by Joyce Carol Oates
First published in ESPN Sports Century, New York: Hyperion, 1999. Reprinted in Uncensored: Views & (Re)views.
I was determined to be one nigger that the white man didn't get.
—Muhammad Ali, 1970
Boxing was nothing. It wasn't important at all. Boxing was just a means to introduce me to the world.
—Muhammad Ali, 1983
In the twentieth century, and perhaps most spectacularly in the 1970s, sports has emerged as our dominant American religion. Through the excited scrutiny of the media, our most celebrated athletes acquire mythopoetic status; they are both "larger than life" and often incapacitated for life in the ordinary, private sense. To be a champion, one must only be a consistently better performer than his or her competitors; to be a great champion, like Muhammad Ali, one must transcend the perimeters of sport itself to become a model (in some cases a sacrificial model) for the general populace, image-bearer for an era.
Though he came of age as an extraordinary young boxer in the 1960s, and made his mark as a radical political presence during that decade, it was in the 1970s that Ali achieved greatness. The 1970s, following the inglorious end of the Vietnam War, is our decade of transition; a time of accommodation, healing and reassessment. Who would have thought that Muhammad Ali's defiant repudiation of American foreign policy, in the mid-1960s considered virtually traitorous by some observers, would come to be, in the decade to follow, a widespread and altogether respectable political position? Who would have thought that the lone black athlete, like Ali, once ostracized by the media, would come to be emblematic of the "new" era in which, following Ali's example, athletes like Reggie Jackson (the first major league baseball player to sport a moustache since 1914) could express (or exhibit) themselves in essentially playful, theatrical gestures that had little to do with their utilitarian function as athletes? Who would have thought that such flamboyant, controversial gestures as Ali's penchant for declaiming poetry and the comical "Ali shuffle" would influence a new generation of blacks?—in music, where "rap" soared to prominence, and in the scathingly funny comic routines of performers like Richard Pryor; above all in basketball, where players of the caliber of Michael Jordan combined extraordinary skill, like Ali, with a personal sense of style? (Compare the modest, constrained public personae of Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Jackie Robinson of an earlier era in which the black athlete was given to know that his presence was provisional and not a right; his very career was a privilege that might be revoked at any time.) The phenomenon of media attention, and hype, accorded every turn of Ali's career was unlike any that preceded, just as the ever-increasing purses and salaries paid to professional athletes in our time are a consequence of Ali's role in the public consciousness. Perhaps free agentry in sports like baseball and football would have followed in due course, but not so swiftly in the 1970s (leading to the 1974 strike in football, for instance) without Ali's example. Ali is the quintessential "free agent" as his much-maligned predecessor Jack Johnson might have been, except for the overwhelming opposition of that era's white racism. And Ali was the Muslim pioneer through whose unwavering example such athletes as Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul Jabbar were allowed to change their names and present themselves explicitly as members of a distinctly non-Christian and non-traditional religion.
Viewed from the perspective of the new century, the 1970s was a transitional period in which, in a sense, a New Era of sports was born. If the celebrity athlete with his astronomical contract is a permanent fixture of American public life, who but Muhammad Ali, once Cassius Clay of Louisville, Kentucky, was his progenitor?
* * *
Among boxing historians and fans it will long be debated whether All, or Joe Louis, was the greatest heavyweight boxer in history. (And what of the undefeated Rocky Marciano?) It is beyond debate, however, that Ali as athlete, champion, and cultural icon has acquired a significance beyond sports that no other boxer has attained, nor is likely to attain. (Prior to Ali's ascendency in his fights with Joe Frazier, it was the vengeful, brilliantly triumphant Joe Louis of the Louis-Schmeling fight of June 1938 who most captivated the public's imagination. Having been defeated by Nazi Germany's "master race" athlete in 1936, the twenty-four-year-old Louis returned to knock out Schmeling in 124 seconds in the most famous boxing match in American history.) Muhammad Ali's meteoric rise to prominence as an extraordinarily gifted if idiosyncratic and willful young boxer in the early 1960s, culminating in his unexpected defeat of heavy weight champion Sonny Liston in 1964, happened to coincide with at least three historical developments unique to the era: the first, the enmeshed, expanding entanglement of American intervention in Vietnam which both was, yet was not, a traditional war and which was fracturing American society along lines of class, race, generations, and political and patriotic allegiances; the second, the rise of black separatist movements following (in fact, predating) the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, and the awareness on the part of militant black leaders that since the civil rights victories of the 1950s, black advancement had been stalled; the third, the intensification of media influence and the growth of what might be called electronic mass marketing of "images" detached from content.
