Muhammad Ali, the lyrical heavyweight showman who thrilled the globe with his sublime boxing style, unpredictable wit, and gentle generosity – especially later in life – died on Friday. He was 74. In the boxer’s final days, it is fair that his 1964 visit to Ghana may not have been top of his mind. But he could be sure that Ghanaians would not forget that unforgettable period. Gary Al-Smith tells the story.
Ghana was the place to be in the early 1960s.
Any serious political leader or entertainer needed to see the nation that had dared to, with blood, toil – and with a certain brutally sexy panache – unencumbered itself from the might of British power. The newly minted nation of Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast, particularly attracted independence fighters, empowerment champions, anti-colonial activists and revolutionaries.
Adam Clayton Powell. George Padmore. Maya Angelou. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King. Richard Wright. C.L.R James. They all came.
For many of them, it was a romantic trip; for others, a homecoming. And so when, after several discussions with his agents and backers, Muhammad Ali settled on Ghana as his first stop on a planned Pan-African tour, it was no surprise.
This was in 1964, a historic year in an Ali life that made every moment seem seminal.
On February 25, the loose-lipped Cassius Clay had beaten Sonny Liston, after which he screamed at the press, “Eat your words!” following a heavy pre-match trashing of his chances. The next day, a calmer version of the 22-year old sat down at a press conference and informed the world that the rumours were true: he had fully converted to the Nation of Islam.
And with it, the adoption of a new name – Cassius X.
He would later change the ‘X’ to Ali, but it is from here that the decision to find himself and explore other areas of the world probably took root. Encouraged by his friend and mentor Malcolm X, Ali made the ‘pilgrimage’ three months later. “I want to see African and meet my brothers and sisters.”
And so it was that he touched down in Accra on May 16, as excited to see Kwame Nkrumah as the independence leader obviously was, as well. Ali was slightly surprised that Nkrumah himself did not show up on the tarmac, but sent his Foreign Minister, Kojo Botsio.
But when they eventually did meet, Nkrumah gave Ali traditional Ghanaian cloth, but not just any ordinary one. It was the Oyokoman, the design worn by Ashanti royalty.
To nobody’s shock, a dense crowd was at the national airport to meet the boxer. While having trouble meandering his way through the throng, the boxer improvised. After raising both hands, asking for silence, he bellowed: “Who’s the King?”
The horde roared: “You are!”
“Okay, let me through then!”
And they did.
The Ghanaian press, then largely an extension of Nkrumah’s propaganda machinery, had hyped Ali’s coming to frenzied proportions. It was built up as ‘the ring poet is coming to town’.
A key fact that was heavily trumpeted by the pro-Nkrumah press was the significance of how Ali’s name change happened. Seven years before, on March 6, 1957, Ghana had gained independence.
And it was on March 6, 1964 that Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad bestowed on Clay the name of Muhammad Ali.
The boxer’s bravado, brashness and mystique preceded him to Accra. But so did his enigma, which was made clear almost as soon as the press could get hold of him. They expected quotes, rhyme and snazzy talk.
“Right now,” Ali told them, “I’m in no mood for talking. But when I start talking you’ll have to hold your ears.”
And to make sure that Ali always followed the orthodox propaganda line of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, the movement’s leader, flew his son Herbert to monitor and guide the boxer.
On May 18, in an official public meeting between the two great men, Ali spoke of how the independence leader was a ‘hero’. Nkrumah also mentioned his ‘deep admiration’ for the former Clay.
Ever the master of first impressions like his visitor, Ghana’s head of state told the boxer that his name should, from then on, be Muhammad ‘Kwame’ Ali – the ‘Kwame’ being the day he landed in Accra.
Nkrumah, aware of Ali’s spiritual quest to find himself, also gave the boxer his two books that espoused liberationist pan-African political philosophy.
‘Africa Must Unite’ was hugely popular and a must-have for anyone wanting to tread the path of the new Ghana, and it offered tips (Nkrumah hoped) Ali will use in his anti-establishment quest.
The President also gave the boxer a recently-published book, ‘Consciencism’. According to the Ghanaian Times newspaper, Ali kept “looking at the books” and “said he would greatly treasure the two books”.
But the fighter – looking every bit the handsome and comfortable African man in a kente his host had given him – would not be outdone in the attempts to educate on philosophy.
