The life of Muhammad Ali reminds me of the life of Miles Davis. They both show that we here in Australia have never understood how poisonous the problem of race is in America. In his new biography Ali, A Life, Jonathan Eig quotes an author in Ebony saying of the words ‘I am the greatest’:
Lingering behind those words is the bitter sarcasm of Dick Gregory, the shrill defiance of Miles Davis, the utter contempt of Malcolm X. He smiles easily, but, behind it all….is a blast furnace of race pride.
That about sums it up. People talked a lot about three things that got up their noses about Ali: his loud mouthed boasting and his cruel taunting of his opponents; his embrace of another faith, in the very unattractive Nation of Islam; and his evasion of military service and his opposition to America’s war in Vietnam.
There was one thing that got up people’s noses that they didn’t talk so much about – the incredulity and jealousy of a large part of the white population that a black man was better than any white man – and was happily sticking it right up them. That was, I think, the biggest problem facing President Obama – as now evidenced by the horrific fruit of the white backlash and the election of a president who unashamedly believes that white people are superior to black people. (I may have added that Ali’s hopeless promiscuity may have upset some – but that’s a relative issue in a nation that turns out presidents as unfaithful as many of those in the U S.)
The taunting was part of the circus act, and, I think, part of the way for the young man to mask his fear in confronting men who could kill him. It was also meant to unbalance or unnerve his opponent. Ali saw himself – correctly – as being in the entertainment industry. He invited aggravation toward himself to sell tickets. Who wants to see a brawl between friends? The author freely concedes his view that Ali often went over the top – especially with Joe Frazier. There is a record of a conversation between the two before any of their three fights. They were joking, bragging, and singing.
Ali: We don’t wanna be seen too much together, you know.
Frazier: Yeah. They’ll think we’re buddies. That’ll be bad for the gate.
Ali: Yeah. Ain’t nobody gonna pay nothing to see two buddies.
Later the relationship soured. Both suffered lasting damage from their three bouts – Frazier spent nearly two weeks in hospital after winning the first. Ali would apologise to Foreman for calling him an Uncle Tom.
Ali thought differently to most of us. In many ways, he had the mind of a child. He didn’t want to go to L A for the trials for the Rome Olympics. He was afraid of flying. He was persuaded to take the chance. So he went to a disposals store to buy a parachute – which he wore on the plane. His graduation from high school was an act of charity, and he flunked the army IQ test. He could see some big pictures with great clarity, but logic was not his go.
Ali was therefore the perfect dupe for crooks and odd-balls like the Nation of Islam. And they milked him for all he was worth, and then they denounced and betrayed him. He nevertheless maintained his faith. Mr Eig does not doubt the sincerity of that faith, and nor do I. While most fighters sought refuge and protection from the Mob, Ali found it in a religious sect. A lot of Americans would have been more at home if he had stuck with the Mob.
As for Vietnam – well, supporters of that war are as thinly spaced now as supporters of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria. Ali’s position may well have affected that of Dr Martin Luther King. He said that America could only be saved with ‘radical moral surgery’ and ‘I can’t segregate my conscience.’ Mr Eig says:
Ali’s stand against Vietnam made him a symbol of protest against a war in which black men were dying at a wildly disproportionate rate. Black men accounted for 22% of all battle deaths when the black population in America was only 10%. Why was America spending money and tossing away lives in the name of freedom in a distant land while resisting the cause of freedom at home? Why, yet again, did the interests of black Americans seem to diverge from the interests of the nation as a whole? Ali raised these troubling questions as opposition to the war rapidly spread.
Ali based his opposition to the war on his religious beliefs.
Many great men have been tested for their religious belief. If I pass this test, I will come out stronger than ever…..All I want is justice. Will I have to get that from history?
When he said that, Ali was the heavyweight champion of the world. He had staggered that world by beating Sonny Liston – twice (although some thought both were fixed). Ali was at the height of his powers, the prime of American manhood, but the white establishment was now bent on taking out this uppity nigger.