"Styles make fights," Ali's great trainer Angelo Dundee said, in reference to his dazzling young boxer's ring performances, but the insight applies to the mass replication of images generally. Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali soon revealed himself as a master of a new, radically iconoclastic style in public life. He refused to be self-effacing in the cautious manner of his black predecessors Louis, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, and Floyd Patterson; the audacity with which he exulted in his blackness called to mind Jack Johnson, the controversial first black heavyweight champion (1908-1915), whose example black athletes (and their white trainers and managers) did not wish to emulate. (Compare the far more cautious yet perhaps not less difficult route of Jackie Robinson in the preceding decade.) Though complicated by issues of religion and race and "ego," the essential message of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali in the late 1960s and early 1970s was simple and defiant: I don't have to be what you want me to be.
No other athlete has received quite the press—accusing and adulatory, condemning and praising, seething with hatred and brimming with love—that Ali has had. From the first, as the young Cassius Clay, he seems to have determined that he would not be a passive participant in his image-making, like most athletes, but would define the terms of his public reputation. As sport is both a mirror of human aggression and a highly controlled, "playful" acting-out of that aggression, so the public athlete is a play-figure, at his most conscious and controlled an actor in a theatrical event. Clay/Ali brought to the deadly-serious sport of boxing an unexpected ecstatic joy that had nothing to do with, and may in fact have been contrary to, his political/religious mission. His temperament seems to have been fundamentally childlike; playing the trickster came naturally to him, "My corn, the gimmicks, the acting I do—it'll take a whole lot for another fighter to ever be as popular as Muhammad Ali," he remarked in an interview in 1975. "The acting begins when I'm working. Before a fight, I'll try to have something funny to say every day and I'll talk ten miles a minute . . . I started fighting in 1954, when I was just twelve, so it's been a long time for me now. But there's always a new fight to look forward to, a new publicity stunt, a new reason to fight."
At the same time, Ali is deadly serious about his mission as a member of the Nation of Islam; there is nothing playful or trickster-like about his commitment to the Muslim faith ("Muslims ... live their religion—we ain't hypocrites. We submit entirely to Allah's will").
There has always been something enigmatic about Clay/Ali, a doubleness that suggests a fundamental distinction between public and private worlds. And what a testimony is Ali's career of nearly three decades to the diversity of media attention! In our time, in his sixth decade, long retired from the sport that made him famous and from the adversarial politics that made him notorious, Ali now enjoys a universal beneficence. He has become an "American icon" known through the world; a brand name symbolizing "success." He remains a Muslim but no longer belongs to the Nation of Islam; he no longer makes pronouncements of a political nature. He has become a mega-celebrity divorced, like all such celebrities, from history; a timeless mass-cult contemporary of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.
Yet of course it was not always like this. There were years following Ali's refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army, as a member of the Nation of Islam, when he was one of the most despised public figures in America; even, in State Department terms, a "possible security risk"! Boxing audiences didn't greet him with incantatory chants of "Al-li! Al-li! Al-li!" but with boos. It's rare to encounter an athlete who chooses to be a martyr for a principle; an athlete who has made himself into a figure of racial identity and pride. (It was always the hope, to become in time a stereotypical hope, that the black athlete like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson would be a "credit to his race." What was not desired was racial confrontation and conflict.) The issue of race was always predominant in Ali's strategy of undermining an opponent's confidence in himself and, ingeniously, though sometimes cruelly, fashioning himself as the "black" boxer against the "white man's" Negro. Floyd Patterson, much admired by white America, was particularly susceptible:
I'm going to put him flat on his back
So that he will start acting black.
