Muhammad Ali’s recent death has opened the floodgates for eulogies, tributes, evaluations, historical perspective analyses, and writing of nearly every kind imaginable. This isn’t surprising; Ali was, by almost any reckoning, the most celebrated sports figure ever, and the one with by far the widest worldwide cultural currency.
But how do we talk about him sensibly? Perspective isn’t the issue here: he can’t really be put in perspective. In terms of influence, he was legitimately as big as the most grandiose hagiographies paint him to be.
For one thing, there wasn’t one “Muhammad Ali.” Like most artists with long careers (Ali was surely an artist, maybe as much as he was a fighter), he went through distinct periods, some self-contradictory, and so what it meant to be Muhammad Ali changed over and over. You can’t say that he evolved as he made the trek toward universal sainthood, since the process moved him steadily away from any kind of genuine potency, but each year brought his godly place in history closer to impregnability.
As much as people don’t want to say it, he stood for little (aside from what images of him stood for) during the final two decades of his life. Being loved and cherished allowed him to be dismissed as the flesh and blood man he actually was (except as a cautionary tale or tragic figure), and thrown up as a prism for whoever the person regarding him had been when young. There was no actual Ali there. The diminished figure was you—once again a young person whose future was still shimmering in the distance somewhere.
In some ways, the robbed and non-fighting Ali of the Vietnam War era is the most widely praised, and most archetypical, Ali. There should no longer be any controversy about his having been on the right side of the war issue, and there should be no question as to his bravery in standing up to a hidebound government represented by older white men who resented and were jealous of him.
But that Ali model was largely enervated, saying and doing the right things while waiting to emerge as someone more kinetically engaged and more fun to be around. As politically and culturally responsible, courageous, and visible as he was during this period, what he really wanted was to get back in the ring, to promote his fights, and to entertain people, even as his expanded consciousness allowed him to see those things in perspective. Never again would he believe that winning a prize fight would—or should—“shake up the world.”
Your favorite oldie
Everyone has a “favorite” song. It’s almost always a pop tune that was heard at a time when some emotional event took place in your life. If it happens to be an oldies classic (and it generally is), you will hear it for all of your remaining time on earth, as it continues to play in rotation on FM stations, hotel lobbies, airport terminals, dentists’ offices, and shopping malls through eternity.
Since it’s your “favorite,” it may take you decades to realize (if you ever do) that you shut off inwardly whenever you hear it, and that you don’t actually ever want to hear the fucking thing again.
That doesn’t mean that it’s not a great song, or that your love for it wasn’t real.
Ali’s death has caused an onslaught of recapitulations of his life and career. Unfortunately, no matter their format or tone, writers and media people seem compelled to include all of the Ali Stations of the Cross that everyone already knows. Maybe they want them spoken like catechism—“Olympic gold medal in Rome, shook up the world in Miami, “I am the Greatest,” Malcolm X, Vietnam, brave stance, mumble, mumble, mumble, Joe Frazier, Thrilla, George Foreman, Rumble in the … Olympic torch, mumble, mumble, mumble.”
Enough. We know all this. Time to knock it off or add a footnote. (See New York Times or similar sources.)
Ali, the fighter
You can start by the basic stuff. You can talk about him as a fighter, trying to separate fact from fantasy.
Was he “The Greatest?” Nowhere close. And no actual boxing expert would even consider him among the short list of fighters who can lay legitimate claim to the title.
Might he have been the greatest heavyweight? There’s some argument for that. He didn’t have the kind of technique that Johnson, Tunney, Louis, Charles, Walcott, or Holmes had. He didn’t punch very hard. He had some bad habits that he never corrected, and that cost him dearly. And he fought a surprising number of truly dud fights.
Still, he revolutionized speed among heavyweights. Although he may be the fastest heavyweight who ever lived, the gap between him and speedsters who’ve followed him is not great. At the time he turned pro, however, he looked to be fighting in another dimension from anyone who’d gone before. People wondered if the film had been sped up.
