Boxing great and cultural icon Muhammad Ali, who passed away on Friday aged 74, was known for his quick and darting technique in the ring and his ability, as he put it himself, to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
That gift for stinging characterized Ali both in and outside the ring, where his quick tongue and stinging repartee made headlines no less than his fists – and sometimes with greater effect. He became a symbol for black liberation during the 1960s by standing up to the U.S. government and refusing to enlist to the army for religious reasons, famously saying: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.”
His conversion to Islam in 1964 – accompanied by a name change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali – and his subsequent sympathy for Arab causes made Jews a frequent target of his silver tongue, even as several Jews were among his long-time supporters and admirers. It made for a complex relationship between the boxer and world Jewry.
When Ali made his triumphant comeback to the ring in Atlanta in 1970, after being out of action for 43 months on draft-evasion charges, he commented on the possibility of another bout with long-time rival Joe Frazier by saying: “To those who might want it, the fight will come. All those Jewish promoters – they’ll see that it comes off.”
Though a reporter said Ali was smiling as he said it, boxing insiders criticized him for insulting “the guys who went to bat for him” – specifically. Harry Markson, the boxing director of Madison Square Garden in New York, and Sam Massell, the mayor of Atlanta.
After announcing his retirement from the ring in 1974, Ali lost no time in throwing right hooks at Zionism and embracing the Palestinian cause. Talking to reporters in Beirut, Lebanon, at the start of a tour of the Middle East, Ali said that “the United States is the stronghold of Zionism and imperialism.”
On a subsequent visit to two Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon, the former heavyweight boxing champion was quoted by a news agency as saying: “In my name and the name of all Muslims in America, I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders.”
Ali even visited Israel, coming to “arrange for the freeing of the Muslim brothers imprisoned by Israel” in 1985, when some 700 Lebanese Shi’ites were detained in the Atlit camp, against the background of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
Ali wanted to discuss the release of “all 700 brothers” with the “very highest level in the country,” but Israeli officials politely declined to enter the ring.
In 1980, during a visit to India to promote a boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Ali maintained that Zionists “control” America and the world.
In this Feb. 25, 1968 file photo, former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali addresses a gathering at a Black Muslim convention in Chicago. AP
Asked for his thoughts on the Iranian hostage crisis by India Today, Ali denounced the Iranians as “fanatics,” but still managed to blame the Jews.
“Religion ain’t bad; it’s people who are bad,” he said. “You know the entire power structure is Zionist. They control America; they control the world. They are really against the Islam religion. So whenever a Muslim does something wrong, they blame the religion.”
Despite his frequent jabs at the Jewish community and Israel, Ali couldn’t seem to alienate some of his most fervent Jewish admirers, among them Hollywood star Billy Crystal.
Crystal’s 1977 impression of the boxing legend deciding to convert to Judaism and change his name to Izzy Yiskowitz became legendary on its own right. Fifteen years later, Ali had the pleasure of having Crystal perform at his 50th birthday party.
Sportscaster Howard Cosell, born Howard Cohen, was perhaps Ali’s biggest defender. Unlike many others, Cosell immediately called Ali by his new, Islamic name after he changed it from Cassius Clay, and also stood up for his right to resist the draft. The Jewish journalist and the Muslim champion had a rapport that was evident in post-fight interviews, where they exchanged barbs and bantered, drawing in enchanted viewers.
Muhammad Ali has a “no comment” as he is confronted by newsmen as he leaves the Federal Building in Houston during a recess in his trial for refusing induction to the army. Ed Kolenovsky / AP
Ali mellowed in his autumn years, perhaps partly due to becoming “zaidy” to a Jewish grandson, born to his daughter Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer and her husband Spencer Wertheimer. Ali was there to witness little Jacob Wertheimer “becoming a man” at Philadelphia’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom in 2012, and, according to his daughter, was nothing but respectful of the bar mitzvah ceremony.
“My father was supportive in every way. He followed everything and looked at the Torah very closely. It meant a lot to Jacob that he was there,” she said.
But Ali expressed tolerance well before that, when in 1996, before lighting the Olympic flame at the Atlanta games, he declared: “My mother was a Baptist. She believed Jesus was the son of God, and I don’t believe that. But even though my mother had a religion different from me, I believe that, on Judgment Day, my mother will be in heaven.
“There are Jewish people who lead good lives. When they die, I believe they’re going to heaven. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, if you’re a good person you’ll receive God’s blessing. Muslims, Christians and Jews all serve the same God. We just serve him in different ways.
“Anyone who believes in One God should also believe that all people are part of one family. God created us all. And all people have to work to get along.”