The student blog for Drake University first year seminar entitled Visual Politics

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Greatest

Muhammad Ali once said "I am the Greatest!" In fact, he did made statements to that effect many times throughout his boxing career. This picture of the triumphant Ali (Born Cassius Clay) taunting a defeated Sonny Liston embodies all that Ali was, and all that he represented. The vocal boxer came to represent America's own self-confidence bordering on hubris. Ali parallels that part of America very well because when he says that he is the greatest, few boxing historians will say he is not the greatest heavyweight fighter all time. Similarly, most evidence suggests America is the greatest country in the world. A small minority will suggest other candidates for each spot, but they must base their argument entirely around refuting the "Champion's" dominance.

This picture encompasses everything that is Muhammad Ali. He is mean, he is strong, he is dominant, and he knows it. Ali refused to fight in Vietnam when drafted during the prime of his career and paid the penalty. He would not bend to anybody and matched his loud bark with equal bite. When told that Floyd Patterson wanted to claim the heavyweight title for America from Ali he said: " I am America. I am the part you won't recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky - my name not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me" He is among the last gunslingers who when asked "How can you do that?" is willing to respond "I just did." That description of America/Ali may not be all encompassing. However the me culture is certainly prevalent. 

The picture itself is one of the highest examples of the art. The low angle makes Ali appear even taller than he actually was and captures a facial expression planned for one man- the defeated Liston. The angle and lighting also hide all but the first row of spectators from view, leaving a black backdrop that helps Ali almost leap out of the image. 

As Ali's greatness became more apparent, he became more of a symbol. He represented the civil rights activists, the war protesters, and even the undirected rebels. Ali did things. He became Muslim, and changed his name. He challenged the U.S. government and in the long run is viewed as the winner (despite doing time in jail). He said he would beat some of the best boxers of all time and then did it. There will only be one Ali and he will not be forgotten; not least because of this photograph. When decorating a room with sports memorabilia this photo is an outlier among dozens of other pictures and other memorabilia from that person's favorite teams. 

Many did not like Ali. Some hated him. Most were at least a bit annoyed by all of his talked, but somewhere deep down you'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't harbor a wish to have that much guts. 

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