A ghost orbiting forever: On Muhammad Ali

Photo credit: Getty Images

Photo credit: Getty Images

 

We were between TV sets for a while back then, touch and go during the “Running on Empty” era, living just off Bathgate Avenue in the midst of an asphalt hell. When was that? Was it ’76 or ’78? Who can tell? The Mets were awful; Gerald Ford told us all to drop dead, seething Travis Bickle had already painted the East Village red and Howard Cosell, using his best nasal twang, intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.” By then, they had even torn down the El, leaving us marooned among the arson ruins, the Latin Crowns and the Golden Guineas, “Son of Sam” in gaudy newsprint, the blackout of ’77 and the anarchy steaming in its wake. We had little in those days – less than that, maybe. But my dour old man bought me an Ali-Superman DC Special from a corner newsstand on Fordham Road. Then: long nights by the windowsill, streetlamp and moonlight igniting the stillness. There he is, again, back to haunt: A real-life superhero – a black man, no less! Goddamn! – in the middle of what looked like Zero Hour. Call that a revolution, if you want.

 

****

 

“Know that the life of this world is merely a sport and a pastime.” – The Koran

 

****

 

During his exile years, Muhammad Ali barnstormed the college lecture circuit and performed ministerial duties for the Nation of Islam. He starred in an off-Broadway play. He filmed a bizarre fantasy sequence against a toupee-wearing Rocky Marciano in a computer-generated matchup whose algorithm, like something HAL might have calculated with sinister intent, determined that Marciano would score a late-round TKO. Ali reinforced his fame, as well as his ideas, on national television so often, he probably logged more screen time than Ed Sullivan or Michael Landon. There he was, dissent with pizzazz, razzing Jack Paar, Jerry Lewis, William F. Buckley, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin and David Frost. He appeared on “Face the Nation” and on PBS, where, more than once, he expressed admiration for George Wallace during an interview.

 

****

 

“Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war – until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.”

– Robert Lowell, 1967

 

****

 

Although Ali was part of the roiling zeitgeist, his stance on the Vietnam War was slightly ahead of its time. There were teach-ins across the country in 1965 but “The Ballad of the Green Berets” was at the top of the pop charts a year later and “Operation Rolling Thunder” had not yet galvanized the general public. By the end of 1965, there are 184,000 US soldiers in Vietnam. Four years later, that number reaches 542,000. Privately, President Lyndon B. Johnson refers to Vietnam as “a raggedy-ass, fourth-rate country.”

 

****

 

“I ain’t no Christian. I can’t be, when I see all of the colored people fighting for forced integration getting blowed up. They get hit by stones and chewed up by dogs and they blow up a Negro church and don’t find the killers. I get telephone calls every day. They want me to carry signs. They want me to picket. They told me it would be a wonderful thing if I married a white woman because this would be good for brotherhood. I don’t want to be blown up. I don’t want to be washed down sewers. I just want to be happy with my own kind. I’m the heavyweight champion but, right now, there are some neighborhoods I can’t move into. I know how to dodge booby traps and dogs. I dodge them by staying in my own neighborhood. I’m no troublemaker. I don’t believe in forced integration.” – Muhammad Ali, 1964

 

****

 

That a naive young man who fainted after getting his first kiss from a high school sweetheart would someday turn into the most prominent member of a lucifugous sect is hard to imagine. With its odd cosmology, its talk of “white devils,” its militant stance and its apocalyptic outlook – so in tune with the times – the Nation of Islam shocked the heartland.

 

****

 

Ali kept boxing out of the cultural dustbin in the mid-1960s when network television all but abandoned the red-light district of sports in the wake of the Kefauver hearings and the tragic live-feed battering of Benny Paret. Only a few years before Ali made his pro debut, boxing could be seen on network television five or six nights a week, not as an afterthought or as a time-buy, not as off-peak filler for multiplex channels, but as an integral part of the dawning pixel era. While Ali fought almost exclusively on closed-circuit theater bookings, he dragged his showman/shaman act everywhere he went, provoking the media into spontaneous outrage, reverence, wonder, befuddlement.