When Ali declined to accept induction, the commissioners of the most corrupt sport on earth moved to ban him.
Never mind that they had long tolerated the mafia and professional gamblers in their sport. Never mind that Ali had not yet been convicted of a crime. Never mind that boxing’s rules contained no requirement that its champion be a Christian or an American or a supporter of America’s wars. None of that mattered. Guided by anger, prejudice, or patriotism, boxing’s rulers decided that Muhammad Ali was unfit to wear the sport’s crown because he was a Muslim who refused to fight for his country.
Ali had been fortunate early in his career in being managed by a group of right minded business people from home. They arranged very fair contracts and helped him with tax and saving for the future. But he was like a child with money. He liked the feel of cash, and he threw it away. Later he would come under the control of a promoter who had been convicted of murder.
Now a group of very senior black athletes met with Ali for hours to try to get him to change his mind about the army. President Johnson had offered him the deal given to Joe Louis – he could just put on the uniform, and fight exhibition matches. He could play down his religion in public, and remind the Nation of Islam, who had dropped him, that he was no good to them serving his term of five years – which was the maximum, that he got. ‘Everybody had a chance to ask him all the questions they wanted to. Eventually, everybody was satisfied that his stand was genuine based on his religion and that we should back him.’ Given what was involved, Ali must have had real faith.
More than four years later, Ali’s appeal against his conviction and sentence came on before the Supreme Court. The government argued that Ali was not a pacifist – he had merely said he did not want to fight the Viet Cong – ‘No Viet Cong ever called me nigger’- or for a country that treated him as a second class citizen. He was just making political statements. That argument prevailed five: three.
Justice Harlan was to write the decision. His clerk had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and was persuaded of the sincere pacifism of this sect. His judge then changed his mind: four: four. The decision would stand, and Ali would do five years.
But this would not look too good. Then another judge came up with a technical point. The appeal board that rejected Ali’s claim had not given any basis for its finding – without knowing why his claim had been rejected, how could they have given him a fair hearing? Well, that does look thin – there is no authority except the decision referred to in the footnotes* – but the justices thought this was better than an all-white court jailing a champion on a split vote. And they did so unanimously. Ali found out about his release as he was buying orange juice at a small grocery shop in Chicago. He shouted the store.
Most of us know all about the fight against Foreman, the Rumble in the Jungle. I saw it live in the basement of a near blood-house pub in Elizabeth Street. I was amazed and enthralled – as was a large part of the world. It was a massive achievement. On reflection, both Liston and Foreman lost to Ali for similar reasons – he was able to survive and score well for seven rounds – they were used to crushing their opposition in two, and they were not equipped to go anything like the distance.
After that, you may wish to skim read. It’s mostly downhill. Dirty fights; whoring (he was in bed with two whores on the afternoon of a big fight); brain damage; corruption; theft; waste; and an uneasy peace. We were moved by the lighting of the flame at Atlanta, by the film Once Were Kings, and by the funeral.
Ali was fortunate to die when the U S still had a literate and honourable man in the White House. This is what President Obama said.
‘I am America’, he once declared. ‘I am the part that you won’t recognise. But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.’ That’s the Ali I came to know as I came of age – not just as skilled a poet on the mic, as he was a fighter in the ring, but a man who fought for what was right. A man who fought for us. He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t. His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled and nearly send him to jail. And his victory helped us to get used to the America we recognise today… Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it.
What a giant! Muhammad Ali had the clout and the gifts of Babe Ruth; he had the courage and the devotion to his people of Jackie Robinson; he may have lacked that aura of saintliness that we see in Mandela, Ghandi, and, yes, Lincoln; but because of Muhammad Ali, his nation, however defined, has changed forever, and for the better.
The book had another message for me. We should ban professional boxing. It is a cruel and unusual punishment, and we should not pay men to beat up other man and shorten their lives. This is a denial of civilisation.
*According to Wikipedia, the likely source was the book The Brethren by Woodward and Armstrong. In 2013, A TV film was released, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight. Christopher Plummer played Justice Harlan.