(In fact, Ali didn't put Patterson flat on his back, but humiliated him in a protracted, punishing fight.) Even as the brash twenty-two-year-old contender for the heavyweight title, he'd dared mock the champion Sonny Liston as an "ugly old bear"—an "ugly slow bear"—Liston, who'd so demolished Patterson! Years later, in 1975, Ali would relentlessly taunt Joe Frazier with remarks that would have seemed, from a white boxer, racist:
Joe Frazier is a gorilla,
And he's gonna fall in Manila!
Yet worse (or funnier): "Frazier's the only nigger in the world ain't got rhythm." Frazier, too, was fashioned by Ali into the white man's Negro; the boxer whom whites presumably wanted to win, therefore isolated from the community of blacks. Is this bad sportsmanship on Ali's part, a sly sort of racist tweaking of noses; is it Ali at his purposeful worst, or simply a manifestation of the man's enigmatic nature, the trickster-as-athlete?
Race has long been an American taboo. The very word "nigger" strikes Ihe ear as obscene; in using it, particularly in the presence of whites, blacks arc playing, (or making war) with the degrading, demeaning historical context that has made it an obscene word, in some quarters at least. (In another context, the word can be a sign of affection. But this context isn't available to whites.) Ali, intent upon defining himself as a rebel in a white-dominated society, would make of every public gesture a racial gesture: defiance toward the white Establishment, alliance with the black community. The political issue of serving in Vietnam ("No Vietcong ever called me nigger" was Ali's most pointed defense) would seem to have been secondary to the more pervasive issue of black inequity in America, for which Ali would be spokesman, gadfly, and, if needed, martyr. In his Playboy interview of November 1975, Ali is quoted as saying that, following the teachings of the late Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam, he believes that the majority of whites are "devils" and that he anticipates a separation from white America: "When we take maybe ten states, then we'll be free."
By making race so prominent an issue in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ali provoked a predictably hostile response from the Establishment, including the federal government. Though forbidden to leave the United States, he would be exiled within it; as a black Muslim he would be "separate" from the white majority. Indeed, among public celebrities of the American twentieth century only Charlie Chaplin and Paul Robeson, persecuted by right-wing politicians in the 1950s for their "Communist" principles, are analogous to Ali. The black athletes Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe, in their very different ways, Robinson in integrating major league baseball and Ashe in his activist phase in the public cause of AIDS education, acquired a profound cultural significance apart from their sports yet were never controversial figures like Ali. Considering the protracted violence of the 1960s, the assassinations of public figures and frequent killings and beatings of civil rights activists, it seems in retrospect miraculous that Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, the self-declared "nigger that the white man didn't get," didn't provoke violence against himself.
Ali rode the crest of a new wave of athletes—competitors who were both big and fast ... Ali had a combination of size and speed that had never been seen in a fighter before, along with incredible will and courage. He also brought a new style to boxing ... Jack Dempsey changed fisticuffs from a kind where fighters fought in a tense defensive style to a wild sensual assault. Ali revolutionized boxing the way black basketball players changed basketball today. He changed what happened in the ring, and elevated it to a level that was previously unknown. —Larry Merchant
The extraordinary career of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali is one of the longest, most varied and sensational of boxing careers. Like Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Archie Moore, among few others in so difficult and dangerous a sport, Ali defended his title numerous times over a period of many years; he won, he lost, he won and he lost; beginning brilliantly in 1960 as an Olympic gold medalist and ending, not so brilliantly, yet courageously, in 1981. What strikes us as remarkable about Ali is that, while as the brash young challenger Cassius Clay he'd been ready to quit his first title fight, with Sonny Liston, in an early round (with the complaint that "something was in his eye"), he would mature to fight fights that were virtually superhuman in their expenditure of physical strength, moral stamina, intelligence and spirit: the long, gruelling, punishing fights with Joe Frazier (which, in turn, Ali lost, and won, and won); and the famous Rope-a-Dope match with then-champion George Foreman in Zaire, in 1974, which restored Ali's title to him. Never has a boxer so clearly sacrificed himself in the finely honed, ceaselessly premeditated practice of his craft as Ali.