 

****

 

“Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks, one cannot tell the difference.” – Chester Himes

 

****

 

Although Ali was raised in a middle-class family, his father, Cassius Clay Sr., boiled over from the dispiriting day-to-day humiliations that made being a “Negro” in mid-20th century America such an existential torment. Clay Senior, who was aghast when his son joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to “Cassius X,” almost certainly drove Ali to what most of the country, at the time, referred to as the “Black Muslims.” As a child, Ali heard his embittered father repudiate White America over and over again. He also heard Clay Senior extol the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, whose “Back to Africa” movement may have given Ali the urge for separatism. Not for Ali, the risks of the Freedom Riders, voter-registration drives, boycotts, picket lines. Once, Ali, then Cassius Clay and still in high school, attended a demonstration in Louisville. A white woman dumped a bucketful of water from an apartment window over him. Soaked, Ali disavowed protests instantaneously. But to chastise Ali for his non-involvement at a time when thousands risked their lives on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement is to miss the point altogether: Segregation was official NOI ideology. And Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X were not the only black men to rail against integration. When Stokely Carmichael took over the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of his first acts was to oust its white members.

 

****

 

What little most Americans knew about the Nation of Islam, they had learned from “The Hate that Hate Produced,” a documentary co-produced by Mike Wallace and aired across five parts in 1959. Even for a sect that mixed Islam with Marcus Garvey, Father Divine, the Protocol of the Elders of Zion and Philip K. Dick, the Nation of Islam, during the 1960s, was, for whites and some blacks as well, beyond the pale. This is, mind you, a Black Nationalist movement that tried to work out some sort of pact with the KKK and with George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party. And some of its enforcers, usually responsible for meting out beatings to keep the rank-and-file in line, graduated to assassination when they gunned down Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on Feb. 21, 1965. Despite its militant stance, the NOI turned its gunsels mostly on its own. A few days before his assassination, Malcolm X held a press conference in New York City, where he essentially apologized for the NOI. “I feel responsible for having played a major role in a criminal organization,” he said. “It was not a criminal organization at the outset; it was an organization that had the power – the spiritual power – to reform the criminal.” In the end, what matters most, perhaps, is the grassroots effect of NOI: thousands of young (African) Americans rehabilitated after prison terms, or taken off street corners, eschewing drugs and liquor, well-spoken, given a sense of self-worth, no longer future zeroes, their bowties exclamation points on new lives.

 

****

 

Oct. 1, 1975 – Muhammad Ali TKO 14 Joe Frazier, Araneta Coliseum, Quezon City, Philippines

“We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and came back old men.” – Muhammad Ali

 

****

 

More than any other boxer, Ali openly acknowledges the physical toll his vocation is taking on him. This introspection, rare among fighters, who, more than any other athletes, must maintain a self-regard that borders on megalomania, underscores his belief that boxing, in some ways, is beneath him. He concedes his physical limitations as early as 1971, while being pestered by insects during an interview with Ira Berkow. “These flies keep flying around me,” he says. “They must know I’m not all that I used to be. They must see the little gray hairs that been growing in my head lately.” His worst years as a fighter, post-“Thrilla in Manila,” see him descend into the Earthbound world of the average professional boxer. These are his years of decay. Ali begins, like any other run-of-the-mill pug, to get the close decisions – against Ken Norton and Jimmy Young. He clowns his way through several dreary mismatches. He loses his title to a virtual amateur, Leon Spinks, retires after winning the rematch and, with the promise of millions for a comeback, challenges Larry Holmes in a virtual suicide mission. Already he is beginning to show signs of the damage common to fighters who do not acknowledge the hazards of their trade. While magazines urge him to retire, his celebrity status, paradoxically, grows, particularly among litterateurs, ideologues and the same people he once terrified as a cohort of Malcolm X: Middle America. By the mid-1970s, Ali is co-opted by the mainstream and his new ubiquity is based on the very same capitalist dream machine the rebellious Sixties looked to undermine. Ali is in the movies. Ali has his own Saturday morning cartoon. Ali stars on television. Ali earns sponsorships from D-Con, batteries and Bulova. With the radical chic sheen now gone (Revolution Road in America hits a Dead End in 1981 with the final explosive dissolution of the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army), Ali is safe enough, sanitized enough for Madison Avenue and Mego.

 

****

 

In 2003, Bill Ayers showed up at the Film Forum in New York City for a Q&A after a screening of “The Weather Underground.” He was a harmless-looking man, soft spoken, wearing glasses and two earrings. Someone in the audience asked him about the sexual habits of revolutionaries on the run.

