Muhammad Ali rose to prominence at a time when, similar to now, boxing was a dying sport. Its brutality and disreputable undercurrent offended the senses many. More than this, no boxer really stood out. But Ali stood out—way out. He was brash, boastful, critical of the U.S. government, and, of course, Muslim. The excitement generated by Ali cannot be overstated. He was, as Michael Novak proclaimed, the "redeemer of the boxing world."
Among Ali's most (in)famous moments was his 1965 bout with former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, a recent Catholic convert. The fight assumed posture of a "holy war," not only between Christian and Muslim, but also between "patriotic" America and "un-patriotic" America. Indeed, Patterson pledged to "win back" the title "for America."
Alas, Ali pummeled Patterson, drawing out the match for twelve humiliating rounds. With each blow, Ali crushed the hopes of his detractors and and elevated the hopes of his fans. Among those in the former group was Eldridge Cleaver, who afterward interpreted the broader symbolic quality of the match.
Muhammad Ali is the first "free" black champion ever to confront white America. In the context of boxing, he is a genuine revolutionary, the black Fidel Castro of boxing. To the mind of "white" white America, and "white" black America, the heavyweight crown has fallen into enemy hands, usurped by a pretender to the throne. Muhammad Ali is conceived as "occupying" the heavyweight kingdom in the name of a dark, alien power, in much the same way as Castro was conceived as a temporary interloper, "occupying" Cuba. It made no difference that, when Patterson announced that he would beat Ali and return the crown to America, Ali protested vigorously, asking "What does he mean? I’m an American too!" Floyd Patterson was the symbolic spearhead of a counterrevolutionary host, leader of the mythical legions of faithful darkies who inhabit the white imagination, whose assigned task it was to liberate the crown and restore it to its proper "place" in the Free World. Muhammad Ali, in crushing the Rabbit in twelve—after punishing him at will so there could be no doubt, so that the sport writers could not rob him of his victory on paper—inflicted a psychological chastisement on "white" white America similar in shock value to Fidel Castro's at the Bay of Pigs. If the Bay of Pigs can be seen as a straight right hand to the psychological jaw of white America, then Las Vegas was a perfect left hook to the gut.
Cleaver's provocative words indicate, among other things, that there were competing definitions of America both between and within the races. To be sure, Ali's image transformed over time from a national sinner to national saint. In 1996, Americans of all colors cheered as "the greatest" lit the flame at the Atlanta Olympics. Still, as Ali left the ring that evening in 1965, he became the standard-bearer for a population who stood tall and shouted, "I'm an American too!"