Muhammad Ali and Jamaica

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Jamaica’s love affair with the Greatest.

By David Rowe
CJ Contributor

Jamaicans first embraced then-Cassius Clay in 1964 after listening to his upset victory over the champion Sonny Liston on rediffusion radio. He was then young and brash and declared himself the “Greatest.”

Sonny Liston was considered by Jamaicans to hit so hard that a type of Jamaican white rum was named colloquially after him.

This molasses-based white rum and Sonny Liston both hit very hard and soon overproof rum was being called “Sonny Liston” at every bar.

It seemed an appropriate nickname, particularly after Liston literally destroyed Floyd Patterson the previous champion in less than two rounds.  However, Cassius Clay the self-appointed “Greatest” was able to conquer Liston, the “Ugly Bear” twice.

Clay then changed his name to Muhammad Ali and assumed the Nation of Islam religion at a time in the Caribbean in the mid-60s when Black Power was becoming very important in the post-colonial debate. Jamaica had black power riots in the 1960s and its sister island Trinidad had an attempted black power coup, which failed.

Muhammad Ali, who stood for black pride, Third World consciousness and anti-imperialism was a hero to almost every Jamaican. His anti-Vietnam stance gave spiritual solace to many Jamaican-Americans who died in that war. Ali visited Jamaica in 1974 as part of a delegation of the Nation of Islam.

He met with then-Prime Minister Manley, and he accepted a copy of Mr. Manley’s book The Politics of Change and was introduced to Natasha Manley, Mr. Manley’s daughter, then a toddler.

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Included in the 1974 Nation of Islam delegation was Minister Louis Farrakhan a prominent member of the Nation of Islam and the Reverend Al Sharpton now a civil rights leader in the United States.

The trip to Jamaica followed Ali regaining his World Heavyweight title from George Foreman in Zaire, Africa.

In the previous year, 1973, Foreman had won the Heavyweight title from Joe Frazier. This fight was called “The Sunshine Showdown” promoted by the Government of Jamaica at the National Stadium in Kingston. Ali’s visit the following year, 1974, kept Jamaica in the spotlight of international sports. Ali was presented by Mayor of Kingston, The Honorable Ralph Brown with the Key to the City of Kinston. This was a very appropriate gesture as Ali had the key to most Jamaican hearts.

In 1987, Ali returned to Jamaica and met with Prime Minister Seaga in the presence of Don King his promoter. Don King received the Jamaican-American Society – United States Information Service Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award for his support of the NAACP at a splendid dinner event at the Wyndham Hotel in New Kingston. In the 1987 trip, Ali spent time with Prime Minister Edward Seaga at his house in Temple Meads where they discussed international issues and the Jamaican diaspora.

For Jamaicans, Muhammad Ali was far more than just a heavyweight boxer.

He was an international diplomat and a colorful, courageous political commentator. Jamaicans watched all of his fights live on closed circuit screens erected at the National Arena or National Stadium.  Almost everybody remembers at least one of his poetic efforts particularly “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”

Ironically, Ali’s last fight was a loss to Jamaican, Trevor Berbick.

Jamaicans will never forget this wonderful man. Goodbye butterfly, you inspired us all.

David P. Rowe is an Adjunct Professor of Law at the University Of Miami School Of Law.