This long career might be helpfully divided into three, disproportionate phases: the first, 1960-67, the "Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee" Era when Ali's youthful boxing skills were at their zenith; the second, 1971-78, Ali's return after his three-and-a-half-year exile from boxing; and the diminished third, a kind of twilit epilogue ending with Ali's belated retirement at the age of forty. F. Scott Fitzgerald's cryptic remark, "There are no second acts in American lives," would seem to be refuted by the example of Ali; dazzling as he was as a young boxer, he becomes more interesting in his second phase as a boxer no longer young who must rely upon superior intelligence and cunning in the ring, as well as the potentially dangerous ability to "take a punch"; bringing to bear against his hapless opponents some of the psychic warfare we associate with actual warfare. That is, the wish to destroy the opponent's spirit before the body is even touched.
1960-1967. "Float like a butterfly, destroy like a viper" might have been a more accurate metaphor for Cassius Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali in these early fights. Not until the emergence of Mike Tyson at an even younger age in thc mid-1980s would a young heavyweight boxer make such an impact upon his sport as this Olympic gold medalist turned pro after 108 amateur bouts. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942, grandson of a slave but reared in a comfortable, supportive black middle-class environment, the young Cassius Clay was like no other heavyweight in history: massive, perfectly proportioned, a Nijinsky with lethal fists and a manner both in and out of the ring that might be called inflammatory. By instinct, Clay knew that boxing is, or should be, entertaining. Boxing is, or should be, drama. From the campy pro wrestler Gorgeous George, he'd learned that people will buy tickets to see a boxer lose as well as to see a boxer win. Calling attention to oneself, cartoon- and comic-book-style, is a way of calling attention to the fight, and to box office revenue. The early disdain of boxing experts for "The Mouth" is certainly understandable in the light of boxing's tradition of reticent champions (like Louis); a boxer should speak with his fists, not his mouth. With adolescent zest, predating the insouciance of black rap music, Cassius Clay repudiated all this.
This is the legend of Cassius Clay,
The most beautiful boxer in the world today.
He talks a great deal and brags indeedy
Of a muscular punch that's incredibly speedy.
The fistic world was dull and weary,
With a champ like Liston things had to be dreary.
Then someone with color, someone with dash,
Brought fight fans a-runnin' with cash.
This brash young boxer is something to see
And the heavyweight championship is his destiny.
And much, much more.
Of course, the young boxer's arrogant verbosity and pre-fight antics were more than balanced by his ring discipline and boxing skill. From the first, Clay attracted media attention as much for his style as for his victories. What was unique about Clay in the 1960s? Even after his wins against such highly regarded veterans as Archie Moore and Henry Cooper (whose face Clay savagely bloodied in a bout in England in 1963), the eccentricities of Clay's style aroused skepticism and sometimes alarm in commentators. A.J. Leibling described this bizarre heavyweight as "skittering ... like a pebble over water." He held his gloves low, as a boxer is trained not to do. He leaned away from his opponent's punches instead of slipping them, as a boxer is trained not to do. He feinted, he clowned, he shrugged his head and shoulders in odd ways, even as he danced in a sort of sidelong way. He performed a "shuffling" movement to distract opponents and entertain spectators. In the words of Garry Wills, Clay "carries his head high and partly exposed so that he can see everything all the time ... whips his head back just enough to escape a punch without losing sight of his man." In Hugh McIlvanney's prophetic words, the young boxer seemed to see his life as a "strange, ritualistic play" in which his hysterical rantings were required by "the script that goes with his destiny." Norman Mailer wrote extensively and with romantic passion of the young boxer as a "six-foot parrot who keeps screaming at you that he is the center of the stage. 'Come and get me, fool,' he says. 'You can't, 'cause you don't know who I am. You don't know where I am. I am human intelligence and you don't even know if I'm good or evil.'" Of the distinctive, idiosyncratic Cassius Clay style, his trainer Angelo Dundee said in an interview:
He wasn't a guy who was led easily. You've got to remember the intricacies of training this kid. You didn't train him like the usual fighter. He resented direction, so I used indirection. I cast the illusion of him doing something when he wasn't. To get him to do what he should be doing.
