A salute to the Greatest

I wrote the following about Muhammad Ali some time ago in a history of the twentieth century.

Muhammad Ali (1942-)

As befits a nation of pioneers who put a premium on individual responsibility and community ideals, Americans go for sport in a big way.  It is their national tragedy that instead of rugby or football and cricket, they have their own sports of gridiron and baseball, so that their champions do not compete on an international stage.  That does not stop Americans following their sports with at least the passion and patriotic intensity of the Indians with cricket or African nations in football.  The games they play tell you a lot about Americans.

In June 1902, a guy who ran saloons in Pigtown, Baltimore took his seven year old kid on a trolley-car to a reform school and then left him there. The school was named St Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys.  The kid would stay there until 1914 when he was 19.  By the time he left, his mother was dead.

The kid got training to become a tailor, but he was big on baseball.  His nick-name was the unkind one of Nigger Lips.  Photos show a wide-eyed innocent with thick lips.  He was a fan of Brother Matthias, who gave instruction on baseball on Saturday evenings, and as a big raw-boned kid, he could play.  He could both pitch and hit – left-handed.  Jack Dunn, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, spotted the kid and offered him a contract at $250 a month – primarily for his pitching.  The kid left St Mary’s as the legal ward of two of the Brothers, and with Jack Dunn as his guardian – the abandonment by his own family was complete.

They took off for spring training.  The kid had never been on a train or seen a menu before – he had never seen a professional player, let alone a professional game.  He must have been the most untutored player ever to go up to the Majors.  Dunn’s babies were known as ‘babes’.  Since the kid had got to retain his surname if nothing else from his family, and that name was Ruth, the kid became Babe Ruth, unquestionably the most famous name in all baseball.

Over the next twenty-one years, the Babe changed the game of baseball.  Before him, the game was controlled by pitchers, and batters approached their task tactically, and they tended to hit a flat trajectory.  The Babe was altogether less prosaic.  He introduced the power game, big hitting right up into the crowd.  He saw his role not just in moving men along the bases, but in belting home runs off his own bat.  He took baseball to a whole new level of entertainment, not just with the power of his hitting, but with the power of his presence.

The kid went to the Red Sox but they came to the doom-laden view that they would have to sell the Babe.  They did so at huge expense – an unprecedented sum – to the Yankees.  Now, the Babe was not really a Boston type, but he and New York in the Twenties were just made for each other.  And the city of Boston would pay an appalling price for its failure to come to terms with the Babe.  In what became known as the curse of the Bambino, the Red Sox would not win another World Series that century.

The Yankees won four World Series and seven pennants in the period that the Babe was with them (1920 – 1935).  In his total career he hit 714 home runs, a proposition that would have been laughed at in 1914.  He was the first to break 60 in a season – which he did after apparently being trumped by Lindbergh.  He was called the Sultan of Swat, the Caliph of Clout, or the Wizard of Whack, but he still holds the tenth highest batting average of all time.

Jackie Robinson became an officer in the US Army during World War II.  What awaited him when he got back to the land of the free?  ‘Down the back of the bus with the other niggers.’  Rather than football, Jackie took on baseball as his professional sport.  He had the eye of a natural hitter; he had all the skills for a second base; he was deadly quick at stealing bases, and handy if a shirt-front were needed; and he was determined to win.  In short, he was just the kind of player to build a team around.  Except that in 1947, baseball was rigidly segregated – no formal agreement, just invincible history and unwritten understanding.  There were white leagues and black leagues, and that separatism was just as saluted in the north as in the south.

Jackie Robinson and a man named Branch Rickey cracked the monolith.  They both subscribed to the teaching of the Jewish carpenter, especially the Sermon on the Mount.  They would both be tested on the hard bit – turning the other cheek – in a way that is not asked of most of us.  Rickey was the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He told Robinson that he would give him a go in the minors with a view to signing him for a full season with the Dodgers if he was good enough.  He said Robinson would be exposed to hate and abuse, sometimes from his own side, and that he would not be able to answer back.

Rickey had one large portrait in his office – the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.  Rickey was smart as well as brave.  He described his purpose:  ‘First, to win a pennant.  There’s some good coloured players.  The second reason is…it’s right.’

Robinson made the season with the minors satisfactorily.  (In his second at bat, he had rifled it into the crowd.)  When it came time for him to turn out for the Dodgers, every club but one said they were against it, and players in his own team took up a petition to have him excluded.  Other teams threatened to strike.  He was still subject to insult and abuse and death threats on the road, and venomous hate speech on the field.  He kept his part of the deal.  He copped it and he did not answer back.  He had a great season with the bat and a league-leading 29 stolen bases and a momentum – turning base-running style.  He was the first ever Rookie of the Year.  The Dodgers made it to the World Series and forced the Yankees to go to the seventh game.  This Yankee side, with DiMaggio and others, is one of the greatest teams ever, and is the main reason why the Dodgers do not have more to show from their ten years with Robinson.  He was not just a hero for black people, but for all Americans.

