In the post-WW2 era there weren't that many opportunities for a young black man to break free of the living situation he was born into. A very few were able to afford college or university, but for the rest, professional sports provided the only other chance of financial success. With segregation still commonplace as far north as cities like Chicago, team sports in America were slow to integrate. Professional boxing was one of the viable options.
It wasn't cheap to become a professional boxer, and the usual route that a young man would follow is that he would sign a contract with a group who, in return for paying his way, would pretty much own him. Inevitably the men with the money were white and a young black man would find that not only did signing a contract give them authority over his fight career, but he was expected to act in a manner befitting his station.
In 1960 a young black man returned home to Louisville, Kentucky from the Rome Olympics only to find that the gold medal he'd won in the light-heavyweight boxing competition wasn't enough to break the colour bar. When the opportunity arose to continue his boxing career by signing a contract with a consortium of white businessmen in Louisville, The Louisville Sponsoring Group, he jumped at the chance. They decided that in order for him to fulfill his potential he needed a good trainer, and they sent him down to Miami, Florida to train at the 5th Street Gym with Angelo Dundee. The rest, as they say, is history.
Until 1966 when he left Miami, it became Cassius Clay's — later to change his name to Muhammad Ali — base of operations. It was during his stay in Miami that Ali went from being a young boxer with talent and potential, to being not only the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, but an inspirational figure to people of colour all over the world. The Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) documentary that's just been released for sale on DVD, Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami, traces not only the route he took in becoming heavyweight champion of the world, but the way in which he managed to win the minds and hearts of so many people around the world.
Director Alan Tomlinson and writer Gasper Gonzalez have packed an hour long documentary with a mixture of footage of Ali from the time period, and interviews with people not only involved with Ali's fight career, but people able to provide the historical context for the time. After introducing us to the young Cassius Clay just back from the Rome Olympics, the movie makers take us down to Florida where we are treated to the reminiscences of not only his trainer, Angelo Dundee, but one of his corner men, various press people, and photographer Flip Schulke (responsible for the first photo in this article). For those of us who might have forgotten our history, they also bring in a historian to remind us that this period also marks the time when racial tensions in the southern American states were reaching a boiling point because of the fight for civil rights.
We are also given a history of the black community in Miami, specifically the area known as Overtown which was said to have rivaled Harlem in New York City as a centre for black culture. While not as bad as other cities in the South, Miami was still segregated. Flip Shulke recounts being on assignment from Life Magazine to photograph Ali, and unthinkingly taking him into a department store in downtown Miami because there was a sale on. Ali is asked to leave because black people aren't allowed to try on clothes in the store – the implication being that no self-respecting white person is going to want to buy something after a black person has worn it.
So even as he's learning his trade as a boxer, he can't help but be politicized at the same time. It would have been difficult for any young black person to avoid. For someone like Ali, who was developing a reputation as a fighter and becoming famous for the force of his personality, a slight like that must have been particularly galling. For it was around this time that Ali was also starting to develop the brashness that he became famous for; predicting the round in which he'd knock out his opponent, proclaiming his greatness in rhyme for all to hear, and refusing to march to the beat of any drummer but his own. Yet he still couldn't try on a shirt in a department store.
The movie shows how it was almost inevitable that he would find an outlet for his radicalization, and a meeting with Malcolm X led him into the Nation Of Islam and he became a follower of Elijah Muhammad. In the early sixties there were probably no two scarier figures in white America's mind than Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. While Martin Luther King Jr. might be a troublemaker, he wasn't advocating equal rights by "whatever means necessary" as Malcolm X was. In the days leading up to Ali's first fight for the heavyweight championship with Sonny Liston, his camp was doing everything they could to ensure that no one found out about his conversion or his association with the Nation of Islam for fear that the promoters would cancel the fight.
The movie does an excellent job of both analysing the fight between Liston and Ali in 1964 that gave him the world championship and showing how that catapulted him to the status of international celebrity and idol to black people in America and abroad. Unfortunately his association with the Nation Of Islam appears to have made people in power nervous. For in 1966, without any tests or warning, the draft board upgraded his status to 1A – meaning that he could be drafted and sent to Vietnam. At the time opposition to the war wasn't as widespread as it was even a year or two later, and so when Ali said he wouldn't serve on the grounds of being a conscientious objector for religious reasons he created a national uproar. Every single boxing commission in the United States revoked his licence and he was stripped of his title. When he was found guilty of refusing to be inducted into the military in 1967 he faced a potential five-year jail sentence, and a substantial fine. It wasn't until 1971 that the Supreme Court of the United States reversed that decision and he was acquitted.
There are many gifted athletes but few of them have been able to transcend their sport and achieve the kind of international renown and iconic status that Muhammad Ali has obtained. To black people in America, and people of colour all over the world, he was and is a source of inspiration and pride. From Nelson Mandella watching Ali's fights from his cell on Rodden Island to the children in America, he taught that being black wasn't something to be ashamed of; he will always be more than just another boxer.
Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami shows how that those five or so years in the early sixties that he spent in Miami were pivotal in his becoming the figure he is today. Without Angelo Dundee guiding his early career and the support he garnered from the black community of Miami who knows if the world would have ever known the Muhammad Ali that we've come to know today. For those who only see the shadow of what he once was, crippled by Parkinson's disease, his fancy footwork now reduced to a slow shuffle, and don't understand why old folks like me speak of him with admiration, Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami is the perfect vehicle to introduce you to one of the truly great men of the twentieth century.