It was announced the other week that John Cena will be this year’s recipient of Sports Illustrated’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, “in recognition of [his] philanthropy work”, citing his contributions to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and other charitable causes.
According to the Associated Press, the award is given annually to athletes who “embody the ideals of sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy while using sports as a platform”, and was renamed in Ali’s honour in 2015. Mainstream media had long sought to strip Ali of his radicalism, painting him as a mere “humanitarian” whose beliefs and actions transcended politics, but the reality is that for his entire life Muhammad Ali was everything John Cena has never been – a champion of truth and justice, a staunch anti-imperialist and a devoted supporter of revolutionary movements across the world.
Ali famously rejected conscription when drafted to fight in the US’s war against Vietnam in 1967, expressing his solidarity with the Vietnamese people suffering under the imperialist yoke of US aggression, and in turn condemning the violence imposed on black, brown and working class people by the state domestically in his native US. He understood the importance of linking the struggle for liberation of oppressed groups in imperialist countries with those in oppressed countries, and encouraged black people in the US to join revolutionary groups such as the Black Panthers and build a movement on the streets to challenge the racism and imperialism of the United States.
As punishment for his commitment to the anti-war movement, Ali was stripped of his boxing championships and banned from the sport for three years, but remained steadfast in his beliefs regardless of the cost. Meanwhile, John Cena has been nothing but an enthusiastic cheerleader for US imperialism for his entire career, whether it’s through his endless sycophancy and praise toward the US troops who terrorise the globe on a daily basis killing literally millions of people a year, to his passionate speech off-air the end of a 2011 episode of Raw where he sent the entire arena into rapturous celebration over the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death, to his offensive, red-baiting, ultra-jingoistic angle against Rusev and Lana in 2015, to his vapid and inane tweets and videos about America being a land where people of all walks of life have the freedom to live and express themselves however they like, such as this hot mess he posted on Independence Day this year where he bombards the viewer with a barrage of meaningless demographic statistics, while conveniently ignoring stats like how many countries the US is currently bombing, or how many trans people have been murdered purely for existing, or how many Muslims have been on the receiving end of racial abuse, or the total prison population, or how many of those are black men serving double-digit sentences for minor drug offences, or how many children are living in poverty, or how many people have died due to not being able to afford healthcare that is free in the majority of other countries, or how many people are homeless, or how many migrant children are being separated from their parents and being locked in cages…you get my picture. Hell, he worked the Greatest Royal Rumble event in Saudi Arabia and eagerly took part in WWE’s propaganda campaign for the show, thanking the Kingdom for its hospitality, and was booked for the Crown Jewel event a few months later and only backed out about a week beforehand once he realised how much of a PR disaster it was going to be for him. Muhammad Ali he certainly is not.
Should the charity stuff be praised? I guess so to an extent, and it’s clear that he has done a lot for children in need, especially through the Make-A-Wish foundation, but so does every other wrestler on the WWE roster – and besides, I don’t think anyone deserves unconditional praise for doing the very least that’s expected of them, especially for someone with the wealth and status that Cena has. The harsh truth is that Cena benefits from being a person of influence in a world where there is suffering, especially in a country like his where charity is seen as this act of pious beneficence rather than a damning indictment of the social, economic and political structure of the state.
If I had to give the award to someone on the WWE roster, I don’t see how anyone could look any further than Titus O’Neil. The guy seems to always be somewhere on the streets or in schools doing practical, tangible acts of good, with a fraction of the exposure – the guy’s helped hundreds of working class student athletes get college scholarships and ensured that thousands of schoolkids in poor areas have shoes, toys, books and breakfast every morning. Dude’s even working on opening a tuition-free public school in Florida with free transportation, food and uniforms for all its pupils! Not to mention he was one of the few WWE employees with the guts to publicly criticise WWE’s reinstatement of Hulk Hogan into the Hall of Fame after his racist views were revealed to the world. If anyone should be getting an award it’s Titus.
Muhammad Ali was a lifelong opponent of imperialism and the US political establishment, two things that John Cena has ardently embraced and supported for his entire career. To even name them both in the same breath is an insult to Ali, his legacy and all the victims of US imperialism throughout history.