January 20th, 2009 A Day to Remember

By Raymond Markarian - Ryan Fleck once wrote, “Change comes from opposite viewpoints. Change comes from a minority that struggles and fights, until it becomes the majority.” We watched Barack Obama be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States on Tuesday morning. A sign of the change Obama has been professing during his Presidential campaign has come true.

January 20th, 2009, is a significant day that will stand as another battle won for all civil rights activities in the United States since the Declaration of Independence. In the boxing world, political battles with racism and segregation have played a vital role in the sport throughout the 20th century..

The political significance of boxing was not matched with any other sport in the twentieth century. The popular argument is that baseball has transcended our outlook on racism in sports because of Jackie Robinson and his integration of baseball. Yet it must be pointed out that boxing was infested with discrimination long before Robinson ever stepped foot into a Major League baseball stadium.

Although Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, boxing held interracial fights since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Men like Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali all felt the impact of discrimination in one way or another. Segregation seemed to be linked to these three fighters. It was their unique interaction with the country’s prejudice that set them apart through time.

Our country’s cultural tensions between blacks and whites in sports seemed to turn circular in the twentieth century. The early part of the century was an example of how much separation there was between blacks and whites. The 1930’s and 40’s portrayed a glimpse of racial unity partly because of the war versus Germany. While the 1960’s and 1970’s were filled with tensions that extended beyond the boundaries of race due to the dispute over the Vietnam War.

Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali all transcended each of their respective eras. Johnson fought in the early twentieth century during the middle of the Progressive Period and turbulent differences between blacks and whites. Joe Louis competed during World War II, a period of peaceful racial existence in the United States. This was during a time when political differences came from overseas countries such as Germany and Japan. Muhammad Ali fought in a period of mixed tensions. Ali competed during the 1960’s and 70’s when our country’s citizens were questioning their place in society.

During the 20th century, powerful nations in the world were competing for supremacy while chaos ensued in this country because of war and racial division. This reflected the world of life and the world of sports. War normally happens because of greed, cultural tension, and philosophical differences in one form or the other and cultural tension is a replica of racial division. Boxing resembled the way the world was in the twentieth century.
Boxing was popular during the eras of Johnson, Louis, and Ali partly because they were fighters in a political world. Many have argued that Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali, were champions in and out of the ring. Each one of them affected the world outside of sports, but they were first recognized for their boxing abilities.

It must be pointed out that their dominant championship careers allowed them to affect America. As long as they were winners they were in the spotlight. The essence of their significance was simple. No matter how much hate there was between blacks and whites, or how many people despised those boxers, their fight was always decided in the ring. Talent in the boxing ring permitted these fighters to continue to have a voice in society.

According to the boxing world’s history, a boxer may endure certain abilities in the sport that later pursue a change in society. Examples of such fighters include Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali. These boxers are legends today because they were in the forefront of the cultural divisions in our society. The United States feelings towards black people reflected the sport of boxing during each of their eras.

Now, on this day, January 20, 2009, the newly sworn in President Barack Obama is a representation of not only political activists like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but also American athletes like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.

Ali was the most pivotal of the three champions. Charley Steiner said this of Muhammad Ali “He spoke for us. I was a white middle class college kid, and that was exactly how I felt.” Arthur Ashe stated that “Ali was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of a black athlete’s responsibility to get involved.” Ashe continued by saying that if Ali had not stood up for his own beliefs “Tommie Smith and John Carlos wouldn’t have raised their fists in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Ali had to be on their minds.”

After a three year ban from the sport for his refusal to enlist into the U.S. Army to fight in the Vietnam War, Ali no longer wanted him or his people to be oppressed. The sacrifices Ali made, established an avenue for black athletes to be treated with dignity. Ali became a symbol for that generation when he returned to the ring from exile in late 1970. Most of what the returning fighter stood for was represented in each of his fights in the 1970’s.

Bryant Gumbel said that “Muhammad Ali symbolized so much; if Ali lost then we were wrong.”

On March 8, 1971, Muhammad Ali fought then champion Joe Frazier in a quest to regain the championship that was taken away from him. Although Ali lost a 15 round decision, the significance of the fight is still felt by those that witnessed it. Art Rust wrote in his book Art Rust’s Illustrated History of the Black Athlete, “Those that hated Ali loved Joe. Frazier had become a symbol the people who hated Ali could unite behind.”

However, Muhammad Ali fought for more than the glory of victory; he was the fighting voice of American citizens.

On this day, and for the next four years on into history, Barack Obama is no longer the fighting voice of the civil rights struggle; he is the confident emblem of a victory won.

The sport of boxing was filled with various great fighters before Ali’s time. He was unique and special because he was heavily influenced by these fighters.

Ali was disruptive like Johnson because he fought against governmental regulations. He had Jack Johnson’s defiant persona and intimidating presence in the ring. Since they could not defeat Ali inside the ring they dethroned him outside of it. The government handled Johnson with the same type of resentment when he got charged with violating the Mann Act, and was exiled from the country.

Joe Louis’ internal confidence developed him as a champion. Just as Ali’s inner strength kept him fighting for his beliefs. During the 20th century, the world changed as much as those three fighters. They were the face of boxing in their eras and will always be remembered for their political significance in this country.

More importantly the sport of boxing and the world of politics had evolved in this country. Muhammad Ali was no longer facing the racial tensions that Johnson did and he was not being molded to resemble a quiet and humble champion the way Joe Louis did. Ali was an African-American fighter that spoke with his fists as well as his mind. It was as if he used the strength of the two great heavyweights before him and channeled it into his persona.

Every sports legend has captured the attention of society one way or another. Despite their physical abilities Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali will be remembered more for the cultural impact that they had on the United States rather than the battles they fought in the ring.

On this day forward, President Barack Obama will be remembered more for the secular impact he will have on society than his political beliefs.


Article posted on 23.01.2009

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