Once his speed and conditioning left him, other qualities emerged. They may have surprised those who had questioned his toughness. Down hard twice in his early career, he turned out to have an insuperable chin. He didn’t cut. As he filled out physically, his vast, deceptive strength became increasingly apparent. He could not be budged if he chose to stand his ground. When severely tested, he exhibited a stoic iron will; it turned out—if anyone doubted him at this point—that there was no dog in Muhammad Ali. It also turned out that he was a really good dirty fighter.
No heavyweight preserved longer after their skills had eroded. If a case can be made that, upon his return to the ring in 1970, he wasn’t all he had been, and that by 1976 he was fighting mostly on a savvy combination of celebrity, courage, strategy, and memory, he still fought 14 of his 21 professional years past his best. In decline, he found ways to beat Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, Ron Lyle, and Earnie Shavers, among others. Has any fighter accomplished more with less?
The one guy about whom people are right when they say he was “bigger than boxing”
One of the things worth looking at is the way Ali was able to draw non-fans, including lots of women and kids, to the sport. Obviously, he looked good, he was fun to watch and listen to, and he had an extraordinary gift for promotion. (And not just self-promotion; all his opponents were elevated by his hype.) But there’s more to it than that.
I think that, for people not attuned to or drawn to violence, there was the reassurance that Ali had things well in hand. He’d make sure nothing bad would happen—everything would be alright. There’d be edge of the seat moments, but nobody was going get really hurt, there’d be no one carried out on a stretcher, no reports of someone being in a coma.
This makes for a good story, but in real life it isn’t true. Those closer to boxing than casual fans understand that this kind of hurt—inevitable, irreversible, life-changing hurt—takes place in non-dramatic looking fights. Make no mistake: no matter how it gets spun, Ali’s health was lost through his career in boxing.
If Ali was the greatest, who is the worst?
Perhaps the most cringe-inducing, sanctimonious Ali tribute came from Michael Buffer during the HBO broadcast of the Francisco Vargas vs. Orlando Salido fight. Decked out in a white Vegas lounge act tux, he started in on a kind of eulogy, and then teetered off to imitate Ali, solemnly intoning “float lahk a buttuhflah, and stang lahk a … bay.” A quizzical look crossed his usually frozen face as he seemed to realize that what he was doing was in poor taste. At that point he was semi-stuck with it, so he tried to modify the accent, rather than abandoning it entirely. He sort of tapered off with it until it was gone. It was sensationally bad.
There’s a runner up, by the way: Thomas Hauser penned a poem, written in a kind of black patois—presumably in the “voice” of Ali—bragging about being immortal. Since Ali is, in fact, dead, you have to assume that there’s a certain grade school symbolism at work here.
Ali’s emergence as a star: the thing no one wants to hear
Ali was important before it was certain that he could really fight. The timing of his entry into the game was perfect. He was all about beauty and speed and restlessness at a time when boxing needed an infusion of energy. Ali was the first rock and roll fighter.
The unbeatable Sonny Liston was dead weight in the marketplace, 35 years ahead of a time where there would have been a culture to elevate him. It was crucial that he go.
People become discomfited when I talk about the Liston fights being fixed. They think that it somehow tarnishes Ali’s legend. Even people close to the sport will tell me that, although they know the second fight was fixed, they’re not sure the first one was.
“If it was fixed,” they’ll say, “why didn’t Sonny just take a quick dive, the way he did in the rematch?”
Here’s some Boxing 101. You wouldn’t be able to have a rematch if the first fight looked the way the second did. In order to make a second betting score, opinions as to the outcome of the rematch had to remain divided. That Liston was the betting favorite for the fight (at anywhere from a 6-5 to 8-5) shows that he did his job the first time around.
Liston’s people got around 8-1 odds wagering Ali in the first fight. Liston made sure not to knock Ali out and quit under ambiguous circumstances, and everyone collected their betting money. The score was incalculably more than any purse that Liston would have been able to generate from successfully defending his title.
Why flop onto the canvas so blatantly after one minute of fighting in the rematch? Because the money was already made at that point: the second bet was won when the fight ended. There’d never be a third fight, so why waste even a moment of surplus time masking the fix?
The first fix—the one people are so unwilling to see as even a possibility—was the real fix, the serious fix. The second was just scooping up the remaining money from the table, saying “Fuck you,” and going home.
