I am thinking of a towering figure from my youth who is dismissed sometimes as a product of the culture of celebrity, which began when he was young, though I would suggest that he created that culture to some extent. This progenitor of celebrity culture is Muhammad Ali who blew back into my consciousness the other day through my favorite medium, the radio. National Public Radio in the US resurrected an Edward R. Murrow series called “This I Believe” for which people of all walks and ages and occupations state their core beliefs. It’s a wonderful series of essays, full of revelation and reminiscence and an occasional bolt of insight. Stockbrokers proclaim their atheism and housewives their deep religious faith, carpenters talk of their almost but not quite career as a concert pianist and how music still sustains them and politicians declare their love of Dickens and how that love has guided them while retirees declare the value of work and the loving grip of family. The series is coming to a close and the re-creator and producer finally bagged the game he had sought above all others. This broadcasting Ahab has pursued his Great White Whale, who is actually brown and, now, apparently diminished. Muhammad Ali, whom I still remember when he was Cassius Clay, is not, in fact, diminished at all. He is simply wounded and the harpoon came in the shape of Parkinson’s disease and it took his voice, that beautiful and boastful Kentucky honey voice that filled my youthful television screen and gave me my first blast of Black America, sitting there in England, a sitting room in Birmingham, which had not yet seen the great influx of darker skins and unknown cultures and I remember thinking – I have never seen or heard anything like this man before. The greatest thing I remember about Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali was that he was something I shared with my dad. Dad loves boxing. My often terrifying and angry dad was calmed by boxing – and horse racing, which I never quite loved the way I loved boxing – and he liked it when the two of us would watch Ali give a news conference or make one of his famous predictions. Ali was often on English chat shows. When the United States turned on Ali he spent time in Europe and he was loved and joyously hated in England no matter what he did. My dad had that mixed reaction to Ali. It was partly a white reaction to a black man, too big for his boots. Of a quasi-European resentful of American self-confidence, wanting the Yank taken down a peg or two. Partly the reaction of an Irishman in England – you tell ‘em, Ali, tell ‘em what it’s like to be thought of as less than, not equal to. Mostly, though, it was the reaction of a master of his craft. My dad was as good as it is possible to be at the work that he did, which was construction carpentry. He was a shutterer, what Americans call a formwork carpenter, building the boxes into which concrete is poured. When he watched Ali he saw a man who was as good as it is possible to be at his craft. All that boasting, all that blather, all the posturing, were not hollow. Ali really was the greatest. I see his fights now on the million sports channels that re-run classic sporting events and still I hold my breath that a man could do something so brutal with such grace and such poise. Ali’s true greatness came largely in his fights against the almost as great Smokin’ Joe Frazier, a man of little poise, bereft of the fancy talk, the product of the meat packing plants around Philadelphia and the diametric opposite of Ali as a boxer. Where Ali danced and shuffled, Joe just kept coming, head down, hands up, a steam train of a man, a soaker of punishment, a man’s man. None of this avoiding being hit, none of this need to preserve a pretty face, which he’d never had. Joe wore his opponents down like a belt sander and he was almost as worn down as the other man at the end. Except he was usually on his feet and the other man was not. Three times they fought and three epic battles they engaged in. In The Fight Of The Century Ali came back from exile imposed by US authorities for his stance on the Vietnam War and the two men thrashed each other mercilessly, Frazier breaking Ali’s jaw. Ali won the other two fights, though Ali referred to the third fight, The Thriller In Manila, as “the closest thing to death”.
Ali was in professional exile for his stance on Vietnam. He refused to go and fight the Viet Cong because, in his immortal words, “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger”. He was stripped of his boxing license, a move as much motivated by the hatred and suspicion the authorities had of Ali’s conversion to Islam. It’s forgotten now that Ali was not just some celebrity winning points for standing up to the government, not just a famous man taking an easy stance that allowed him to use his fame to garner attention. Ali sacrificed the single most significant part of his life. Those years of exile coincided with what would have been Ali’s greatest years as a fighter. It is here that Ali steps beyond the platitudinous comments of the sports commentators and the dismissive jibes of news reporters. It is here that Ali becomes not just a great fighter, but a great man. I love Ali above all for his use of language. He stood in the public arena and he gave not one inch to those who reviled him. He walked into the mobs of angry reporters and he took them on and he never minced words and, above all, he never displayed hatred of any of those who spoke ill of him, who goaded him and taunted him. He was, and is, the epitome of Grace. Always he expressed himself with an elegance and a pithiness that escapes the rest of us mere mortals. It’s strange that Ali is barely, if at all, literate. Yet there are few as eloquent as he.
Go now and rent “When We Were Kings”, a great documentary about the Ali – Foreman fight, The Rumble In The Jungle, in Kinshasa, Zaire. Besides being one of the greatest fights in boxing history it’s worth seeing for what you will learn of Ali, the man. There’s quite a bit about Ali the boxer, too, and how he outwitted Foreman. This is the George Foreman who had destroyed, I mean DESTROYED, Joe Frazier by knocking him down six times in two rounds, who actually – watch the Foreman – Frazier fight, too – actually bounced Frazier off the canvas with a blow to the head. People feared for Ali’s life, Foreman was so fierce. Ali was not among those fearful many. On the radio the other day Ali’s wife read his statement of belief and his belief is that, yes, he is the greatest. It’s a statement of belief in one’s self, of the hunger for achievement that self confidence brings. At the beginning and at the end of the statement Ali himself speaks through the torturing curse of Parkinson’s and it is as moving as you might expect. This man who showed the world that a sports figure could be a statesman, that a black man was the equal and sometimes the better of any of the rest of us and that there is sometimes great beauty in the ugliest of places. As George Plimpton says at the end of the film – “What a fighter. What a man.”