ALI’S MOST DARING FIGHTS WERE OUTSIDE OF THE RING
Ali the Athlete
All right. I have to admit to a singular guilty pleasure–boxing. I love boxing. I love the visceral intensity of this most brutal of all sports. Two men enter the ring, each having been trained to do three things and three things only: punch, not get punched and take the punch when one lands. Every muscle in their bodies is specially tuned to this brutal reality. At the end, if both are still standing, whoever landed the most punches wins.
It takes a special kind of person, man or woman, to enter a ring against such an opponent, and I admit that I love the whole brutal, often bloody, gladiatorial spectacle of it. I can think of no other athlete who understood boxing as a spectacle as well as a sport more than Muhammad Ali. That may be why, in the chronicle of boxing, so many of the most epic matchups of all time involved Ali. In 1964, Cassius Clay, a gold metal boxer, defeated the “unbeatable” Sonny Liston. In the rematch of 1965, now known as Muhammad Ali, he knocked Liston out again in a chaotic and controversial first round victory that gave us the most iconic image in boxing.
In the famous Rumble in the Jungle of 1974, Ali defeated the boxing dreadnought George Foreman by knockout. Ali, at 32 years old was coming off of a brutal loss to Joe Frazier and a three-year hiatus, having had his boxing license revoked in 1967. He was clearly the underdog against the imposing, twenty-five year old Foreman. Ali, however, used strategy over
brawn, wearing Foreman down using a boxing technique he made famous–the rope-a-dope. In essence, Ali braced himself against the ropes and allowed his opponent to swing away. The elastic ropes absorbed much of the force behind Foreman’s devastating fists, fatiguing the champ and giving Ali a long-term advantage. In an article for the LA Times, Foreman recalled the moment in the fight when he realized he grossly underestimated Ali. “I saw his face and realized this is not the fight I planned. This guy can take a punch and can hit back.” This advantage paid off in the eighth round. Again, in Foreman’s own words, “That right hand was the fastest punch I’ve ever been hit with. Never been hit so fast. It was like he was a lightweight. I didn’t even see it coming.”
It was Ali’s epic battles with Joe Frazier, however, that are still considered among the greatest contests in sports history. In 1971, Undefeated heavyweight champ, Joe Frazier had only one question mark next to his championship belt. He had never faced
Muhammad Ali. Frazier’s claim to the belt could not be questioned in effect. After all, he had defeated all comers. Ali, however, did not lose his own belt to defeat. He had it taken from him, despite having never lost a professional match, after he refused to participate in The Vietnam War. So long as Ali could claim the title, Frazier’s legitimacy was questioned. In 1971, the much hyped Fight of the Century was just that. After fifteen rounds of mutual brutality, Frazier won by decision.
Winning by decision, however, is less than satisfying, especially to fans who demand a true winner–a win by knockout. Frazier’s winning streak came to an end, however, when he stepped into the ring with George Foreman. Regardless, he met Ali in the ring for a second time, this time a non-title match in 1974. Ali, pummeling his way to a title match with George Foreman, beat Joe Frazier by unanimous decision after eleven rounds of clinching and punching. Another decision.
These two fights culminated in the famous Thrilla in Manila, considered to be the greatest fight of all time and one of the greatest athletic events in sports history. This time, Ali was
the defending champ and he brutally taunted Frazier in the lead-up to the fight, famously boasting that the fight would be a, “killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get that gorilla in Manila.” Fans got the Thrilla they were paying for. Ali and Frazier pounded each other for fourteen legend making rounds. After the fourteenth round, with both of Joe Frazier’s eyes swollen shut, his trainer, Eddie Futch, threw in the towel. According to fight promoter Don King, “Ali was going to give his life. He had to perform…I remember it like it was yesterday. Ali told me it was the closest to death he had ever came…”
All told, Ali and Frazier beat on each other for forty-one rounds, each winning, each losing, but both giving us an example of two evenly matched rivals willing to give it all to come out on top. These fights, however, demonstrated Ali’s understanding of boxing as
spectacle. For Frazier, his goal was to defeat his opponent, plain and simple. Ali, however, wanted to take his audience along for the ride. Doing so brought passion to the sport and, let’s be honest, also brought lots of money. Ali did this with his brash, boasting style, taunting his opponents during pre-fight and promotion, antagonizing them at every given opportunity. The build-up was irresistible to the fans. They had to watch. They had to know if Ali could back up his boasting–to be fair, he usually did. Others wanted to see someone knock this loud-mouth son of bitch out and shut him up for good.
Ali’s attention to spectacle made him a controversial figure. When I was a child, living in mostly white, working class communities, most of my family and my friends’ families were in the “shut him up for good” camp. His boasting and prodding struck many as unsportsmanlike. Some, like George Foreman, respected Ali’s athleticism and understood his approach to boxing as the spectical it is. Others, like Joe Frazier, held on to a lasting enmity toward Ali for many, many years. Ali was arrogant and brash and many Americans were intent on seeing that cocky smile smashed right off of his face. Win or lose, it never was.
Ali the Activist
Let’s face it, a certain amount of brashness and arrogance is necessary in anyone who would step into a four-hundred square foot ring against an opponent whose singular skill set is dedicated to beating you to a pulp. One must have total confidence in their physical and psychic ability to step out of the ring when all is said and done. The courage that it takes to step into a boxing ring, however, is only marginally comparable to the strength of character it takes to stand up to an entire nation and the power of the state.
Some time before the Liston fight, Ali joined the black nationalist group, The Nation of Islam, under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad and the tutelage of the famed civil rights activist Malcolm X. This was a response to the racism that the young Cassius Clay grew up with and his own understanding of manhood. Ali once offered a story in which he returned from winning the Olympic Gold metal only to be denied service in restaurant because he was black.
