My first memory of Muhammad Ali is from February 1964 in Miami’s funky Fifth Street gym, just after the Beatles had departed from a memorable photo shoot.
Ali was still in the ring shouting his pre-rap couplet, “Save your money and don’t bet on Sonny!” “Sonny” was Sonny Liston, the surly champion and 7-1 betting favorite, whom I’d heard the day before dismiss his challenger as a “virgin” and a “faggot.” Ali had just turned 22.
I am old enough to remember when Ali was underestimated, reviled and exiled, called a coward and a traitor, and referred to as “Clay” by all the best papers, long after he had changed his name, when those same papers had no difficulty calling Robert Zimmerman “Bob Dylan.”
When Ali shocked the world and vanquished the invincible monster Sonny Liston, the arena was half empty, because so few fans gave him a chance to survive the first round, much less prevail. Only Ali’s front-row faction of American black royalty had faith in him that night–Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Sugar Ray Robinson.
But today Ali is universally beloved as he turns 60 (January 17), basks in the glow of Michael Mann’s superb new movie about his life and sees rapper Will Smith impersonate him to perfection, down to the shoulder dip in the ring and the lower register of his voice in repose.
The once-reviled Cassius Clay has come to be perceived as America’s Buddha, our Dalai Lama, who personifies peace and harmony. Ali at 60 is the most famous face on the planet, and probably the most loved person, if a democratic election were held that included Africa, the Islamic world, America and Vietnam.
His trembling hands and muted speech from Parkinson’s disease only make him seem more revered, vulnerable and heroic; he is not afraid to display his impairment to the world. He has a serenity that allows him not to hide.
What happened is that America has changed more than Ali since the 1960s.
Like all mortals, Muhammad Ali has made his mistakes and said his share of stupid things, to which I will return. He did have a mean streak of venom he used against his best black opponents. And he did betray and abandon his teacher, Malcolm X, out of blind loyalty to the cult racketeer Elijah Muhammad.
Ali is what he is today, I think, primarily because of his draft resistance and opposition to the Vietnam War. This is what made him bigger than sports, and allowed him to endure so long after his career ended and to become an international icon.
This is what made him come to personify principle and sacrifice for all times. He gave up his championship, surrendered his prime athletic years between 26 and 29, and lost millions of dollars in earnings. He sacrificed all this–without being given any due process–to become a conscientious objector to an unjust war that was still popular when he took his formal stand in April 1967. He had moral courage equal to his physical courage.
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The transcendent meaning of what Ali did was memorialized by literature professor and boxing scholar Gerald Early, in his essay “Tales of the Wonderboy.” Recalling his reaction as a young boy to Ali’s simple act of defiance, Early writes:
When he refused, I felt something greater than pride: I felt as though my honor as a black boy had been defended, my honor as a human being. He was the grand knight, after all, the dragon slayer. And I felt myself, little inner-city boy that I was, his apprentice to the grand imagination, the grand daring. The day that Ali refused the draft, I cried in my room. I cried for him, and for myself, for my future and his, for all our black possibilities.
Michael Mann, who directed the film Ali, told me, “The draft resistance was it for Nelson Mandela. When the cast had dinner with Mandela, while we were filming in Mozambique, Mandela told us that what Ali was willing to lose in order to oppose the war was the defining thing about him.”
Jack Johnson was a sophisticated, apolitical hedonist. Joe Louis was a modest patriot. Michael Jordan will not do anything controversial. Jackie Robinson became a Republican and campaigned for Richard Nixon against Jack Kennedy in 1960.
Muhammad Ali is the most socially significant athlete in American history. He invented himself out of the cultural and political currents of the early 1960s–black pride, rock and roll, popular entertainment, anti-authority rebellion, generational self-expression and wrestling.
I once asked him where he got his early arrogant, bombastic performance art. He replied, “Little Richard, Gorgeous George and Liberace. George told me I could fill arenas by selling tickets to fans who would pay to see someone shut my big mouth.”
When Ali upset Liston and won the heavyweight championship, he ignited a transformation in the consciousness of a generation. He consolidated a radical shift in black consciousness in America and, later, in the world. And he changed the popular culture of media and celebrity with the force of his personality. No football game ever did all that.
On that sea-changing night in Miami, the most mythic prize in sports passed from the Mafia, which owned Liston and used him as a strikebreaker, to this liberated, uninhibited black man, who kept saying, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.”