["We Never Saw Muhammad Ali at His Best"]
What any boxer "should" be doing is winning, and Cassius Clay was perhaps no more inventive or flamboyant than he needed to be to rack up victory after victory to ever-increasing public acclaim.
Consider the first, shocking title fight with Sonny Liston (shocking because the seven-to-one underdog Clay won so handily and the seemingly unbeatable champion ignominiously quit on his stool after six rounds): the younger boxer simply out-boxed, out-punched, out-danced, out-maneuvered and out-psyched his older opponent. What an upset in boxing history, on February 25, 1964! This fight is fascinating to watch, like a dramatized collision of two generations/two eras/two cultures; a fairy tale in which the audacious young hero dethrones the ogre exactly according to the young hero's predictions.
Yet what controversy followed when Cassius Clay announced that he was changing his debased "slave" name to "Muhammad Ali"; he'd been converted to the black militant Nation of Islam (more generally known as the Black Muslims) and was "no longer a Christian." With remarkable composure, the young athlete who'd seemed so adolescent was publicly and courageously re-defining himself as black. As virtually no other black athlete of great distinction had done, Ali was repudiating the very white political, social, and economic Establishment that helped create him. As, three years later, he would yet more provocatively define himself as a conscientious objector who refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army to fight in Vietnam, with the punitive result that he would be stripped of his title and license to box in the United States. (Interesting to note that the majority of white publications, including even The New York Times, as well as television commentators, refused through the 1960s to acknowledge Ali's new, legal name; as if the former Cassius Clay hadn't the right to change his name to Muhammad Ali—or to any name he chose. It might have been the quixotic hope that if they refused to sanction "Ali" in the media, his allegiance to the Nation of Islam, if not to blackness itself, might simply fade away.)
Between February 1964 and his ascension to heavyweight champion and April 1967 when he was forced into an involuntary exile, Ali successfully defended his title nine times. Widespread white disapproval of his new identity didn't discourage boxing fans from attending his spectacular fights. Among these, the May 1965 rematch with Sonny Liston proved even more disappointing and, for Liston, more ignominious, than the first fight: this time Liston quickly went down in the first round and stayed down, felled by what many boxing commentators saw as a "mystery punch" of Ali's that put Liston out of the fight even as an enraged Ali, adrenaline pumping, screamed for him to get up and fight. (Did Liston throw the fight? Did Liston so fear Ali, he couldn't fight? The sight of Liston lolling on the canvas recalls the similarly fallen—and feigning?—Jack Johnson who lost his heavyweight title to the White Hope Jess Willard in 1915 in the twenty-sixth round of their marathon match. Yet Angelo Dundee would claim to have seen the punch, "a good right hand to the temple my guy threw from up on the balls of his feet ... He was out. He was definitely out.") Liston, believed to be mob-connected, would be found dead in 1970 in Las Vegas, allegedly of a drug overdose, possibly of murder. One of the shabbier and more sordid episodes in America's noir sport.
Other title defenses of Ali's, however, were hard-fought and legitimately won by the champion; brilliant displays of boxing to reach their zenith in November 1966 in a match with the veteran Cleveland Williams, as Ali, ever in motion, ever flicking his unerring left jab at his frustrated opponent, moving head and shoulders with the seemingly casual aplomb of a dancer, unleashing the Ali shuffle, knocked Williams down several times with multiple punches before knocking him out in the third round. What deadly grace, what lethal beauty in motion! And what a mystery Ali's quicksilver ring style would have been without slow-motion replays! In great displays of boxing, as in few other sports, the unaided eye is simply inadequate to catch, let alone register and interpret, crucial moves. If there is a single fight of Ali's that best exhibits his "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" style, it's this fight with Cleveland Williams. And, unlike the great fights to come in the 1970s, this fight is short.
