Sporting Superstars: Pele and Muhammad Ali

Peli - Brasilian Football Player

A basic need for outdoor exercise to conserve national health and the sponsorship of social leaders thus served in large measure to break down the barriers that had formerly stood in the way of the development of organized sports. Games which could appeal to every one had at last been invented or developed. In the 1960s there emerged two sportsmen – both black men from unpromising backgrounds – who each won vast fortunes and became amongst the best known faces and names in the world. The two of them challenged many conventional assumptions about the place of the sportsman in modern society.

Born in 1940 in the small town of Tres Coraçoes in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pele) began playing professional soccer for the Santos club at the age of 16. Two years later he attended his first World Cup Finals in Sweden. Soccer is the most widely played football game in the world although Americans have always shown a marked lack of enthusiasm for it. It is popular throughout the South America, and matches are played in enormous atmosphere.

In a career spanning 20 years and over 1300 games, Pele established unparalleled scoring records. Late in a career which had witnessed three World Cup Final victories for his native Brazil, he became the focus for the expansion of the game in North America.

His pre-eminence as a sporting legend made him a powerful symbol of the possibilities of sport as an avenue to social mobility in the 1970s. He was the highest – salaried team athlete in history and probably the richest.

Pele’s success attracted attention to Brazil itself, and his team. He showed that a Third World country could compete against and challenge economically “advanced” nations.

Muhammad Ali - World Heavyweight Champion

Muhammad Ali and Heavyweight Championships

In 1960, two years after Pele had appeared in his first World Cup Final, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.) won the Olympic light heavyweight boxing gold medal at Rome, at the age of 18. To many Blacks, however, Muhammad Ali is much more than a boxing legend. To them, he is the man who spoke out against racism and who risked everything, including his freedom, when he refused to be drafted into the Army during “the White folks'” Vietnam War. That single act of defiance (for which he paid dearly by being banished from the ring during his prime fighting years) elevated him to a permanent symbol of Black manhood, Black courage and Black pride.

In twenty years, Ali rose from the obscurity of Louisville, Kentucky, to global prominence. As a sporting role model for young blacks he explicitly confronted racial stereotypes. Sonny Lizton lost to Cassius Clay in 1964 and was defeated by the same boxer, now Muhammad Ali, in a 1965 rematch. Both fights were controversial. In the first bout, Liston failed to answer the bell in the seventh round; in the second match, Ali felled Liston with a punch ringside observers said did not land. After his loss to Ali he fought mostly undistinguished opponents, losing a North American Boxing Federation title fight to Leotis Martin by a knockout in 1969. He won fifty of fifty-four professional bouts, thirty-nine by knockout. His career was marred, however, by his criminal record and alleged connections with organized crime. Sadly, he died of a drug overdose.

His audacity in promoting his own ability, his successful challenge for the world heavyweight championship in 1964, his conversion to Islam, his stand against the Vietnam War and the regaining of “his” world title all thrust him into the center of world sport.

In the 20th century American boxers have monopolized the world heavyweight championship. The pre-eminence of black champions since 1956 has fueled racist sentiments. Ali himself saw boxing as “the fastest way for a black person to make it in this country”. As his career developed, many people prepared to pay vast sums to see him beaten.

In 1966, Ali claimed conscientious objector status because of his Black Muslim beliefs. He was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his wrld titles and had his boxing licence revoked. In 1970, the United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed the conviction and Ali was allowed to fight again. In 1971 he fought Joe Frazier for the world heavyweight title and lost in 15 rounds. Three years later he defeated George Forman in Kinshasa, Zaire, to regain the world title and in the process earned $5.450.000. In the six years after his return to boxing, Ali earned an estimated $26 million; but shortly after his retirement he was diagnosed as having suffered brain damage from his boxing career.

Judging by his durable popularity, there’s a good chance that Ali will eventually get his wish. If not, he’ll probably settle for being remembered simply as The Greatest. As he once put it himself, “If you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble.” Who can’t sympathize with that?

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