Headgear Fit for a Champion: What Muhammad Ali Left Behind

The boxer may be dead, but physical traces of his audacious life remain

Ali Headgear
This head protector was worn by Muhammad Ali—then known as Cassius Clay—while he trained to battle Sonny Liston in 1964. Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

He dipped. He swooped. He punched. To remember Muhammad Ali is to pay tribute to a man who, at the height of his boundary-breaking career, was a study in perpetual motion. Luckily for history, the boxer left behind plenty of immobile objects when he died—and one of them, an Everlast head protector from 1964, is in the collection of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opening this fall.

Ali wore the headgear while practicing for his first fight with Sonny Liston. It accompanied him during long hours of training at Miami’s iconic 5th Street Gym, also known as “the university of boxing.” There, Cassius Clay, who famously introduced himself to trainer Angelo Dundee as the future heavyweight champion of the world, sparred, ducked and did fancy footwork while honing himself into a formidable boxing force.

“It’s a reminder of the sacrifice and the brutality of the sport of boxing,” Damion Thomas, sports curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, tells Smithsonian.com.

The 5th Street Gym was located in a white district of segregated Miami, Thomas says. “It was a still a place where African-Americans could go and be welcomed and treated as equals,” he adds. "That wasn’t common in the city of Miami.”

Because the boxer, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964 after converting to Islam, “transcends easy categorization,” as Thomas says, he’ll be present throughout the museum—from a gallery of “game changers” in sports that will showcase his gloves and an autographed torch from the 1996 Olympics to a gallery that features artifacts from the 5th Street Gym itself.

Ali Portrait
This portrait of Muhammad Ali, taken by Yousuf Karsh in 1970, will be displayed in the In Memoriam space near the north entrance of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Muhammad Ali by Yousuf Karsh, gelatin silver print, 1970. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh © Estate of Yousuf Karsh

As for the backlash that has met portrayals of the boxer as a figure who transcended race itself, Thomas says, it's complicated.

“To say that Muhammad Ali transcends race is not to say that he’s not someone who is deeply involved in racial politics in the United States,” says Thomas. “To say that he transcends race means that Ali is someone who stood up for justice and stood for what he believed in. Those are the characteristics and qualities that a number of people identify with Muhammad Ali who might not agree with some of his [perspectives].” Ali used his platform to bring aspects of African-American culture—like his braggadocious use of “the dozens”— into the mainstream, Thomas adds.

When future generations think about Ali, says Thomas, he hopes that they’ll see “someone who was willing to take a stand when it was unpopular—someone who was willing to do the right thing when others simply weren’t.”

The Greatest himself may no longer stand, but in the wake of his death, it’s even more important to preserve the physical remains of that fearless, groundbreaking life and career for generations to come.

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