Ali was beautiful — but there was an ugly, vindictive streak
Ali was beautiful — but there was an ugly, vindictive streak
Sunday, September 11, 2022 4:45 pm
By Martin Syed
Norman Mailer, perhaps his most eloquent chronicler, once described Muhammad Ali as “beautiful”. “There is always a shock in seeing him again,” Mailer wrote in his seminal book The Fight. “Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man . . . Women draw an audible breath. Men look down . . . If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would still inspire love and hate. For he is the Prince of Heaven — so says the silence around his body when he is luminous.”
Ali was, indeed, beautiful. In the way he moved, the way he talked, and in the high-voltage charisma that seemed to flow whenever he stood near a TV camera, he redefined the nature of 20th century celebrity. He could box, too. When he took on Cleveland Williams in 1966 at the height of his powers, he altered the way many observers thought about sport. He danced and glided, connecting with 100 punches and taking just three. As one pundit put it: “This is the closest sport has come to perfection. For seven or so minutes, Ali turned boxing into ballet”.
But Ali was not always beautiful. He could be ugly, vindictive and, at times, hypocritical. Indeed, the only way to fully understand how a “mere” sportsman rose to become one of the most influential figures of the last century, you have to engage with both the light and the darkness. Over recent decades, particularly since his descent caused by Parkinson’s disease, the image of Ali has been carefully sanitised. He was positioned by his commercial handlers as saintly, unifying, pacifistic and unthreatening. But the real Ali, the man who shocked, outraged, fascinated and ultimately endeared the world, was a polarising and controversial figure. In his words and deeds, there was always a whiff of semtex. Now, more than ever, it is time to rediscover the real Ali.
His arrival on the world stage can be pinned to a particular date: February 25, 1964. Ali had already won Olympic gold in the light-heavyweight event in Rome, but it was his challenge for the so-called richest prize in sport that transformed him into a cultural icon. It would not be entirely true to say that nobody gave this unorthodox pugilist, who carried his hands low, a hope. Three of the 40-plus journalists at ringside picked Cassius Clay, as he was then called, to defeat Sonny Liston, the defending heavyweight champion. It was not the first time that pundits would underestimate the courage and skill of the man who was about turn their world upside down.
Of all Ali’s title bouts, this remains the most electric. He edged the contest until the 4th, when an illegal substance from Liston’s glove found its way into his eyes. Partially blinded, Ali kept Liston at a bay by holding his arms out horizontally, but as his vision began to clear, he started to dominate. Liston seemed to age as Ali danced around him, and he failed to answer the bell for the 7th round (some observers claim he was ordered to throw the contest by the mob). It was a breathtaking performance. As Ferdie Pacheco, his long-time doctor put it: “Beethoven wrote some of his greatest symphonies when he was deaf. Why couldn’t Cassius Clay fight when he was blind?”
It wasn’t until the next day, however, that the story shifted to the front pages. Ali informed a press conference that he had converted to the Nation of Islam, an extremist, anti-white religious group. He also said that he had dropped his “slave name” (Cassius Clay was, in fact, the name of a 19th-century abolitionist). Soon afterwards, he became Muhammad Ali. Mainstream America, accustomed to compliant black athletes in the mould of Joe Louis, the former heavyweight champion, was outraged. The Nation had a surrealist theology, preaching that blacks were the first humans and that whites had been created in a botched experiment conducted by a rogue scientist. They also believed that blacks would be rescued from a looming apocalypse by a wheel-shaped spaceship.
But it was their political vision that caused the deepest anxiety. They argued for a separation between the races, campaigning aggressively (and with a stated belief in the use of force) for a homeland for blacks within the borders of the United States. That put them in direct opposition to the integrationist agenda of Martin Luther King and, curiously enough, on the same page as white supremacist groups, who also believed in racial segregation. Soon after his conversion, Ali himself addressed a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, saying: “Blue birds with blue birds, red birds with red birds, pigeons with pigeons, eagles with eagles! God didn’t make no mistake!”
