Muhammad Ali was no dupe and no unthinking conformist. Instead of going the way of all black boxers to advance his career (which was to shut up and to do as he was told), he made his opinions known, no matter how unpopular they were at the time, and it cost him.
Ali refused to be drafted for the Vietnam war, which he considered immoral, and to fight in which blacks would be mocking themselves and contributing to the conquest of a people against whom they had no quarrel.
Despite his conscientious objector status, the politically-partisan and white dominated World Boxing Association stripped him of his heavyweight boxing title in 1967. He was also convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. The US Supreme Court reversed his conviction later, but not before Ali had changed his name from his “slave name” of Cassius Clay in protest against the past enslavement and the still inferior status of blacks in the United States.
Regaining the heavyweight title thrice, Ali was a wily ring tactician whose intelligence, speed and power several times defeated opponents heavily favored against him. Almost every bout he fought was as much spectacle as it was a demonstration of physical skill and mental agility.
Now suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Ali is regarded as among the greatest athletes who have ever lived. But he was more than that. His opposition to the Vietnam war helped rally the groups that correctly saw it as a stupid and brutal war for conquest and resources as well as a proxy US battle with the USSR and China. Meant to cut him down to size, Ali’s treatment in the hands of both the WBA and the US government was itself proof of his thesis– which he loudly proclaimed at every opportunity– that neither US justice nor sports commissions were color blind.
The discrimination and injustice Ali suffered also made the possibility of a black US president seem as remote as Andromeda– or, to put it in the language of the rednecks who despise people of color, the US would have a black president only when pigs fly.
That the US now has a black president is in no small measure due to the ferment—some call it a revolution—of the 1960s, during which Ali’s opinions echoed those of the millions demanding equality who marched and fought racism in the streets of Birmingham, and who massed in Washington, DC in August, 1963.
Manny Pacquiao’s promoter Bob Arum was comparing Pacquiao to Ali prior to the Pacquiao- Ricky Hatton fight last May 2 (May 3 in Manila)—but only in terms of the frenzy with which Pacquiao’s fans were greeting him. Arum, who at 70 still remembers the 1960s, did say that “Ali was so tied up with politics, with the Vietnam War, so you can’t really equate Manny with Ali.”
Arum may have spoken too soon. At least by the narrower –i.e., Philippine—definition of “politics,” Pacquiao may yet turn out to be an edition of Ali, though a much junior one.
Pacquiao has formed a political party through which he apparently intends to launch his campaign for the lone congressional seat of Saranggani province in 2010. Like everyone else, Pacquiao has a right to seek elective office, whatever lesson his 2007 experience– he lost to a girl in the person of Darlene Antonino-Custodio for South Cotabato representative– may have taught, or failed to have taught him.
But his political plans have provoked the usual objections, not all of them from those who think themselves superior to boxers because they have college degrees. If those radio and TV shows where listeners/viewers can send text messages are any gauge, despite his vast popularity Pacquiao could lose in 2010 as he did in 2007.
In that year several other celebrities lost the elections, indicating a shift in the voters’ thinking that celebrity status was automatic qualification for public office. This early the text and other messages are running two to one that Pacquiao should disdain the “dirty and divisive” game of politics and stick to boxing instead,
Much of this sentiment, however, seems to derive from the perception that, unlike Ali in his time, Pacquiao is anything but critical. His “People’s Champ Movement” does seem to have a platform, but fails to address the most pressing issues of our time, among other reasons because Pacquiao seems to have his eye on some kind of alliance with whatever coalition the Arroyo administration can cobble together for 2010.
PCM is thus as silent as the victims of extra- judicial killings on such questions as human rights, corruption, and—this is particularly relevant in Mindanao, where the presence of US troops is so thick it looks like Empire Days there all over again—the Visiting Forces Agreement. Consequently, the plans of the Arroyo House majority for a quick Charter Change also come to mind, since those plans include deleting the Constitutional ban on foreign troops in the Philippines.
In addition to this silence, and to being the recipient of the usual accolades from Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Pacquiao has also had occasion to heap praises on the Arroyo administration while in the exalted company of Lito Atienza and Chavit Singson, who are by his side so often the three of them are beginning to look like Siamese triplets.
Expecting Pacquiao to be, a la Muhammad Ali in the US of the 1960s, critical of things as they are in Arroyo’s earthly paradise may be expecting too much. But who knows? Nothing’s really impossible in this country of endless wonders.
Few Filipinos imagined that Jovito Palparan could ever be in Congress, but there he is, smiling before the cameras. Fewer Filipinos thought that over 50 congressmen would risk flying off to Las Vegas last May 2 for the Pacquiao Hatton fight, considering the House focus on Charter Change before 2010. And yet the swine flew, anyway.