Well, what might happen if America got a champion black sportsman who played on the world stage, and who could appeal to coloured people all over the world, and who was prepared to stare down Uncle Sam – and who just happened to be the greatest of all time?

This is how Norman Mailer began his book The Fight:

There is always a shock in seeing him again.  Not live as in television, but standing before you, looking his best.  Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear.  Women draw an audible breath.  Men look down.  They are reminded again of their lack of worth.  If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would still inspire love and hate.  For he is the Prince of Heaven – so says the silence around his body when he is luminous.

Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior was born on 17 January 1942 in Louis, Kentucky.  His father painted signs and his mother was a domestic.  They were African Americans descended from slaves.  The baby followed his father in being named after a famous abolitionist.  The former Cassius Clay was a most formidable man, a six-foot-six Kentucky farmer who had commanded troops in the Mexico War.  He inherited a plantation and he later freed his slaves.  For this he received death threats.  ‘For those who have respect for the laws of God, I have this argument.’  He produced a leather-bound bible.  ‘For those who believe in the laws of man, I have this argument.’  He produced the constitution.  ‘And for those who believe in neither the laws of God nor of man, I have this argument.’  He laid down a Bowie knife and two pistols.  Lincoln thought enough of him, or of the Russians, to send him to Russia on government business.  As David Remnick remarks, ‘He maintained his physical courage to the end.  When he was eighty-four, he married a fifteen year old girl.’

Clay grew up to win national Golden Gloves and then gold in the 1960 Olympics at Rome.  He turned pro and was undefeated, but he was not winning friends by his manner of belittling opponents.  He was light on his feet and he was unbelievably fast.  He had height and reach, and he could lean back and then hit his overcommitted opponent with a lethal right jab.  He won the right to challenge Sonny Liston, and the fight was set for 25 February 1964.

Sonny was born into the Mob – the underworld – and he could never get out of it.  He never had a chance.  He had no family to speak of and he knew the inside of the Workhouse.  He was an enforcer for the Mob.  Not many people gave lip to Sonny Liston and lived.  The Mob ran boxing.  A generation of Prohibition gangsters had promoted and fixed fights, charming people like Frenchy DeMange, Frankie Yale, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Boo Boo Hoff, Kid Dropper, Legs Diamond and Dutch Schulz.  You can ask why crooks were attracted to pugs, but they were both on the fringe.

Sonny’s manager was Paul John (‘Frankie’) Carbo, also known on the street as Frank Fortunato, Jimmie the Wop, and Dago Frank.  After being sent to Sing Sing for homicide, he lifted his game to become a hit man for the Brooklyn branch of Murder Inc.  David Remnick says that it took Cassius Clay, still on his way up, to break the grip of the Mob.  That young man found his protection in the Nation of Islam.  Many of his countrymen would have been more relaxed if he had stayed with the Mob – the devil they knew.

Sonny then would frighten the hell out of anyone.  The bookies had Clay at seven to one, which is insane in a two man event, and journalists were plotting the locations of the nearest hospitals.  Many thought that the kid would be killed.  The kid – the Louisville Lip – responded as was his wont now.  He taunted Liston, pulled up outside his house and asked him to step outside, and famously said that he would ‘dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee.’  He turned the weigh-in into a circus.

At the bell, Liston came out like an enraged bull, but Clay slipped away, and was scoring heavily by the end of the first round.  He buckled Sonny’s knees in the third, and he cut the champion for the first time.  He seemed to be blinded in the fifth, but he came back to belt Sonny in the sixth.  Sonny did not come out for the seventh.  It was a TKO and Clay shouted to the world that he was the greatest ever.  The rematch came after Clay had publicly, and amid great hostility, converted to Islam and changed his name.  It was a sad farce.  Liston copped what the press called the ‘phantom punch’, and the fight was over in less than two minutes.  It looked for all the world as if the fix had gone in and that Sonny had taken a dive.

Ali said that ‘Clay’ was his slave name.  He got offside with millions by taunting his opponents and then being cruel to them by prolonging their punishment.  He then courted more unpopularity by refusing to be drafted for the increasingly looked down on war in Vietnam.  He knew who his enemies were.  ‘No Vietcong ever called me nigger.’  In the way of things, it would be this stand that would secure his position in the Pantheon – and in the U S, as well as the rest of the world.  He would later be courted by presidents.

Ali was stripped of his title and locked out of boxing until the Supreme Court eventually set aside his conviction on a fine point of law.  (The black Justice, Thurgood Marshall, did not sit.)  By then, the tide had turned completely on Vietnam and Ali was a living legend for more reasons than one.  But he had lost the best years of his boxing life.  He fought Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who was more in the Liston mould, and he lost his first professional fight.  He would later beat Frazier, but the highpoint of his return, and of his boxing career, came with the fight against George Foreman for the title at downtown Kinshasa, Zaire on 30 October 1974, the Rumble in the Jungle.