The Nation of Islam preached black empowerment in the face of and separate from white America. Ali, like Malcolm X, disagreed with civil rights attempts to desegregate and to integrate blacks with whites. After all, why integrate with people who clearly hate you. The Nation of Islam believed that true empowerment came from producing independent and self-sufficient communities. The role of men in these communities was understood from a traditionalist perspective. Men, as the masters of their households, were obligated to protect and provide for their families and had a binding duty and loyalty to their community. This combination of individual empowerment, pride and honor along with duty and committment to a higher cause appealed to Ali’s sense of manhood.
His dedication to the Nation of Islam and to black nationalism, however, was not an easy transition. After all, Cassius Clay did not come out as a Muslim or change his name until after his career was secured by his victory over Liston. It must also be noted that Ali’s understanding of manhood did not preclude him from having mistresses and divorcing three wives.
Character, however, does come out when one’s beliefs are tested. The first test came when his friend and mentor, Malcolm X decided to leave the Nation of Islam over Elijah Muhammad’s sexual improprieties. Despite his friendship, Ali remained loyal to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Some suggest that this was testament to how effectively the Nation of Islam had brainwashed him. Ali’s friend, football legend Jim Brown disagreed. “Muhammad Ali was a free thinker[sic],” Brown reported to The Nation Magazine sports columnist Dave Zirin, “don’t let anyone ever tell you about him–he was nobody’s monkey…he had a mind of his own. He liked the manhood that the Nation displayed–it appealed to him.”
His second, and probably most important test happened at the height of his career. In 1967, Muhammad Ali was drafted. He tried to appeal his draft orders by claiming conscientious objector status. His attempts were refused. As is often the case, activism is as much spectacle as is sport. Ali showed up for induction in Houston, Texas, but refused to step forward when his name was called. It wasn’t as if he were an unknown dissenter. He was the World heavyweight Champion. He was arrested and convicted of avoiding the draft. As a consequence, Muhammad Ali lost his boxing license for three and a half years at the peak of his career. Because of Ali’s courage in standing up for his principles we will never know just how great he may have been as a fighter.
This put Ali at the center of one of the most contentious political debates of American history. He framed his argument in terms of race and the history of abuse against blacks in the United States. Ali explained, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” In this way he professed sympathy with brown people, victims of colonialism, imperialism and cold war exploitation all over the world. Consistent with the spectacle that defined his boxing career, he was brash, course and combative with his ideological opponents.
My favorite Ali moment during this time was his famous appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. This was vintage Ali. The fighter did not have the academic acumen of the show’s guests, but in true rope-a-dope fashion, Ali mitigated his opponents strengths by refusing to play in their rhetorical playing field. Alone in his position he remained confident, poised and strong. His language, was not learned, but was clear, evocative and thoughtful. Notably, when debating Noam Chomsky years earlier, Buckley broke down and threatened to punch his radical opponent in the face. Later, when debating Gore Vidal during the 1968 primaries, Buckley lost his temper and threatened to punch the essayist in the face. With Ali…well…
…Buckley thanked him courteously for his time.
Finally, Ali sealed his reputation as a man of character for reasons quite the opposite of his athletic prowess. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Speculation that his
condition was the result of taking so many harsh blows to the head during his tempestuous and hard-fought career offered a bitter, ironic twist to this tragedy. Any bitterness he certainly must have felt over his physical decline, however, was never on display, was never part of the spectacle. For the last thirty years, The Greatest presented to the world the heroism of facing a debilitating illness with strength and grace. Who among us, tears welling in our eyes, was not inspired when Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest athletes of all time, his body trembling and uncertain, but his eyes steady, lit the opening day torch at the 2012 Olympics.
For anyone, this could have been a perfect ending to an epic career, but Ali was not the kind to fade gracefully into history. Ali’s faith continued to develop beyond the Nation of Islam. In the mid 70’s he converted to Sunni Islam, but eventually settled upon the gentle yet challenging teachings of Sufism. He remained dedicated to Islamic teachings and faith, which often put him at odds with the temper of the nation. After the 9/11 attacks, Ali stated, “Islam is a religion of peace. Islam does not promote terrorism or the killing of people…if the culprits are Muslim, they have twisted the teachings of Islam.”
As one of the most noteworthy Muslim Americans, Ali did not shy away from controversy. He denounced so-called Islamic jihadis, but also confronted the ignorance and hypocrisy of those in our leadership who whip up hatred and fear of Muslims to advance their political agendas. In his most recent statement Ali landed a parting shot on Donald Trump and other conservatives promoting a ban on Muslim immigrants. “Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”
Muhammad Ali never left the ring, either in life or in our imaginations. That was the secret to his boxing career. From the moment a fight was announced, Ali started swinging, verbally and emotionally at first, then physically once the official bell rang. That the fighting spectacle was not restricted to the sport, but also to making a stand on issues that really matter, racism, war, xenophobia and demagoguery, Ali reminded us that we are all in the ring, we are all in the fight.
That might be why I’m so attracted to boxing. Boxing is a great metaphor for life, or at least living an active and epic story. We all have choices when confronted with the challenges that life has to offer, whether it’s making a choice to stand by one’s beliefs or facing the unavoidable pitfalls that life has to offer, illness, loss, death, we are all in the fight. When the final bell rings we have either given it our all, gone toe to toe with our adversity, rope-a-doped through hardship, clinched when we needed a moment to breathe, swung hard, landed punches when we could, rolled with the punches when we had to–or we got pummelled.
The final bell has rung for Muhammad Ali. He went the distance, swinging all the way.
As-salaam Alaikum, brother Muhammad.