Friday, June 10, 2016

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

“Cassius Clay is a name that white people gave to my slave master. Now that I am free, that I don't belong anymore to anyone, that I'm not a slave anymore, I gave back their white name, and I chose a beautiful African one.” —  Muhammad Ali

I'M NOT a boxing fan. A sport based on trying to knock each other (literally) senseless, as you might suspect, isn't something I condone, and certainly it isn't a domain I've paid any attention to over the course of my life. Thus I've never really known much about Muhammad Ali other than the barest outline of his place in history. 

I'm sure I once knew that he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. When I hear it mentioned, an indistict recollection flutters in my brain, but I wouldn't have been able to pencil that in on the outline, and I definitely never knew about his refusal to comply with the draft. I had a sense that he was gracious and beloved, but I didn't know that he'd been vilified. I knew he suffered from Parkinson's disease. 

And so I've been fascinated to read and learn about who this man was. 

Below are two op-ed pieces from The New York Times written to mark his passage. I get it now . . . about him, I mean.

Muhammad Ali: Never the White Man’s Negro

By Joyce Carol Oates

June 6, 2016

CASSIUS CLAY, born in 1942, was the grandson of a slave; in the United States of his boyhood and young manhood, the role of the black athlete, particularly the black boxer, was a forced self-effacement.

White male anxieties were, evidently, greatly roiled by the spectacle of the strong black man, and had to be assuaged. The greater the black boxer (Joe Louis, Archie Moore, Ezzard Charles), the more urgent that he assume a public role of caution and restraint. Kindly white men who advised their black charges to be a “credit to their race” were not speaking ironically.

And yet, the young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali refused to play this emasculating role. He would not be the “white man’s Negro” — he would not be anything of the white man’s at all. Converting to the Nation of Islam at the age of 22, immediately after winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston, he denounced his “slave name” (Cassius Marcellus Clay, which was also his father’s name) and the Christian religion; in refusing to serve in the Army he made his political reasons clear: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

An enormous backlash followed: where the young boxer had been cheered, now he was booed. Denunciations rained upon his head. Respected publications, including The New York Times, continued to print the “slave name” Cassius Clay for years. Sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for his refusal to comply with the draft, Ali stood his ground; he did not serve time, but was fined $10,000 and his boxing license was revoked so that he could not continue his professional career, in the very prime of that career. In a gesture of sheer pettiness the State Department took away his passport so that he couldn’t fight outside the country. After he was reinstated as a professional boxer three and a half years later, he had lost much of his youthful agility. Yet he’d never given in.

The heart of the champion is this: One never repudiates one’s deepest values, one never gives in.

Though Ali had risen to dizzying heights of fame in the 1960s, it was in the 1970s that his greatness was established. Who could have imagined that, being reinstated as a boxer after a lengthy suspension, Ali would expand the dimensions of the sport yet again; that, past his prime, his legs slowed, his breath shorter, out of an ingenuity borne of desperation he would reinvent himself as an athlete on whose unyielding body younger boxers might punch themselves out. He could no longer “float like a butterfly” but he could lie back against the ropes, like a living heavy bag, and allow an opponent like the hapless George Foreman to exhaust himself trying to knock him out.

What is the infamous Rope-a-Dope stratagem of 1974 but a brilliantly pragmatic stoicism in which the end (winning) justifies the means (irreversible damage to body, brain). The spectator is appalled to realize that a single blow of Foreman’s delivered to a non-boxer might well be fatal; how many dozens of these blows Ali absorbed, as in a fairy tale in which the drama is one of reversed expectations. In this way, with terrible cost to come in terms of Ali’s health, he won back the heavyweight title at the age of 32, defeating the 25–year-old Foreman.

Great as Ali-Foreman was, it can’t compare to the trilogy of fights between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971, 1974 and 1975; Frazier won the first on points, Ali the second and third on points and a TKO. These were monumental fights, displays of human stamina, courage and “heart” virtually unparalleled in the history of boxing. In the first, Ali experienced the worst battering of his life, yet he did not give up; in the second and third, Ali won against an exhausted Frazier, at what cost to his health we can only guess — “The closest thing to dying,” Ali said of the last fight. Yet, incredibly, unconscionably, Ali was exploited by managers and promoters who should have protected him; his doomed career continued until 1981 with a devastating final loss, to the much-younger Trevor Berbick. Ali then retired, belatedly, after 61 fights, with 56 wins.

What does it mean to say that a fighter has “heart”? By “heart” we don’t mean technical skill, nor even unusual strength and stamina and ambition; by “heart” we mean something like spiritual character.

The mystery of Muhammad Ali is this spiritual greatness, that seemed to have emerged out of a far more ordinary, even callow personality. With the passage of time, the rebel who’d been reviled by many Americans would be transformed into an American hero, especially amid general disenchantment with the Vietnam War. The young man who’d been denounced as a traitor was transformed into the iconic figure of our time, a compassionate figure who seems to transcend race. A warm, sepia light irradiates the past, glossing out jarring details.

