Muhammad Ali passed away yesterday. I am no fan of hagiographies. I do not count many people as personal heroes. I also know that America celebrates great men and women of color who are radical freedom fighters and truth-tellers only when they are dead, dying, infirm, and/or many years after their passing. The Muhammad Ali I celebrate and honor was and is smart, witty, mean, mercurial, entrepreneurial, artistic, creative, a trickster, humane, a liar, complicated, afraid, womanizing, a narcissist, ego maniacal, and a warrior.
Does listing such traits constitute a hagiography? I am unsure.
There is so much that has been written about Muhammad Ali. Many of the books are excellent. I am particularly fond of King of the World, The Fight, and The Complete Muhammad Ali. Slate has a nice list of some of the great essays and shorter reflections on "The Greatest". Norman Mailer's "Ego" contains this wonderful writing:
Muhammad Ali begins with the most unsettling ego of all. Having commanded the stage, he never pretends to step back and relinquish his place to other actors—like a six-foot parrot, he keeps screaming at you that he is the center of the stage. “Come here 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’m human intelligence and you don’t even know if I’m good or evil.” This has been his essential message to America all these years. It is intolerable to our American mentality that the figure who is probably most prominent to us after the President is simply not comprehensible, for he could be a demon or a saint. Or both! Richard Nixon, at least, appears comprehensible. We can hate him or we can vote for him, but at least we disagree with each other about him. What kills us about a.k.a. Cassius Clay is that the disagreement is inside us. He is fascinating—attraction and repulsion must be in the same package. So, he is obsessive. The more we don’t want to think about him, the more we are obliged to. There is a reason for it. He is America’s Greatest Ego. He is also, as I am going to try to show, the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet, he is the very spirit of the 20th Century, he is the prince of mass man and the media. Now, perhaps temporarily, he is the fallen prince. But there still may be one holocaust of an urge to understand him, or try to, for obsession is a disease. Twenty little obsessions are 20 leeches on the mind, and one big obsession can become one big operation if we refuse to live with it. If Muhammad All defeats Frazier in the return bout, then he’ll become the national obsession and we’ll elect him President yet—you may indeed have to vote for any man who could defeat a fighter as great as Joe Frazier and still be Muhammad Ali. That’s a combination!Deadspin's Daniel Roberts also offers up this smart and beautiful observation:
In fiction, from the Native American legend of the Wendigo through the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm to Hannibal Lecter, there exists a fantasy that one man may absorb the strength of another by consuming him. But it took Muhammad Ali—surely a character too fantastic for any work of fiction—to make this power manifest in reality. In his now legendary Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, Ali invented a strategy so counter-intuitive that it cannot help but boggle one’s mind even 40 years after the fact: Ali let Foreman hit him. He leaned on the ropes and allowed Big George, quite possibly the hardest puncher in the history of the sport, to unleash all of his fury upon him. It was, by any human measure, a recipe for suicide. Except that for Ali, it was not. As the fight wore on, it was Foreman who seemed to wilt with each heavy blow he landed. And Ali? Ali grew stronger, bolder, more energized. As Foreman deteriorated before our disbelieving eyes, Ali became greater. In the end, it’s hard to say whether Ali eventually knocked Foreman out, or consumed what remained of his soul.[This story about the computer simulated and then reenacted "fight" between Ali and Marciano is als a fascinating read.]
Many folks have likely seen the great documentary When We Were Kings. There are other great boxing documentaries on Ali (and others) such as Thrilla in Manila, Ali's Dozen, Kings of the Ring, and One Nation Divisible.
Muhammad Ali was and is a cultural institution. And of course, given my curiosities and hobbies, we should not forget how Ali was a student of professional wrestling and how the "Louisville Lip" borrowed much from the legendary Gorgeous George:
George attracted attention more for his three-inch spike heels and inch- thick makeup than for his skill as a mauler and muscle-man. He entered the ring dressed in robes of satin or ermine and flaunted shoulder-length golden locks, as he peered vainly into a beautiful collection of hand-held mirrors. Meanwhile, his valet sprayed his corner with rich perfumes.
Gorgeous George discovered that the secret to success in wrestling was not merely in pinning his opponents but in behaving in a manner totally incongruous with the sport. He quickly became the darling of every interviewer and captured the interest of nearly every wrestling fan.
During pre-fight interviews, he told anyone who would listen that in his next "exhibition" - as opposed to a "match," which implies a contest - he would rip his opponent's arm from his shoulder and beat him with it. He promised to commit mayhem in the ring, destroying his adversary for having the temerity to oppose him.
Gorgeous George would shout, bulge his eyes and threaten to annihilate his ''enemy." Some of his opponents feared George's tough talk outside the ring far more than his technique inside it. In short order, the anger aimed at him made him one of wrestling's - and television's - biggest attractions. And he cried all the way to the bank.
His act lasted so long that a little-known boxer named Cassius Marcellus Clay, who won the 1960 light heavyweight championship in the Rome Olympics, took careful note of George's success.
"Soon after I turned pro," Cassius mused, "I discovered that even though I won the Olympic title, I wasn't making any money. I was the only champion that didn't have no jack jangling in his jeans. So I studied Gorgeous George and began doing his act better than he did it.
"Before I became champ, I used to go in the ring and fight and when I went to the dressing room, people didn't pay much attention to me," Ali recalled years later. "One night, I was watching Gorgeous George on TV. He was jumping around making a lot of noise and threatening his opponents and I said to myself, 'this guy's on to something.' I think I'll put some of that in my act."
Boxing fans plunked down their hard-earned cash to see Ali get knocked out. But alas, he had become as fine a boxer as he was a showman, and routinely whipped his opponents - "as if I was their daddy," he enjoyed saying. He also told reporters he probably owed Gorgeous George a lot of money: "Wasn't for him, nobody would have heard of me," Ali insisted."I didn't use no perfume or high heels, but I became real boisterous and the fans began paying attention to me. They hated my poetry and came to see if I would knock out my opponents in the round I'd predict. Fans would spend their money and rush to my fights, hoping to see me get my head whupped."Boxing is a cruel, mean, sweet, and often beautiful science. Its pantheon includes men such as Jack Johnson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Mike Tyson, and "The Greatest" Muhammad Ali.
As a child of the hip-hop generation, the perennial barbershop debate was, "who would win if Tyson fought Ali, both in their prime?" Folks who know nothing about boxing always chose Tyson. My prediction, Muhammad Ali in 7 rounds...only because he wants to tease out the fight, punish Tyson, and give the crowd their money's worth.
Any Muhammad Ali reflections or stories? Other matters of public or private concern that you would like to share?