 

****

 

What separates Ali from the contemporary fighter, an unusual species of blowhard, was his willingness to concretize his boasts where it mattered most: inside the ring. Yes, Ali was an unstoppable braggart, a man whose self-aggrandizement (which preceded his social consciousness by several years) was too often conflated with racial pride, but there was little disconnect between his proclamations and his achievements. Not only did Ali face the very best heavyweights of two eras but he also faced a slew of tough contenders whose own legacies were stonewalled by the fierce competition of the 1970s: Ken Norton, Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers. When Ali returned from his exile, which lasted three-and-a-half years, he faced the No. 1 ranked heavyweight in the world: Jerry Quarry.

 

****

 

What Ali did in the ring was not revolutionary for the simple fact that not a single distinguished heavyweight in his wake could reproduce his style. In a way, Ali was like Dizzy Gillespie, whose virtuosity – one step beyond – could not be duplicated or surpassed for nearly 30 years, or until Jon Faddis began hitting notes not even Gillespie could reach in his prime. Of course, there were variations on the Ali style among the heavyweights – think of flashy Greg Page and flamboyant Michael Dokes – but, for the most part, smaller fighters adopted its main ingredients. The closest a heavyweight came to successfully incorporating the Ali method may have been jab-and-dance master Larry Holmes, who sparred with Ali in the early-1970s and went on to butcher “The Greatest” in one of the saddest spectacles ever seen in a boxing ring. But the flashpoint reflexes, the improvisatory moves, the stamina needed to dance gracefully for 15 rounds, the explosive hand speed, the dekeing, dodging and darting (all done seemingly in double-time) – these had never been seen before among the bigger divisions. After all, his aspiration as a fighter was madness: to resurrect Sugar Ray Robinson as a heavyweight. More influential, of course, was his personality, part vaudeville, part rassling routine, part mad preacher, part the dozens. Egotism, insult, exhibitionism, incivility – Ali changed boxing in more ways than one. Even during the most primitive era of prizefighting in America, when fights to the finish were common, a certain amount of gentility was expected. When John Morrissey defeated John C. Heenan to retain his heavyweight title in a gruesome slugfest in 1858, the occasion, blood-soaked or not, called for a strange ritual etiquette: “All the courtesies of war followed with the utmost grace at the end of the close of the fight. Morrissey was carried over to his fallen foe and, in the French style, kissed his hand in token of his valor.”

 

****

 

Vernon Jordan: “Nina, how come you’re not more active in civil rights?”
Nina Simone: “Active in civil rights? Motherfucker, I am civil rights.”

 

****

 

Because Ali was a “common man” symbol for a revolutionary movement primarily sparked by middle-class baby boomers, he was adopted with almost comic blind faith by activist liberals, despite the fact he was often intrinsically opposed to their ideals. Ali did not drink. He did not smoke. Drugs were strictly verboten. He was well-dressed and clean-shaven. “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan was the last book he would thumb through. His disavowal of involvement during the struggles of the Civil Rights era was in stark contrast to the philosophy of disobedience practiced by progressives throughout the Sixties. Worst of all, perhaps, his segregationist stance was distinctly at cross-purposes with the Utopian vision of his newfound champions. Later, when Ali was accepted by moderates and liberals alike, his hobnobbing with brutal – even insane – despots such as Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos, Muammar Gaddafi and Papa “Doc” Duvalier was something his leftist backers could only cringe over. To make matters even more perplexing for some liberals, Ali was a Republican in the 1980s, supporting Ronald Reagan, Orrin Hatch and George H. Bush, among others. But Ali, more than anyone, understood the complexities and contradictions of his own myth. This is made clear enough by the publication of “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” by Thomas Hauser in 1991. Oral biographies had been in the air at the time – Jackson Pollack by Jeffrey Potterton, Truman Capote by George Plimpton and Edie Sedgwick by Jean Stein, for example – but these were all written after their subjects had died. “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” is unique in that it was an authorized work and, in that, its subject had few qualms, if any, with negative testimony about his life and actions. What are his personal sins, whatever they were, compared to a life lived at public white heat for over 20 years?

 

****

 

Wherever Ali went he was mobbed by adoring crowds. Unlike Floyd Mayweather Jr., Ali did not need bodyguards at the peak of his fame in the 1970s. There were no restaurant brawls, no shootouts, no fisticuffs with women in clubs.

 

****

 

“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?”
“I did.”
“And what did you want?”
“To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

– Raymond Carver

 

****

 

“I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way but if I have changed even one life for the better, I haven’t lived in vain.” – Muhammad Ali

 

 

Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to Remezcla and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization.

 

Comments

comments

Tags: , , , , ,