How could Ali have fraternised with an organisation that had lynched and murdered across the former Confederacy? How could he associate with people whose declared aim was to create a state of terror among blacks south of the Mason-Dixon line? To his detractors, then and now, Ali was a racist, pure and simple. He believed that whites were congenitally evil, just as the Klan believed that blacks were congenitally subhuman. In multiple interviews, Ali proclaimed his ideology. “We cannot live in harmony because we are different,” he said. “Whites have a bad nature, they cannot be trusted . . . We need to have our own land, our own government, our own way of doing things.” Mark Kram, in his book Ghosts of Manila, wrote: “Seldom has a public figure of such superficial depth been more wrongly perceived — by the right and the left. Today, he would be looked upon as a contaminant, a chronic user of hate language.”
But the context of Ali’s views should not be overlooked. He grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, a city called the “gateway to the south”. The indignities of Jim Crow were part of everyday experience. When asked to write a school project on slavery, he was so shocked when confronted by the full horrors of the Middle Passage he opened.
His radicalisation was complete when, in 1955, he read about the murder of Emmett Till, a boy of the same age as Ali, who had been lynched for wolf-whistling at a white shop assistant in Mississippi. Till’s body had been mutilated and an eye gouged from its socket. The two men charged with murder were acquitted by an all-white jury in 67 minutes. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken so long”, one juror said.
From this perspective, Ali’s demonisation of whites can at least be understood, if not condoned. The Black Muslims may have had a similar ideology to the Klan on paper but the historical context could not have been more different. The Klan wished to sustain a reign of hatred against blacks in the South. The anti-white racism of the Nation of Islam was more a cry for help, the vigilante response of an impotent and pitiful minority.
Either way, there is no doubt that Ali’s position as heavyweight champion handed the Nation a political significance out of all proportion to their small base. For a brief period, the fear of a rising black underclass, disciplined, well organised, and intent on insurrection, struck fear into Middle America. And it was at this moment that Luther King played his trump card. Concerned that the Civil Rights Bill was bogged down in Congress, he realised that the extremist rhetoric of the new heavyweight champion might be used to secure concessions. In one of his biggest political gambles, he painted a chilling vision of what might happen if reforms were delayed further, pushing more young blacks into the arms of the extremists.
In a watershed article in the Chicago Defender, Jackie Robinson, the first black player to cross the colour line in Major League Baseball, made the case. “I don’t think Negroes en masse will embrace Black Muslimism any more than they have communism. Young and old, Negroes by the tens of thousands went into the streets of America and proved their willingness to suffer, to fight, and even die for their freedom. These people want more democracy — not less. They want to be integrated into the mainstream of American life, not invited to live in some small cubicle of this land in splendid isolation. If Negroes ever turn to the Black Muslim movement, in any numbers, it will not be because of Cassius Clay or even Malcolm X. It will be because white America has refused to recognise the responsible leadership of the Negro people and to grant us the same rights that any other citizen enjoyed.
President Johnson got the point, strengthening the act against the wishes of his party. The 1964 Bill went further than anyone had believed possible only months earlier and, along with the Voting Rights Act in 1965, banned employment discrimination and obliterated the disenfranchisement of blacks throughout the South. It is perhaps the deepest irony of Ali’s life that in allying himself with a creed fanatically opposed to integration, he smoothed the passage of the most seminal integrationist legislation in American history. Jim Crow had finally expired.
America was a-changing, and, soon, Ali was changing too. By 1967, he had defended the title nine times (including a rematch with Liston), almost without breaking sweat. And yet, even as the nation was starting to warm to a man they had previously vilified, he took a stance that would divide it again. His refusal to accept the draft for Vietnam was another calculated act of hostility against the establishment. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong”, Ali said. The words would ultimately become a rallying cry for critics of the war, but at the time it still commanded support and his stance was regarded as an act of betrayal. The boxing authorities stripped him of his title, and he spent three and a half years in the wilderness.