Soon afterward, Ali's early dazzling career would come to an abrupt end. Increasingly controversial as a result of his public commitment to the Nation of Islam (which was regarded by many whites and some blacks as a black-racist cult), Muhammad Ali drew a maelstrom of censure when, in April 1967, he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army and, besieged by the media, uttered one of the classic, incendiary remarks of that incendiary epoch: "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong." He would be found guilty of "knowingly and unlawfully refusing induction" in a Federal Court in Houston, Texas, and given, by an elderly white judge, the stiffest possible sentence: five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. (Ali's mentor Elijah Muhammad served just three years for urging his followers to resist the World War II draft.) There would be years of appeals, enormous legal bills and continued controversy, but Ali would spend no time in jail. Neither would he be allowed to box in the prime of his fighting life, a melancholy loss acknowledged by Anglelo Dundcee—"We never saw Muhammad Ali at his best." Not only did boxing commissions refuse to sanction the undefeated heavyweight champion to box, but the State Department, in a repressive tactic bringing to mind the persecutions of Charlie Chaplin and Paul Robeson in the 1950s, revoked Ali's passport so that he couldn't fight abroad.
1971-78. The Return. The Superfights. Then, with fairy-tale logic, as the Vietnam War wound down, a bitter and yet unresolved episode in our history, and the tide of public opinion shifted against the military, the U.S. Supreme Court overthrew Ali's 1967 conviction and he was reinstated as a boxer. Like a rogue elephant exiled to the periphery of his world yet always conscious of, and always uneasily observed by, that world, Ali returned in triumph—almost!—to reclaim his title. In this seven-year period belong Ali's greatest fights, and to say that they were unanticipated is not to disparage the younger boxer but to extol the older. In the intensely fought, physically exhausting fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, Muhammad Ali proved himself a great, and not merely a gifted and charmed athlete. After three and a half years of not boxing, though only twenty-nine, Ali was conspicuously slower and knew better than to dance away from his opponent; he would have to compensate for his lost agility with sheerly boxing (and punching) technique; he would have to train to take, and not exclusively give, punishment. That this was a deliberate strategy is important to note. As Ali said in an interview in 1975:
I don't train like other boxers. For instance, I let my sparring partners try to beat up on me about eighty percent of the time. I go on the defense and take a couple of hits to the head and the body, which is good: You gotta condition your body and brain to take those shots, 'cause you're gonna get hit hard a couple of times in every fight. Meanwhile, I'm not gonna beat up on my sparring partners ... If I kill myself punching at them, it'll take too much out of me. When you're fightin' as much as I have lately, you're supposed to be boxin' and doin' something every day, but I can't dance and move every day like I should, because my body won't let me. So I have to stall my way through.
If this sounds like a recipe for disaster it was also, for Ali, in thc short run at least, a recipe for success. Indeed, it is the game-plan for the remainder of Ali's career, the strategy that would win him two of his epic fights with Joe Frazier and the legendary Foreman fight in which, miraculously, or so it seems, the younger, stronger and seemingly more dangerous Foreman would punch himself out on Ali's stubborn body in eight rounds, to relinquish the heavyweight title another time to Ali. As Ali's doctor at that time, Ferdie Pacheco, said:
Ali discovered something which was both very good and very bad. Very bad in that it led to the physical damage he suffered later in his career; very good in that it eventually got him back the championship. He discovered that he could take a punch.
And take punches Ali did, for the next six years.
