self-assertive” or “belligerent.” If anyone has turned being “aggressively self-assertive” into an art form, it’s Ali. As a kind of rapper avant la lettre, he made up taunting rhymes to wear down his opponents.

Thus, before that fight with Liston:

Now Liston disappears from view,

The crowd is getting frantic.

But our radar stations have picked him up,

He’s somewhere over the Atlantic.

Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written about Ali as a “political poet” for his use of language. Ali “helped move black radicalism into the mainstream through his voice, his canny use of rhyme,” Professor Gates wrote. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who won the Nobel Peace Prize the same year Ali beat Liston, quoted Ali when denouncing the war in Vietnam: “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all – black and brown and poor – victims of the same system of oppression.” 

Isn’t it amazing how people change? The original Cassius Clay, for whom the boxer’s father was named, was the son of a slave-owning family who became an abolitionist. 

Muhammad Ali changed his name and his religion, and then helped change American minds on the war. He did it partly with his fists – but also with his words.

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