By Dyab Abou Jahjah
Whoever saw the man move in a ring, could have written a long text on the definition of swag, elegance and grace. "Float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee" is, in his own words, the best known description of what Muhammad Ali made out of boxing. He was not about brute force, but about style. However, the true style of Ali was often at display outside of the ring, in his powerful speech and inspiring quotes, but above all, in his struggle against racism, imperial wars, and for his people. Ali was "the greatest" in the ring, and he was always keen on reminding everyone of it. Therefore, many say Muhammad Ali was arrogant, and consider this as one of his downsides.
The fact that he was shouting "I am the greatest" all the time, and provoking his adversaries is their proof. Also his continuous bragging about being "the prettiest" is another element that adds to this.
There is no point in denying that the man was proud, and loved himself. However, by doing that he was elevating the people, not just his own. Because the first effect of racism is to break its target's spirit, and to reduce him into a kneeling apologetic vegetable with no backbone and no self-esteem. Muhammad Ali was the opposite of that. "Black pride" as a movement was inspired by his attitude.
Another effect of anti-black racism is to appropriate the aesthetic, and contribute beauty to being white and ugliness to being black. Muhammad Ali was able to reconquer beauty. "Black is beautiful" as a movement was inspired by that.
Both ideas were prominent in the teaching of Malcolm X, the long time friend and inspirator of Ali.
So yes Ali was arrogant, he was arrogant against the arrogants, against the might of the state, against the media and against the racists. He was arrogant in the face of white supremacy. But he was warm and humble among the people. He had an eternal smile, and wonderful humour. Above all, he never stopped being involved in what matters for the deprived and the oppressed. His pride was, first and foremost, their's. That kind of "arrogance" is a moral obligation. In such a context, it is even an act of resistance, a revolutionary deed.