Every press conference and opportunity was taken to relay the message of the Nation of Islam, including bombastic quotes. From why his audience should “never trust the white man because he don’t care about you, really”, and a warning that “the white people never tell the truth about Africa” to admonitions to “treat your fellow black man like a brother because that white guy sure ain’t!”
As history would later show, the latter quote would be ironic, for Ali himself became known for denigrating fellow black boxers throughout his career. Notably, he characterized Joe Frazier as ‘a gorilla’ in the buildup to the Thrilla in Manila, something which Frazier never forgave him for until his 2011 death; mocking Floyd Patterson for being pro-establishment and the infamous 1967 15-round humiliation of Ernie Terrell by repeatedly asking him ‘What’s my name?’ because the boxer would not acknowledge his Muslim moniker.
All this, while seemingly going easy on white boxers.
But the masses of Ghana did not really care about such racial tangentials, nor were they listening.
There were crowds everywhere, and with each meeting, the charismatic boxer kept preaching. On one occasion, he urged a gathering to “really think about dropping those white colonial names and embrace your beautiful local heritage”. Ali had noticed that a number of Ghanaians he met had English-, Portuguese and Dutch sounding surnames due to the colonial relationships with earlier settlers on the then Gold Coast.
In all, Ali spent two weeks in the country, visiting a lot of places, having talks and being chaperoned by the politically-savvy Nkrumah who milked it for all it was worth.
In Kumasi, the boxer had a similarly crazy reception, and he lapped it up, including meeting the Asantehene, Prempeh II.
While in the heart of Ashanti, he visited the Okomfo Anokye sword. History says the sword was planted there by the Ashanti High Priest himself. History also says the day anyone is able to remove the sword, the Ashanti kingdom will fall apart.
Armed with this knowledge, of course Ali gave it a try.
But after about five minutes, even this 6ft3, 212 pound heavyweight champion of the world could not break the spirit of Ashanti.
Kumasi also saw him preaching his message of the Nation of Islam, although he also ‘kissed more babies than a presidential hopeful’, according to photographer Howard Bingham, who documented the boxer for three decades.
And then there were the girls.
He loved women, as was widely reported by those close to him and the four women officially recognized as his spouses. In fact, according to a journalist who travelled with him on this trip, Charles Howard, Sr, the boxer regularly broke away from his official retinue to take photos with groups of local women at the least opportunity. And he would tell his private photographer whenever he had to take a photo with a bevy: “Take this and make sure I get it”.
A little reported fact is that Ali came to Ghana with his brother Rahman (born Rudolph Clay), also a heavyweight boxer. Nkrumah asked Ali’s management to stage an exhibition at the Accra and Kumasi stadia as attractions. Obviously, it was a huge political coup for Nkrumah too.
Ali did both.
Kumasi saw 40,000 people witness the sparring match. In Accra, as expected, it was also packed. And to the delight of fans, Rahman and Ali demonstrated how Muhammad had defeated Liston a few months before. Never a man to shy away from immersing himself into local culture, he visited the local zoo, the ruling CPP’s headquarters, and – according to the Ghanaian Times – demonstrated his unorthodox ‘shuffling’ moves at Caprice, a popular local club.
Anecdotes say he did not particularly like the groundnut soup he was offered, but he enthusiastically tried different local dishes, taking a particular liking to fresh coconut.
By the time he left Ghana in what he called ‘a return to fatherland’, the same press that had said movie star Gene Kelly’s visit the previous January was the biggest celebrity event Ghana had experienced, had no choice than to revise their notes.
“Muhammad Ali was not just Muhammad Ali the greatest, the African-American pugilist; he belonged to everyone,” poet Maya Angelou would later write in her 2001 book, ‘Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World’.
For two weeks in the summer of 1964, he belonged to Ghana. It was his first major trip outside his comfort zone, one that would help shape what would make him the world’s first true global athlete.
“In America,” Ali had said earlier in the trip, “everything is white—Jesus, Moses and the angels.I’m glad to be here with my true people.”
In an interview on CBS later, he would reference trip, repeating his impression of Kwame Nkrumah as a “great guy”.
From Accra, Ali flew to Lagos, where he had promised to stay for more than a week. There also, he met a huge crowd, but by this time the novelty of his tour had seemingly worn of, and a disappointed Nigerian press reported that he would stay just for three days.
Even more downcast news came that he would not give an exhibition fight, as he had done in Ghana. He apologized and promised he would come back to Nigeria as soon as possible.
He never did.