The great, extravagantly publicized matches of this period of Ali's career belong with the great sports events of all time. Frazier-Ali I (1971) (which attracted more viewers than any boxing match in history), Ali-Frazier II (1974), Ali-Frazier III (1975), and Ali-Foreman (1974) would seem to inhabit an archetypal realm of the spirit that transcends most sports events. The perilous, cathartic heights of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy come to mind when we consider these draining fights in which even the winners are irrevocably altered. (After fourteen rounds of the "Thriller in Manila" with Frazier in 1975, Ali, the winner, nonetheless described the experience as "The nearest thing to death.") Not surprisingly, these epic boxing matches excited media interest and drew to Ali's camp numerous commentators, some of them famous in themselves (like George Plimptom, Norman Mailer), who would spend more than a month in Zaire for the Ali-Foreman fight. (See the Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings, and Norman Mailer's highly stylized coverage The Fight.) Not just Ali's stoical courage as an athlete, but Ali's ingenuity drew such attention. For even the aging Ali was a meta-athlete who conceived of his public appearances as theater, not merely, or wholly sport; Ali was a superb athlete, but he was also a superb actor, exhibiting "Ali" to the acclaim of millions, Watching Ali in what we might call his aging prime, we are reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre's remark Genius is not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances. There is something of the con-man in Ali, and his game is to make us want to believe in his indestructibility, even as, perhaps, Ali doesn't, or can't, believe in it without qualification himself. Consider the Foreman fight. In When We Were Kings, Foreman is repeatedly "dissed"; he is the: opponent whom we are invited to scorn, because he is not Ali, our hero. (In a sense, there is room for only one boxer in the ring, if that boxer is Ali. He won't play fair in seeking an audience's attention.) As in a fairy tale of heroes and villains, Foreman, for all his gifts, is the villain. Even as we watch this astonishing fight between an aging Muhammad Ali and a young and vigorous George Foreman, reputedly one of the hardest-hitting heavyweight punchers of all time, we are mystified: how did Ali do it? Granted even his superhuman will, how did his body withstand such repeated, relentless blows? The Rope-a-Dope strategy is the very triumph of purposeful masochism; yet such triumph inevitably carries with it irretrievable loss. (Would Ali have wished to win over Foreman had he been able to anticipate his physical and mental deterioration—his "Parkinsonianism"—of later years?) Wittily titled, the "Rumble in the Jungle," as if it were but a cartoon or comic-book event, this fight which returned his title to him surely contributed to Ali's taking into his body the "nearest thing to death."
Following these remarkable fights, Ali would exult in being again "King of the World"—"The Greatest." He had secured his position as the most famous athlete of the 1970s, and perhaps of all time. He had traded his health, it would develop, but such a trade would perhaps have seemed worth it, at the time. Unlike the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history, Rocky Marciano, Ali fought worthy opponents, most of them younger than himself. He would defend his hard-won title several times, against such opponents as Chuck Wepner, Ken Norton (who would break his jaw), Jimmy Young (who would break his eardrum), and Ernie Shavers; unexpectedly, he would lose on points to the young Leon Spinks (with only seven pro fights to his credit) in 1978. Though Ali would beat Spinks in their rematch, and announce his retirement, he would be unable to resist returning to the ring; two years later he would be beaten decisively, and painfully, by his former sparring partner Larry Holmes. By this time Ali was thirty-eight and long past his prime; his career had in effect ended with the 1978 loss to Spinks.
1978-1981. The Twilight Epilogue. Yet like many another former champion (Louis, Ezzard Charles, Ray Robinson, Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran et al.) Muhammad Ali would continue to fight, if not to box wilh any degree of his former talent. His final match, sanctioned not in the United States but in the Bahamas in crude, unprofessional surroundings, (a cowbell was used in place of a defective ring bell) was with a mediocre twenty-eight-year-old Trevor Berbick who easily outscored a slow, heavy, plodding Ali on points. For there is a point at which even the ingenuity or desperation fails. (Berbick would have the distinction in 1986 of being spectacularly floored in the second round of his title defense by boxing's new prodigy, Mike Tyson, who would formally end the "post-Ali era.") As the English sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney noted, "Graceful exits are rare in professional boxing but few great champions have gone out more miserably than Muhammad Ali."
In 1981, this time permanently, Ali would retire with a record of 56, wins, 5 losses. But even in the waning years of his career he would be an emblem of the courage and stoicism of the aging athlete, so much a part of our contemporary scene, (Ironically, it would be Ali's old opponent George Foreman who would return to the ring as a "mature" boxer and captivate, in another era, the attention, and affection, of millions of viewers.)
He who was once the icon-breaker is now an icon.
Interview quotations and other material used in this essay have been drawn from The Muhammad Ali Reader edited by Gerald Early (Ecco Press, 1998); In This Corner: Great Boxing Trainers Talk About Their Art edited by Dave Anderson (Morrow, 1991); and McIlvanney on Boxing by Hugh McIlvanncy (Beaufort Books, 1982).