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Muhammad Ali, spokesman for black America.

It was not only that the legendary boxer rejected his “slave name” of Cassius Marcellus Clay. It wasn’t even that he had a way with words, so that his opposition to Vietnam was guaranteed its place in the historical record. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on other innocent brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?’’ he asked. “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.” What made Ali a potent symbol of black empowerment was the sport in which he played such an outsized role. In her 1987 book On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates tied the spectacle of modern boxing—two black men battering each other in a ring surrounded by a predominantly white audience—to how white slave owners “pitted their Negro slaves against one another in combat, and made bets on the results.” The country’s best boxers, from Joe Louis to Ali to Mike Tyson, came from tough circumstances, which were the only kind of circumstances that would lead anyone to devote their lives to such a brutal occupation. Ali will be remembered as the greatest of them all, at a time when boxing was at its historical peak—“the sport to which all other sports aspire,” as George Foreman put it. That Ali died during a period of seemingly irreversible decline for the sport carries its own symbolism, which is significant for someone who dared to defy that audience and genuinely saw himself as an envoy of peace. “Boxing was just to introduce me to the world,” he once said. RIP.