A gentle man in a brutal sport, a peaceful soul in a country at endless war, Muhammad Ali has finally moved on.
Those who did not watch his career as it played out against the worst of all of possible circumstances will have missed experiencing one of the great performances of modern times. If I had limited that statement strictly to his prize-fighting career, it would have been accurate enough. But I mean it in the broadest sense possible. His “career,” the thing that made his life significant in the grandest sense possible and indelibly recorded his character on the permanent memory of a generation, was to show that a man with enough moral center can prevail without having to kick against the pricks. In fact, in boxing and life, he showed the importance, and grace, to be achieved in bobbing, weaving and as he put it “floating like a butterfly.” (It was perhaps his most memorable line. He called his second autobiography Soul of a Butterfly.)
It is one of the ironies of our time that one of the truly significant moral figures of my time, perhaps the only great soul I followed closely (albeit afar), came up through boxing. A sport redolent of oppression and racism, where specimens of America’s underclass were routinely displayed in events designed to inflict disabling and often permanent injury (especially cumulatively) on all the participants, in front of crowds fueled on by bloodlust and not a little racism, proved his springboard. And he was magnificent at it. It is a shame on this sad occasion that I cannot raise a glass in sad memory to the pure artistry with Bert Sugar, with whom in my pubbing days I used to hoist a few at Annie Moore’s, but alas both Burt and Annie Moore’s are gone. And now Mohammad Ali.
Ali from the very start had the ability to make every event he was part of seem the most significant event in the world. He drew attention to himself by caustic, and bluntly humorous, mockery of his foes. It drew people to the sport who otherwise knew nothing about it. And many of those new viewers came hoping to see him get his comeuppance. But for almost all his career, it was he who prevailed, with brilliant display of footwork and jabbing that would mercilessly work on an open wound, punctuated with devastating blows that often sent opponents reeling. At 22, after upsetting champion Sonny Liston, he was both the “greatest” and “prettiest” boxer of all time, as he himself pointed out. A decade later in the 1970s, past the prime of most boxers, Ali staged several of the most memorable fights of all time, particularly with George Foreman and Joe Frazier. During the bout that allowed Ali to regain his crown, titled by Ali the “Rumble in the Jungle” because it took place in Zaire,after a merciless flurry to the champs head he delivered a blow to Foreman’s jaw so brutally on target and with such force that I, as a TV spectator, saw stars.
It was his journey between the Liston fight and those of Frazier and Foreman, however, that charted his course in history. A genius at self-promotion, his oversized personality became a lightning rod for racial focus. But he used humor, satirical braggadocio and doggerel to deflect the worst of the scorn. Instead of backing down, he doubled down, joining the Nation of Islam in 1964 and discarding his “slave name.” And then, to the amazement of all, he announced he would refuse to be inducted into the armed services when his draft status was re-classified in 1966, at a time when the maw of America’s war fury no longer cared who it swallowed, the demand being so great. “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger,” he memorably said, a witticism that brilliantly uncovered the connection between the country’s two great moral failures in a way that most student radicals of the time had not yet connected. Ali was arrested, of course. A country does not send it’s youth to possible death by the hundreds of thousands without also using the criminal system to suppress opposition. The Supreme Court, however, reversed his conviction on procedural grounds.By that time, in 1971, Ali had become one of the great heroes of the New Left. The state, however, had nonetheless taken its revenge, having stripped Ali of his right to fight during the most productive part of his career.
Ali became a symbol, a speaker, and in his way an agitator, for civil rights, Black Power, anti-imperialism and Third World solidarity. It was in the late 1970s that I had my own, brief (meaningless) encounter with him. He had a brief stay in Cambridge to sign copies of his first autobiography, The Greatest. While I had never been to such an event, or event sought out a celebrity autograph, how could I not see Ali up close. So I joined a line that snaked around the block. I do not know how long it took, but when I got to the stairs to the stage, I realized I would have to say something to him. There was really nothing, however, that could be composed on the spot to say to a master of witty epigrams, so I am afraid that I fumbled the moment, only acknowledging that he was truly “the Greatest.” The book, with autograph, however, made the “greatest” Christmas gift I ever gave my brother.
It would take the world another decade or so before it turned Ali into a cuddly figure of universal adoration. It is perhaps the final ploy of the pricks to convert effective foes into conventional clichés, pretending that there was no dispute all along. Ali would occasionally play along, accepting the accolades of the sports and celebrity world, graciously, even in an addled state brought on by years of battering that the human skull was not intended to take in a “sport” that was only a thinly disguised version human sacrifice as entertainment. As far as I know, he never voiced a regret or resentment that this was his only avenue to self-fulfillment or self-expression in a society that had been designed to channel humans into different futures based on their “race” or class or ancestry. I think I will avoid the news for a day or two; it is more than likely that the current representatives of the forces that oppose the human spirit will undoubtedly express their great admiration for him. It’s best to simply meditate on what it must have been like to be able to both float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.