Ali had long ago transcended his own origins and his own specific identity. As he’d once said: “Boxing was nothing. It wasn’t important at all. Boxing was just meant as a way to introduce me to the world.”

Muhammad Ali: Worshiped. Misunderstood. Exploited.

By Ishmael Reed

June 4, 2016

Oakland, Calif. — MUHAMMAD ALI, who died Friday at the age of 74, was the greatest boxer of all time, but he was also deeply human, as full of frailty and foibles as anyone. He was physically vulnerable: Early on, doctors warned him and his camp followers that he was getting hit too much while training for his fights. He wouldn’t listen, and no one around him tried to persuade him otherwise.

Many would agree with the boxing trainer Emanuel Steward that Ali should have quit after his triumph over George Foreman in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), in 1974. Instead, he boxed for another seven years, and paid for it in the subsequent decades of physical and mental frailty. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, said that he was already suffering from brain damage when he fought his last two fights.

It seemed like the more people watched Ali, the less they understood him. Many of the writers who worshiped him — those I call the Ali Scribes — cast him as a member of the 1960s counterculture for his 1967 refusal to serve in Vietnam. In fact, he was simply following the nonviolence policy of the Nation of Islam, which he had joined a few years earlier.

Ali’s relationship with the Nation was always more complicated than the Ali Scribes realized, or wanted to admit. They saw him as a victim, saying that the Nation stole money from him. Unlike them, who dismiss Ali’s mentor and the head of the Nation, Elijah Muhammad, as a “cult racketeer” or worse, I actually interviewed some of the Nation members. They said that it was the other way around: According to Khalilah Ali, whose father was a captain in the Nation and whom I interviewed on a cold winter day in Chicago, the organization — and her father personally — gave him much more money than he gave in return. Some members of the Nation are still bitter.

Even so, Ali was generous, more perhaps than was good for him. Howard Moore Jr., a lawyer and a frequent houseguest, said that Ali’s phone would ring all day. Callers were asking him to pay their rent or loan them money, and more often than not he did, no questions asked. According to the documentary “The Don King Story,” after Ali was nearly killed in the ring by Larry Holmes in 1980, Mr. King, the promoter of the fight, cheated him out of all but $50,000 of an $8 million purse (Mr. King denies the charge).

Ali eschewed the promoters and agents who spoke for other boxers, but he had his own traveling circus of parasites and hangers on who encouraged him to fight, no matter the damage to his body. He took such a beating from Earnie Shavers in 1977 that Teddy Brenner, the matchmaker at Madison Square Garden, refused to book him to fight there again. After another fight, Ferdie Pacheco, a fight doctor, warned those who were close to Ali that he was urinating blood; he got no response.

Ali sometimes fell in with the wrong crowd, including his friend Major Coxson, a politician and gangster in Cherry Hill, N.J., who was killed in a 1973 mob hit. One of his managers, Richard M. Hirschfeld, was a criminal who hanged himself in jail. Harold Smith, the one-time chairman of Muhammad Ali Professional Sports Inc., used the champion’s name to steal $21.3 million from Wells Fargo, one of the largest embezzlement cases in history.

Ali’s career will make you cry. Long after he retired, he remained a symbol of rock-solid strength, but even during his career he was in decline. Here was this young, self-described “pretty” boxer who could dazzle you with his raps, who was always bubbling over with confidence. But his three years away from the ring, from 1967 to 1970, were damaging. The boxer Ron Lyle said that before Ali’s absence, you couldn’t touch him — but after he returned to the ring it was easy enough.

Ali was a pugilist, but also a poet — literally. The first time I saw him was in 1963, when he came to read his poetry at a cafe in New York’s Greenwich Village called the Bitter End.

The last time I saw him was in 2005, when I attended the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky. He looked drawn and weary. The loud mouth that rattled the nation had been shut. The Louisville Lip had been stitched.

Was he in fact the greatest boxer of all time? Some say that Joe Louis was greater. Louis in turn called Sonny Liston the greatest heavyweight champion in history. And indeed, Liston busted a whole bunch of people on the way up, and a whole bunch on the way down.

But then I think of a story that one of Ali’s friends and former managers, Gene Kilroy, once told me. A child was dying of cancer. Ali visited the hospital and told the boy that he was going to defeat Sonny Liston and that he, the kid, was going to defeat cancer. “No,” the boy said. “I’m going to God, and I’m going to tell God that I know you.”

1 comment:

  1. He was a tough cookie. I remember all the hubub when he refused to be drafted - it may have been part of my turn toward anti-war politics. His move to the Nation of Islam and the name change were disrespected and he really was vilified in the media. I did not understand the courage it took for him to do it but it proved the depth of his commitment to his principles. Both of these are nicely written pieces - I'm so glad you shared them.