There was a book, Mailer’s The Fight, and an Academy Award film, Once Were Kings, made about this contest.  Ali was passed his prime.  And Foreman had a fearful reputation.  He was a frightfully heavy puncher.  He had knocked out both Frazier and Norton in the second round.  Ali responded with his normal verbal barrage and mind games, but in the film, Norman Mailer said that Ali never looked at Foreman’s heavy punching bag – it had been deformed.  No one ever got into the ring with George Foreman after watching him deform the heavy bag.  No one – or hardly anyone – though that Ali had any chance at all.  This was then like the first Liston fight that had taken place more than ten years ago.  Again, people in the know feared for the survival of the outmatched challenger.

This is how Norman Mailer describes their coming together in the ring to get instructions from the referee.

It was the time for each man to extort a measure of fear from the other.  Liston had done it to all his opponents until he met Ali who, when Cassius Clay at the age of twenty-two, glared back at him with all the imperative of his high-destiny guts.  Foreman, in turn, had done it Frazier and then to Norton.  A big look, heavy as death, oppressive as the closing of the door of one’s tomb.

Then something extraordinary happened, something almost unbelievable.  Ali came out in the first round and started to hit Foreman, and hit him hard – with his right hand!  It would be like a right-handed batter or golfer coming out and playing left-handed.  It was downright insulting.  Then as the fight settled down, Ali would just go back on the ropes, hunch up, and absorb flurries of punches.  At first some thought that the fight had been fixed.  But then they saw that most of Foreman’s punches directed at the body were not scoring, but were drowning the energy of the champion.  It was high drama – anyone of those missiles could have landed any other fighter back in the bleachers, but Ali just went back, took the blows, and then eased out and scored.  All the time he was taunting Foreman: ‘Is that all you’ve got?’  It then became apparent that Foreman was tiring.  His punches were either not landing or not hurting.  And Ali was starting to float about him and was pinning him with darts at will.  Then in the eighth, Ali moved in for the kill and it was all over, and the world title was his again.  There was delirium in the crowd, and in front of TV sets all around the world.  Sports fans who have seen the fight and the film many times still move to the front of their seats and hold their breath while they watch it yet again.  It is probably the most watched sporting event ever.

After that, there was The Thriller in Manila with Frazier again, but it was all downhill.  Ali was permitted to go on too long.  This is sadly common with boxers and other sportsmen.  He became a distressingly sad reflection of the wonderful athlete and fighting machine that he had been.  In his advanced age he suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and he has had it now for a long time.

But even in that condition, he could move very greatly younger people who came into his presence.  Even in decline he had an aura – as Norman Mailer saw, he could be ‘luminous’ – in a way that could still move people by a curious alchemy, a kind of out of body experience.  Why is that?  Perhaps they just feel somehow that Muhammad Ali was in truth the greatest of all time.

It is a great story, the descendant of slaves beats off the mob, becomes world champion, beats off the government, and wins back his championship, each time against a frightening odds and a terrifying opponent.  For all of his faults and failings – which, for him, like most of us, were formidable – his story is a tribute to the human spirit.  This is why he is held in such awe right around the world.  This is why so many see him as the greatest ever, the greatest ever sportsman and the greatest ever entertainer, the promoters’ final dream, the ultimate crowd pleaser.  He embodies the truth that at least at the top now, professional sportsmen and women have almost nothing to do with sport, and almost everything to do with entertainment, business, and money.  If that means that we have gone from the amateur sportsmen of the Olympic Games of the ancient Greeks to the professional chariot races and gladiators of the decaying and decadent Romans, then that is a lookout for all our mums and dads and others.  Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali have between them consummated that transformation.  The man has been, if nothing else, a mover and a shaker.

Muhammad Ali has a lot in common with the late Maria Callas.  He was, like she was, an entertainer.  They are both seen by many as having been in their time the best ever entertainers of their kind – there is generally seen to have been blue sky between them and the rest.  By the force of their character as much as by the high reach of their technique, they both radically changed the way that the world saw their art – and we should not blush to use that word for Ali was well as for Callas.  And now, in his reflective time at peace, Muhammad Ali might agree with Maria Callas that: ‘There are no short cuts.  There is only discipline, technique, and Mut’.  As the professional coach said in Chariots of Fire, ‘You can’t put in what God left out.’  It is just that some make better use of what they get from God than others do.

2 thoughts on “A salute to the Greatest

    • The BBC devoted its whole news service to Ali. Comments from around the world. Two came from people with heavy Irish accents. It was strangely moving to hear all these people speak about this poor black kid from Kentucky. I don’t think we can realise what Ali has done for all people of colour all around the world. One person reasonably asked if Obama could have been elected without Ali.
      Except for Churchill, I cannot think of anyone else having that impact on the whole world in my lifetime, and I think the Foreman fight is the most extraordinary sporting event I will ever see.
      I wonder how the passing of this very great man may affect the sheer awfulness of American politics.

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