Mohammed Ali (1942-2016) has died. He was 74.
My dad was an avid boxing fan. I hated the violence. But I followed my dad’s interest in boxing. Once or twice a year we watched “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” starring Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano. You can see the full movie here. Here is a clip
My dad did teach us how to box. One of my brothers even trained and sparred in the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles, the same gym where Indian Red Lopez and Art Aragon had trained. My dad bought us a speed bag and a punching bag one Christmas. It was his way of training us in self-defense. Champion fighters were household names. Articles, movies, and talk about swarmer Rocky Marciano, slugger Graziano, swarmer Jake LaMotta, boxer-puncher Tony Zale, Sugar Ray Robinson then Sugar Ray Leonard, then Irish legends like swarmer Jack Dempsey, James J. Corbett, John L. Sullivan, Jerry Quarry and kid brother, Mike, were regularly reviewed. My dad liked Jerry Quarry because he was Irish and his family was a boxing family. Quarry started fighting at age 8. It was understood that Quarry, who did have a winning record, was no contender. In fact, Quarry’s rise in popularity came about in those very years that Ali was banned from boxing, 1967-1970. This might explain his popularity and why Ring Magazine dubbed him the most popular fighter in boxing. Ali was out, and Joe Frazier was fighting in a different class. Quarry was fighting in the shadows of former Irish greats, like John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett and Irish Catholics the world over were looking for a prayer in the ring too.
Back to Ali. It was precisely his showmanship, style, and poetry in and out of the ring that made people love him. And it was his technical brilliance of side-stepping, dodging, ducking, then rope-a-doping that earned him victories in the ring and championship belts as a fighter. He was a Baryshnikov on that canvas.
Here are a few of his quotes from USA Today:
1. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t.
2. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
3. “I’m young; I’m handsome; I’m fast. I can’t possibly be beat.”
4. “Don’t count the days; make the days count.”
5. “If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it—then I can achieve it.” Jesse Jackson said this as early as 1983, according to the Associated Press, and Ali used it in his 2004 book.
I loved his showmanship. Like a world-class gymnast, Ali incorporated style, finesse, and flare into a sport where careers, even lives, are ended after one match. And if they’re not, you’re going to wish it were. Technically he was a genius [a great out-boxer], taking on and destroying fighters much stronger and bigger and slower than he. And he might add much uglier. It wasn’t until I read Dave Zirin’s What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States, where I learned what Ali said in his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, telling the interviewer “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” There can be no clearer anti-war, anti-state declaration than that. The fact that it came from a great entertainer made it memorable. The interview, like most of Ali’s interviews, was brutally honest. It’s his candidness that made him compelling. Perhaps to the white middle class he may have come off as a showy black guy. That’s exactly who he was! Makes me wonder why Howard Cosell was a kind of handler to Ali in most American interviews–to manage and take the edge off of some of his more poignant indictments of American society. It made it hard not to like Ali. Without taking anything away from Martin Luther King, Jr., Ali did more in his fight against empire than King ever did or could. Ali knew he had a platform and he used it beautifully.
Gary North observed this fact too.
He was the greatest fighter of my generation, as he never tired of reminding us. He was also the greatest self-promoter in sports of any generation.
I liked his style. I liked it for a reason: it was all about marketing.
I attended a closed-circuit televised viewing of his 1975 bout with Joe Frazier, The Thrilla in Manila.” I saw it at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium with my dad, my cousin, Chuck Pullman, and my brothers. The hype was incredible. It was as if all other events around the world had stopped to watch this fight between giants in Manila. This I did not know:
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos sought to hold the bout in Metro Manila and sponsor it in order to divert attention from the social turmoil that the country was experiencing, having declared martial law three years earlier (1972)
Muhammad Ali’s comments about war and racism and the government are controversial to any statist. But if you’ve lived under terror of the violent hand of government, then you knew, you’ve always known, that his comments weren’t as radical as the commercial press would have you believe but instead his was the voice of a champion, not of the masses as Yahoo would have us believe, but of the individual.
Karen De Coster points brilliantly to Tom Mullen’s distinction between Ali as a draft-dodger and draft-opponent.
The “draft dodger” condemnations are being carelessly flung out and about by the usual idiots. On a correct note, here’s Tom Mullen:
Ali never dodged the draft; he opposed it, accepting the legal consequences without any attempt to evade them. He didn’t flee to Canada or enroll in college to obtain a deferment. From the moment he learned of his induction, Ali stood firmly in the proud tradition of civil disobedience, saying “just take me to jail.”
So Muhammad Ali is properly described as being willing to _die for_ peace and freedom. He faced down the government, held on to principle, spoke his mind, and never sold out a damn thing in spite of his incarceration. He didn’t run – he stayed and fought the establishment, even as the government tried to destroy him.
As the 20th century was preparing to segue into the 21st, it was commonplace for people in various settings to offer opinions about the greatest people, events, movies, sports figures, and other categories of the 20th. I had my own preferences for the greatest sports figures, with Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe, and Muhammad Ali comprising my top three. Of those three, Ali was my choice for the best. While I have never been a fan of boxing – and sometimes have a difficult time accepting it as a sport – its is clear that Ali was not only a great athlete, but one of the greatest performers in that sport. Still, what elevated him to the top of my three-man list was his sense of integrity: he refused to compromise himself by succumbing to the demands of the American war system to be drafted into the military, a decision that led to his conviction – which was later reversed by the United States Supreme Court. He was a very outspoken and continuous critic of the Vietnam War, having said that “no Vietcong ever called me Nigger.” When so many others continued to lower the price for their own liberty, Ali stood his ground, even when saying “no” was a threat not only to his liberty, but to his ability to engage in the boxing skills for which he had such a talent. Men and women of integrity always die too young at any age. Ali was 74.
Dave Zirin, who writes about political resistance in sports, called Muhammad Ali “the most important athlete to [have] ever live[d].” He points out that
When John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists on the medal stand in Mexico City [in 1968], one of their demands was to “Restore Muhammad Ali’s title.” They called Ali “the warrior-saint of the Black Athlete’s Revolt.”
Zirin was doing fine as long as he stuck to Ali’s athletic prowess, but when he waxes on about civil rights he runs aground:
When Billie Jean King was aiming to win equal rights for women in sports, Muhammad Ali would say to her, “Billie Jean King! YOU ARE THE QUEEN!” She said that this made her feel brave in her own skin.
People’s rights are not given to them or conferred upon them because they belong to a group or a political constituency, like women or blacks or whites or latinos. A special set of rights are not conferred upon a person because he belongs to a particular group. Women don’t have rights above and beyond the rights of men. Likewise, latino men don’t have rights that black or white men don’t have. Rights come to individuals by way of property. And your body is your very first piece of property that you’re tasked with preserving, improving, and protecting. Everything else is opinion. If someone doesn’t like you because you’re short or tall or black or white, let them. It’s only an opinion. People are not by law required to respect you or like you. Neither are you them. As long as they are not hurting your property, they get to say almost anything. A limb was not severed. Bones were not broken. You weren’t thrown into a coma. Your body, meaning your property, is still in tact. Opinions are property if they become patented.
That’s the thing about Ali. He’s bigger than boxing. He’s bigger than sports. He once said “I won’t miss boxing. Boxing will miss me.” When I reflect on the sport and the pantheon of all the bombers and sluggers, big men, and fast men it is he who stirs my imagination–not boxing itself or Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano nor the great white hope of Jerry Quarry or the tenacious Joe Frazier, or any of the other champions.