By the time he returned, however, the world had shifted. Opinion had swung against the war, and Ali was on the verge of being embraced by mainstream America for the first time. His courage convinced many of his severest critics that he was a man of principle whose stances pierced the surface assumptions of American society. He even won his case against the United States government, avoiding jail and garnering an apology.
In 1974, as he travelled to Zaire to take on George Foreman for the heavyweight title (he had been defeated by Joe Frazier in his first attempt to regain the championship in 1971), he had become a hero to millions at home and abroad. It was a stunning turnaround, reflecting not only Ali’s personality, but a growing consensus, even in the South, that the dismantling of Jim Crow had changed the nation for the better.The cultural meaning of Ali was morphing too. This was a period of mass entertainment driven by television satellites and the first attempts at global marketing. Ali’s bouts in Kinshasa, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, San Juan, Munich, New York and Nassau became an international roadshow, creating what we would today call a global brand. He was, by now, the most famous person on the planet, able to charm and delight audiences with effortless charisma. For the US, still traumatised by Watergate and Vietnam, these mega-bouts offered much-needed escapism. The pre-bout vaudeville and hype became essential to the drumbeat of the Seventies.
To many, the 1974 clash with Foreman remains Ali’s definitive bout. However, he was way past his best. Three and a half years out of the ring had created a very different boxer: one who had slowed dramatically. Ali called his tactics against Foreman “rope-a-dope”, taking mighty shots on his body and arms that would have previously hit thin air. He won with a stoppage in the 8th round, but urinated blood for weeks afterwards. After the savage, 14-round epic with Frazier in the Philippines, the fabled Thrilla in Manila in 1975, he looked as if he had been in a traffic accident. But America loved him for it. This was an authentic champion, rather than the defensive artist who had dominated the Sixties. He took punishment. He bled. For some people, this represented heroism.
In 1978, Ali faced Leon Spinks in an attempt to win the title for an unprecedented third time before a record TV audience. Howard Cosell, the legendary announcer, used the closing moments to provide one of the most cherished pieces of sports commentary, citing Bob Dylan. “May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift. May you have a strong foundation, when the winds of changes shift. May your heart always be joyful, and may your song always be sung. May you stay for ever young.” Ali won, but his decline was evident. Within months of his retirement in 1981, the signs of Parkinson’s were already manifest. The descent into illness had begun.
For most of the rest of his life, Ali lived a curious half-life, both in the spotlight and beyond it. He renounced the Nation and converted to moderate form of Sunni Islam. Gradually, however, the melodious voice was silenced. An 80 per cent share in his name, image and likeness were sold for $50 million to CKX, an entertainment conglomerate, which started the process of airbrushing his image.
He was positioned, doubtless for commercial reasons, as a Gandhi-like caricature who preached peace and tolerance. The real Ali, the man whose explosive stances subtly altered American history, was drowned in a deluge of misleading sentimentality. In the eyes of a new generation, Ali was a teddy bear: safe, unthreatening, and devoid of the contradictions that symbolised the deep schisms in post-war American consciousness.
Soon after retirement, he married Lonnie, his fourth wife, and apologised for the womanising that had characterised his youth, stating “the man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life”. In his final years, he spent much of his time watching videos of old fights and interviews. “He does have advanced Parkinson’s disease, so he is challenged,” Lonnie said recently. “The thing he loves most is watching himself on YouTube. He becomes so intense. It’s as if he hasn’t ever seen it before. He watches the [Michael] Parkinson interviews. I remember in Michigan one time, he was watching himself, and said: ‘I was crazy, wasn’t I?’ I said: ‘Yes!’”
Only a historian lacking imagination could fail to place Ali among the most influential cultural figures of the last century. He was a sportsman with a conscience, a man whose desire to right the injustices in American society led him down many roads, both dark and light. In his life, we glimpse not only the moral complexity of the most transformative epoch in modern American history, but also the story of a boy from a small town who, against all odds, “shook up the world”. He was imperfect and flawed, courageous and so very beautiful.