Muhammad Ali Gives a Dramatic Reading of His Poem on the Attica Prison Uprising

In July of 1972, boxer Muhammad Ali traveled to Dublin to fight Alvin ‘Blue’ Lewis, an ex-con from Detroit. In the days leading up to the bout, he amused himself by busting on Fight of the Century victor Smokin’ Joe Frazier from afar, referring to him on live television as a “tramp” and a “slave” who lived on a “chicken plantation.”

It was a career defining encounter for interviewer Cathal O’Shannon, who praised Ali’s deftness in that area and noted that the champ said things “he would not have been able to say in America.”

It’s doubtful that O’Shannon was referring to the name calling, part of Ali’s campaign to draw Frazier back into the ring. (The champ got his wish less than two years later, when he defeated Frazier at Madison Square Garden in the second of their three fights.)

What’s more likely is that O’Shannon was alluding to the original poem Ali recites from memory, one minute into clip above, after orienting Irish viewers to the previous fall’s Attica Prison uprising, still the deadliest in U.S. history.

Ali imagines himself in the shoes of a black prisoner, responding to the white warden issuing a final ultimatum. His reply, which could be taken as a call to arms , but which Ali touchingly calls a “poetic poem,” takes the form of a dozen tercets:

Better far from all I see

To die fighting to be free

What more fitting end could be?

Better surely than in some bed

Where in broken health I’m led

Lingering until I’m dead

Better than with prayers and pleas

Or in the clutch of some disease

Wasting slowly  by degrees

Better than of heart attack 

Or some dose of drug I lack 

Let me die by being Black 

Better far that I should go 

Standing here against the foe 

Is the sweeter death to know 

Better than the bloody stain 

On some highway where I’m lain 

Torn by flying glass and pane 

Better calling death to come

Than to die another dumb

Muted victim in the slum

Better than of this prison rot

If there’s any choice I’ve got

Kill me here on the spot

Better far my fight to wage

Now while my blood boils with rage

Lest it cool with ancient age

Better vowing for us to die

Than to Uncle Tom and try

Making peace just to live a lie

Better now that I say my sooth

I’m gonna die demanding truth

While I’m still akin to youth

Better now than later on

Now that fear of death is gone

Never mind another dawn.

The poem draws to a close with an inexpert but heartfelt sound effect.

The poet – whose maternal great-grandfather was born in County Clare – went on to knock out his opponent in the 11th round.

The trailer for the documentary, When Ali Came to Ireland, featuring Cathal O’Shannon, is below.

More poetry readings can be found in our collection of Free Audio Books.

Related Content:

Muhammad Ali Plans to Fight on Mars in Lost 1966 Interview

Malcolm X, Debating at Oxford, Quotes Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1964)

Mailer on the Ali-Foreman Classic

Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday


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