He is the most famous Muslim American ever, and indeed, a black man whose commitment to anti-racism led him to Islam.
For years I woke up at 6am, still feeling tightness in my body from the previous night’s sparring session. I would throw on a sweater, eat oatmeal, and take a bus, a train, and another bus back to my gym. In my hand, a battered copy of Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
The week before, I had been reading about Elijah Muhammad. I learned of these people through researching everything I could find on Muhammad Ali. He is the reason I started to box. I first heard his name when he lit the Olympic Torch in 1996, and as I learned of the boxer, I learned more about his politics and struggles.
Muhammad Ali started boxing at the age of 12, and by 18 had won Olympic gold. At 22, he defeated the fearsome Sonny Liston to become the youngest heavyweight champion of the world. He converted to Islam shortly thereafter through the Nation of Islam, and by his second fight with Liston he had renounced his former name. By 1965, his friend Malcolm X had been assassinated. In 1966, he refused to be inducted into the Vietnam War. Ali was no longer just the heavyweight champion of the world, he was black and Muslim and something very threatening to white America.
Consequently he was stripped of his prime boxing years; his belts were forfeited and his boxing licence was denied between 1967 and 1970. In that time, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.
Ali became a critical voice in anti-war and black resistance movements alike in his clear articulation of racism, imperialism and his refusal to become respectable to appease white expectations. After fighting three monumental bouts against then champion Joe Frazier, ultimately losing his title belt, he fought the powerful George Foreman in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to reclaim it.
It was at this point that Ali reached legendary status across the world. He had been proclaiming it for decades throughout his record-setting career, but now the world was proclaiming it, too; Muhammad Ali: The Greatest.
Like Ali, I became politicised through pugilism. The first boxing gym I entered was largely made up of lesbian and queer-identified women, trans people and survivors of violence. When I moved on to another boxing gym led by a young racialised woman to focus more on competitive boxing, I had actualised into a queer, gender non-conforming boxer and organiser.
Boxing was the skill I was most eager to share as my sense of activism grew and the need to protect ourselves as queer, trans and female-identified people on the front lines became more and more apparent. I would lug a huge bag of boxing gloves and a set of hand pads to any conference or congregation of activists I could get to. I would teach oppressed people how to throw punches and defend themselves, and sit in on workshops led by powerhouses in the movement to learn.
The Movement for Black Lives is today’s iteration and continuation of the Black Power movements that formed in the 1960s. Black Lives Matter (BLM) was created when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered by police in 2013 in Florida, and has since developed into both an international movement and a network. I have been active in BLM since its conception, and I and a powerful team started the Black Lives Matter movement in Canada.
As with Ali, boxing led me along a path that allowed me to contribute to the tradition of black resistance. Our generation is fighting many of the same issues that affected Ali and his generation – police brutality, white supremacy, poverty, imperialism and Islamophobia. We are also grappling with many of the same questions around the best strategies for black liberation, from the role of assimilation with the reality of anti-black racism as a hegemonic pillar, to the role of economy and participation in electoral politics.
The lessons I gleaned from boxing, my coach, and fighters such as Ali, inform how I theorise and organise. The number one rule in boxing is “Protect yourself at all times”.
This lesson is integral in my relationship to direct actions and a necessary framework for many of us who either identify as women or were socialised as women. A boxer is most open to punches when they are throwing punches themselves, and Ali was the champion of “make them miss, make them pay”. This, like protecting ourselves and each other, has become a parable in how I organise, write and box.
I now do international work for Black Lives Matter, and my connections to many different movement contexts have allowed me to witness the extent to which the loss of Muhammad Ali has affected millennials and elders alike globally. Stories have been shared that dig deeper into his legacy, from being exploited by promoters and hanger-ons to resisting the mainstream media’s efforts to downplay his black and Muslim identities. Numerous compilation videos of his fights have emerged, interviews and quotations that show his political stance, and books that shed light on his relationship to and evolution beyond the Nation of Islam make it clear that his legacy is just as meaningful now as it was when he held the belt over his head in triumph.
This has been a difficult year in losing black giants. From Afeni Shakur, mother and freedom fighter, to Prince, a redefiner of black masculinity, musician and active supporter of Black Lives Matter, to Ali. We are finding ourselves called upon to pick up their tools and continue the fight.
My first and truest tools are a pair of boxing gloves, and I have Ali to thank for that. Ali, whose accomplishments were too great for the four corners of the ring to hold. Ali, who brought to light many of the contradictions of white supremacy. Ali, a teacher on the responsibility that comes with greatness.
janaya khan is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.