Before Parkinson's disease quieted Muhammad Ali, he made great copy. He still does, apparently, in retrospect.
His taunting, his prophesying, his racist jibes, his questionable patriotism, his refusal to kowtow to Americana. He was a photographer's talisman. He made menacing eyes that popped back at the mob of flashbulbs with carefully orchestrated, theatrical malice. His acerbic tongue inflicted damage equal in insult and injury to the blows that his padded fists delivered. He became, effortlessly, the most recognizable sportsperson in America, more than Joe DiMaggio, more than Michael Jordan and, arguably, more than Tiger Woods. Forget America, he is perhaps still the most recognizable sportsperson in the world, representing the glorious sunshine moment of a sport that has now fallen on dim days.
September 15 marked 33 years since Ali brought down Leon Spinks to become the first and only boxer to win the lineal world heavyweight championship title three times. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr in Louisville, Kentucky in 1940, he won an Olympic gold in Rome before going professional, winning all but five of his 100 amateur matches.
Two sides to every story? Not with Ali
Because humility has no place in professional boxing, Ali was cut out for his game. Outspoken, swaggering, bursting with pride, Ali the sportsman coexisted with Ali the American icon. It was impossible to tell them apart. Outside the ring, he retained the fire and vitriol that made him unbearably magnetic. Superman may have had Clark Kent, but there was no flipside to Ali in the ring — no flippant doppelganger to speak of, no confused alter-ego.
Elvis may have left the building, but Ali never left the ring.
''He's like one of those refrigerators everybody puts a magnet on,'' said Robert Lipsyte, a New York Times sports columnist who covered Ali. Norman Mailer put it better in his monumental deconstruction of American ego in a LIFE magazine piece titled, simply, Ego. "He is fascinating — attraction and repulsion must be in the same package... 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."
Ali was, among other things, an early warning sign of the brooding turbulence in American society of the 1960s, of the American Dream that wasn't. The prominent African-American commentator Ishmael Reed wrote: "Ali represented the New Black of the 1960s, who was the successor to the New Negro of the 1920s: glamorous, sophisticated, intelligent, international and militant."
Ali the dichotomous personality existed only to fans — or fans of boxing in general — all of whom, regardless of social place or pedigree, were torn between their adulation for the fighter and vilification of the activist. In fact, those who loved Ali in the ring reviled him the hardest outside of it.
Conscripted to fight for the United States in Vietnam, Ali could so easily have risen to the bait and become a legitimate patriot, a national hero. Instead, he rebelled, and was instantly hated for it. He famously said, "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."
He was arrested and tried, then stripped of his titles. America, styling itself as the world's preeminent custodian of civil liberties, made a fine show of how to deal with dissent.
Not that it threw Ali. He was against the rope, not down for the count. He had already tested the patience of the American public by joining the Nation of Islam and abandoning his "slave name." Cassius Clay was dead. Muhammad Ali was larger than life.
Clever stage act
Larger even than that was the image that Ali built for himself. Deliberately, he played himself into the hands of media and routinely taunted his opponents, name-calling without mercy and predicting the exact round in which he would knock them out. It often rankled that Ali the oracle usually delivered on his promises.
Floyd Patterson, Ali's former rival in the ring, saw through the champ's stage act with perspicacity and sagacity.
"I have been called a 'coward' and a 'rabbit' and an 'Uncle Tom'," he said, adding that he never shared the contempt for Ali that others have heaped upon him. At heart, he insisted, Ali was a modest man. "So much of his bragging and stomping, his histrionics and wisecracks are all part of an act," Patterson remarked to an American magazine. "He is a kind of actor — a bad actor, some say, but an actor — and the main purpose behind his behavior is to get people to buy tickets to his fights, hoping to see him put his foot in his mouth."
Losing his past, finding his future
Even as Ali hobnobbed with such American icons of color as Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, outside the ring he taunted African-Americans, who were then just beginning to fight free of the tag "Negro", having replaced it grudgingly with "Black".
Ali the Muslim also tested the tolerance of an America that was being jolted into accepting the assertiveness of a strange new faith within its borders. "I don't have to be what you want me to be; I'm free to be what I want," he once snapped to someone who questioned his religious affiliation.
Professor Gerald Early, who edited The Muhammad Ali Reader, observed that Ali's conversion to Islam endeared him to the Third World.
"Few American athletes have stood for something," Early said in an NPR interview. "Politically, Black people and white people made him a hero. Africans identified with him as a Black man who stood for something. He identified with… Arab countries. I think it's a combination of his talent, personality and politics."
Not that anyone who tried to curry favor with him or genuinely sympathized with him ever got away unscathed. In an interview with Playboy magazine, Ali snarled, "When I think about white people, it's like there's 1,000 rattlesnakes outside my door and maybe 100 of them want to help me. But they all look alike, so should I open my door and hope that the 100 who want to help will keep the other 900 off me, when only one bite will kill me? What I'm saying is that if there's 1,000 rattlesnakes out there and 100 of them mean good -- I'm still gonna shut my door. I'm gonna say, 'I'm sorry, you nice 100 snakes, but you don't really matter.'"
Someone once spoke of T S Eliot as the greatest French poet in the English language. If such an analogy may be extended to influential litterateurs in sport, one may summon up sportswriter George Plimpton, who recalled that Ali had declared, "I am the onliest of boxing's poet laureates."
Ali was the preeminent rapper before the art form gained notoriety with 'gangster' prefixed ahead of it. Unlike some Mob-backed fighters he pounded in the ring, Ali was no thug. He was too proud for that, even as he taunted and predicted in spoken-word rhyme.
Before his fight with Foreman in 1974, he chanted:
I done wrestled with an alligator
I done tussled with a whale
thrown thunder in jail
only last week, I murdered a rock
injured a stone
hospitalized a brick
I'm so mean I make medicine sick
Before the 1975 Thrilla in Manila against Joe Frazier, he went: "It will be a killer, and a chiller, and a thriller, when I get the gorilla in Manila!"
The scripts of his speeches were elaborately conceived to charm the pants off the media, and to maim his opponent psychologically even before he entered the ring. Consider this one, which Emcee Ali rapped for Sonny Liston:
Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat
If he goes back any further…He'll be in a ringside seat
Clay swings with a left and Clay swings with a right
Look at young Cassius as he carries the fight
Liston keeps backing, but there's not enough room
It's a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom
Now Clay swings with a right, what a beautiful swing
and the punch knocks the Bear clear out of the ring
Liston's still rising! The ref wears a frown
For he can't start counting…till Sonny comes down!!
Now Liston disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic
But our radar stations pick him up, he's over the Atlantic!
Who would have thought when they came to the fight
That they'd witness the launch…of a human satellite?
Yes, the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money
That they would see a total eclipse of the Sun-y!
Groovy, huh? The jury has since been out over who actually wrote those ditties.
Rhyme and reason notwithstanding, Ali has inspired everyone from Bob Dylan, Billy Joel and Tori Amos to LL Cool J and R Kelly. He's been deified in film, most notably in The Greatest (1977), in which he starred, and most memorably in Ali (2001) in which Will Smith portrayed his character. He's even been on Broadway. And, it's another thing that Ali sparred with a superhero on the cover of DC Comics' 1978 special edition "Superman versus Muhammad Ali."
I'm not sure who won, but you might want to imagine what happened when the Man of Steel met the most magnetic sportsperson of our time...