It’s worth asking what would have happened if Ali’s fights with Liston hadn’t been fixed. Could Ali have only become Ali by being undefeated? He may well have possessed the talent and resolve needed to become the heavyweight champion down the road, but would he have, at 19-2, become an icon? It’s likely that, in terms of history, Ali could not have withstood being merely a great fighter.
What took place in Miami Beach, and, to a lesser extent, in Lewiston, is the shaky foundation on which a hegemonic narrative was built.
I’m not sure that’s even important, except insofar as, had those events not occurred, what followed probably would not have either. But Ali’s career was bona fide from that point on. His accomplishments were substantial and legitimate. And as a fighter, he was with us for a long, long time.
Which brings us to this
In his 61 professional fights, Ali probably had more culturally significant outings than any other boxer. There were a dozen or so dazzlingly virtuosic performances, mostly when he was young. But he only fought in two genuinely great fights—the first and third with Frazier. The Liston, Foreman, and, to a lesser degree, Norton and Spinks fights were all memorable, emotionally-charged contests. Seen as spectacle, they were compelling; as actual prizefights, much less so.
There’s no doubt that Muhammad Ali had a direct influence on many thousands of people, and an indirect one on millions. It’s no exaggeration to say that his was the most recognizable and possibly the single most beloved face on earth at one point. The iconic pre-Parkinson’s image of him might still hold those titles.
After a certain point in his life, Ali was welcomed in places where other black people weren’t, into countries hostile to Americans, and was able to gain the ear of world leaders who might have been resistant to the approach of any adversarial political figure. He was never in personal danger anywhere. It was generally taken as given that Ali tried to do good, and that his viewpoint was untainted by any personal agenda. When he visited troubled areas as a kind of unofficial U.S. ambassador, he was seldom regarded as a puppet.
Although Ali had opinions—often strong ones—about the matters he involved himself in, and although he often had good sense and judgment, he was no political thinker, and he didn’t pay more than cursory attention to what went on in the world. So his participation tended toward the totemic; he was brought into situations simply because he was Muhammad Ali, loved and trusted by all.
His influence on boxers was, in some ways, much more profound. It’s certainly been longer-lasting, continuing to this day as a palimpsest for high profile fighters who’ve picked up his mannerisms, modified them to suit themselves, and passed on their Ali-based styles to the next generation.
Ali’s fighting style is a dangerous one to adopt. He made lots of fundamental errors (hands too low, pulling straight back from punches, and ignoring the body in his attacks, as examples) that, in less talented hands, would prove costly, and often disastrous. On a technical level, his footwork might have been the only element of his game that could be safely appropriated by others.
The more significant impact he made on fighters (and not just fighters: athletes in every sport, entertainers, gang members, show-off lawyers, dog groomers, short order cooks, sanitation workers, etc.) came directly out of his mode of self-promotion.
Depending on your point of view, Ali’s innovations here could be seen as either a breath of fresh air in a too circumspect culture or the start of a general decline in public dignity.
I tend to look at it the way I do his ring performance: these things worked for him. But there is no other Muhammad Ali around. For the less gifted, attempts at copying his style—in or out of the ring—almost always fall flat.
The Buddha said (or is said to have said), “Do not dwell in the past. Do not dream of the future. Concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
Two events in boxing stand out more for me than any others as acts of courage. No real fighting occurred during either of them.
The first happened in round eight of the first Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard fight. (It’s at the 44.42 mark in the video below.) In the midst of vigorous two way in-fighting, Duran finds a pocket of complete calm. Rather than continuing the trench warfare, he executes a mocking and exquisitely funny series of dance steps. The gesture is at once an editorial comment on his opponent, an absurdist transposition of arts, and a moment of true Zen courage. The guy just beyond the range of his fists is, after all, Sugar Ray Leonard, a great and determined fighter in the prime of his career, and a very dangerous man with violent intentions.
The moment that made me understand just how fearless Ali was took place in the ring before the Thrilla in Manila. (It’s at the 9.00 minute mark in the video below.) The ring announcer tells the audience that the winner of the fight will receive a large trophy, which is then displayed at center ring. Ali theatrically points to his chest, indicating that the will be the winner, marches determinedly from his corner, picks up the heavy trophy in his gloved fists, and heads back to his corner with it.
