This is our truth, tell us yours
The redemptive power of sport is a hugely contested notion. For every sportsman who becomes a national treasure after troubled beginnings, there’s another who never changes, and there are some who change for the worse.
Muhammad Ali ascended to the status of global treasure after being referred to a boxing club by his local policeman. If you were going to choose a sport less suited to attesting to the redemptive power of sport, you’d have to look a long way to find one worse than boxing. Even if you can discount the rampant corruption, the dodgy judges, the fixed matches and the obvious mismatches, boxing fans help make it the worst sport in the world in which to fashion a reputation or legacy.
For every boxing fan who believes in the myth of Muhammad Ali, there’s another who believes that Frazier was better, or that Ali was cruel, or vicious, or an unreliable friend or ally. The Ali myth is, in and of itself, an obvious response to the first, genuine, TV boxing star, but also to the need to simplify the complex.
Let’s start with the fight most often cited by Ali’s detractors as evidence of his anger and cruelty; the Ernie Terrell fight. It was in the immediate aftermath of Ali’s name change, and the two boxers clashed pre-fight after Terrell called his opponent by his slave name. Ali promised to give Terrell an humiliating beating, and delivered on his promise, taunting him in the eighth round, asking Terrell ‘What’s my name’ while dishing out a beating that is painful to watch. In later life Ali humiliated lesser opponents by dodging their punches; this, by contrast was calculated cruelty, delivered in cutting, wicked punches and taunts, and it resounded around the world. It was not just an example of dominant boxing, but, pre-fight, Ali had said to Terrell “My name is Muhammad Ali and you will announce it right there in the center of that ring after the fight, if you don’t do it now. You are acting just like an old Uncle Tom, another Floyd Patterson. I’m gonna punish you.” The impact of a black man saying to another black man that he would punish him for being an Uncle Tom turned the world of black experience on its head; being an Uncle Tom was always the safe choice, but here was Ali telling Terrell, and showing him, that it wasn’t a safe choice any more.
I’ve no doubt Ali was angry at Terrell, but his response was not to lash out at Terrell pre-fight in the gruesome way some modern boxers do at the pantomime weigh-ins beloved of promoters, but to state his position, to explain what he planned to do, and then do it. It was cold, brutal and never deviated from his stated intention.
Ali was often verbally cruel to his opponents. He exemplified the kind of fighter who begins the psychological battle as soon as the fight is made, long before either boxer approaches the ring. He eschewed the courtly rituals of the Marquess of Queensbury for a colder, harsher style that would not countenance any purpose other than boxing.
As a black man who was close to Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, who experienced racism in a way I can only glimpse obliquely, Ali had every right to reject other people’s rules about what is right and wrong, about how he should behave. Ali once said that he was only willing to suffer in the gym so he could live as a champion; we will never know, but I suspect he chose to be uncompromisingly brutal as an athlete, and in defence of his rights, because he felt he was not constrained by the rules of a system that refused him equality.
All the time I’ve been working through this I’ve been thinking of Paul Robeson, another black man of enormous talent who was refused equal rights,and excluded from the privileges his talent could have earned, because he refused to play by other people’s rules. In terms of his boxing talent and physical prowess Ali was a man out of time, almost unique, but the young Ali, proud, angry and clear sighted also experienced a life no different to any other young black man in the USA, accustomed to counting for less than others.
It’s not my right to co-opt Muhammad Ali to my world view; his life suffered too much of that anyway, and the performative nature of the contracts he signed mean that much of his public persona must be suspect. If your purse is, as Ali’s was for the Terrell fight, 50% of the takings, you’re going to become part of the hype to maximize your chances of living the way you want to.
Anyone who claims to know Ali from his public persona who doesn’t mention that context is missing the point, but, and it’s a very big point, Ali didn’t need to humiliate Terrell in quite the way he did. Ali could have been trying for the role of boxing’s bad guy, like the traditional hooded man in wrestling, but he was ill-suited to that role because he didn’t provide the traditional wrestling story line of the hooded man being defeated and unmasked by the hero. In his pomp, he was almost literally unbeatable.
So that leaves the possibility that the cold, brutal Ali was the real thing, a young man who channelled his anger and bitterness into trying to create a space where he could be himself. Who he became, the towering, funny, humble man described by Thomas Hauser here is possibly his greatest achievement; the moments after the famous final scene are often the most interesting. The extent to which he damaged himself by pursuing salvation, and his identity, inside the ropes is part of a potential tragedy that he rejected by his decency and kindness after he retired.
It’s a running joke amongst political scientists that Winston Churchill can be cited in favour of almost any policy, because in a long career he encountered almost every possible situation. Muhammad Ali had a similar life; the peaceful, generous Muslim Hauser describes is the same man as the angry young man who intimidated Liston or Terell. The journey is the story, everything else is just a snapshot, but it’s important to realise that despite some of the places he travelled to, it’s important to cherish the life and achievements of such a special traveller.