He seems not to have a care in the world, although he is literally seconds away from what will almost surely be the toughest fight of his life (which it turned out to be). Watching it the first time live, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s Joe motherfucking Frazier. He wants to kill Ali. And Ali isn’t even thinking about him at the moment.”
I suppose there’s some irony in talking about a gorilla at this stage. But let’s address the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
There’s absolutism about heavyweights: the heavyweight champion is putatively the toughest man in the world. What happens when the toughest man in the world is the most beautiful man in the world?
Children can handle it. So can women. Straight adult men, less so.
In the first decade or so of his career, in many ways the best and worst thing Ali had going for him was beauty.
Yes, boxers had good bodies. But a good body was a professional requirement, one of the tools of the trade. You weren’t being invited to admire it.
And it’s not that Ali was the first fighter whose good looks were a factor in his success. Joe Gans, George Carpentier, Max Baer, Billy Conn, and Ray Robinson were all good looking men whose appearances were remarked upon. But none of them had the temerity to bring the subject up themselves.
Ali wouldn’t let anyone forget his beauty. “I’m so pretty,” he would boast, smiling theatrically. Then he’d push things even further. He’d ask male interviewers, “Ain’t I pretty?” This was unsettling to a lot of guys who’d been brought up on a requisite avoidance of that issue. There’s no way to overestimate how disruptive to boxing Ali’s looks were, especially in the beginning, when there were still questions about his toughness.
Since Ali’s time, looks have been allowed to become a direct and mostly unabashed correlative to earning power. Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya weren’t both at the top of the financial food chain just because they were good fighters. They looked like movie stars, and they could talk. Their success comes partially from a variation of the blueprint laid out by Ali.
One thing the three fighters shared was a standard response to them: “I’d like to see someone kick his ass.” A lot of money was spent in the hope of seeing it happen.
More recently, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has modified Ali’s notable “I am the greatest” proclamation to label himself “the best ever.” He was at least a hundred fighters away from being that, but his endless repetition of the term turned into a truism in reference to his earning power.
I didn’t know Muhammad Ali at all. I had opportunities to spend time with him, but didn’t take them for a variety of reasons. Mostly, I didn’t see the point. You really couldn’t get to “know” Ali, and you couldn’t truly be friends with him. I’m not really one of those “I shook the hand of” guys.
I did know quite a number of people who fought Ali, and had close associations with two he fought twice.
Floyd Patterson trained some of my fighters, and we spent a lot of time together for a few years. Floyd was about as opposite from Ali in temperament and inclination as it was possible to be. I think that Muhammad’s gregariousness and ease around people confounded and, to an extent, even alarmed him. Although Patterson had had a lot of experience being famous, and had come to accept fame, he was never entirely comfortable with it, and didn’t quite see what the fuss was about.
Contrary to popular opinion, he liked Ali, if reservedly. I do know that he came to admire Ali’s refusal to be drafted and his opposition to the Vietnam War. And he thought Ali was a great, great fighter. More than that, he held Ali in a kind of awe.
“The hardest thing to do in the ring is to move backwards fast for 15 rounds,” he told me. “You have to be in incredible condition. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, and I trained very hard. And he was the fastest fighter I ever saw. I was a fast heavyweight, and I thought I’d be able to match him, at least in hand speed. But I couldn’t.”
Let me put this in perspective. Floyd was in his early 60s when he trained my fighters. His hands were still much faster than any of theirs. To imagine them faster still when he was a young man, and to imagine Ali’s hands being even faster than that, is a humbling thing to contemplate.
I also managed Leon Spinks for a short time late in his career. Maybe “mismanaged” would be a more accurate description. Or maybe there was no way he could have been well managed. It’s neither here nor there in this discussion.
Leon absolutely loved Ali. He understood that most of his own fame—and virtually all of his long lost money—had come through Muhammad. He was very quick to acknowledge that the man he beat for the title and then lost it to bore no resemblance to Ali in his prime.
“I wouldn’ta had no business in the ring with the real Ali,” he said. “I was just the lucky motherfucker who was in the right place at the right time.”
He laughed his beautiful, all-in laugh.