The new champ announced the next morning that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, briefly taking the name Cassius X, and then Muhammad Ali. This was a lot for America to digest in twenty-four hours.
Ali’s actual relationship to the Nation of Islam seems mysterious to this day. He never obeyed all its practices. He was promiscuous with women. He kept the white Angelo Dundee as his trainer, Ferdie Pacheco as his doctor and Bundini Brown as his camp cheerleader, even though Bundini was a black Jew who chased white women. Ali never displayed any hostility toward white people. He dumped Don King as his promoter in 1976 for Bob Arum, a Jew from Brooklyn. It is possible that his religious conversion was initially more of a social awakening, his way of asserting black pride and solidarity.
Ali quietly quit the Nation of Islam in 1975, to become a follower of a more inclusive Islamic faith, the brand that Malcolm X embraced in the last nine months of his life, after his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ali once confided to me that he didn’t become “a devout, true believer in Allah” until the mid-1980s, “when my career was over, and miniskirts went out of style.”
The Greatest was the first rock-and-roll heavyweight champion. His rebellious heroes growing up were Sam Cooke (who was in the chaotic ring with him after he beat Liston in Miami), Lloyd Price, James Brown, Chubby Checker, Fats Domino and the exhibitionistic, uninhibited Little Richard. Ali moved to the backbeat with invincible confidence and vanity.
There are two distinctive assets underlying Ali’s protean originality.
One is very simple–he loves people in a gargantuan, Babe Ruth kind of way that was never bogus. He likes to be around people, in crowds, signing autographs for free, joking with kids, performing his corny magic tricks. Ali always had a color-blind enthusiasm for humankind, even when he appeared to be in his most fervent Nation of Islam phase.
In Muhammad Ali, the definitive oral-history biography by Thomas Hauser, there is a revealing quotation from the champ, who says,
All my life I admired Elvis Presley. When I was in Las Vegas, I heard him sing, and it was a thrill to meet him…. But I felt sorry for Elvis, because he didn’t enjoy life the way he should. He stayed indoors all the time. I told him he should go out and see people. He said he couldn’t, because everywhere he went, they mobbed him. He didn’t understand. No one wanted to hurt him. All they wanted was to be friendly, and tell him how much they loved him.
Ali proves the wisdom of the old Beatles message–the more love you give, the more love you receive.
Ali’s second secret asset–and this is just my intuition–is that he possesses an almost mystical capacity to absorb energy and inspiration from the external world, and then filter it through his politicized rock-and-roll imagination. This helped make him special as both a fighter and a figure in history.
Ali drew strength and extra reserves of resolve from being black, from Allah, from being beautiful, from being a rebel and an outsider, from being underestimated, from Africa, from being booed by bigots, from being cheered by white hippies for opposing the Vietnam War, from having Lloyd Price and James Brown with him in Africa when he beat George Foreman to regain his crown on the soil of his ancestors.
Ali believed that if he could beat Liston or Foreman or Frazier, that would inspire a junkie to get off drugs, a child to survive a terminal illness, a welfare recipient to get a job, a drunk to go to rehab. He believed his life could change other lives, that his fate was linked to the fate of the masses, that if he won a fight, that could motivate a derelict to rise out of the gutter.
He believed he was on a divine mission, and that Allah would not allow him to lose a mere athletic competition. Malcolm X told him before the Liston fight that Muslims felt no fear, and Ali lived this way.
In his most desperate moments, when he was blinded by a foreign substance from Liston’s “juiced” gloves, or exhausted against Frazier in Manila and feeling “next to death,” Ali was able to draw confidence, desire and serenity from the external world beyond the ring and the gym.
He put this mystical faith into words–once on film, for Leon Gast’s camera at his Deer Lake training camp, just before he left to meet the unbeaten Foreman in Africa, as the heavy underdog at 32. His soliloquy did not make it into the wonderful documentary, When We Were Kings, that Gast and Taylor Hackford put together. But it is in the outtakes. Sitting on the steps of his cabin, Ali speaks directly into the camera, with an honest self-exposure: “I am fighting for God and my people. I am not fighting for fame or money. I’m fighting for me. I’m fighting for the black people on welfare, the black people who have no future, black people who are the wineheads and dope addicts. I am a politician for Allah.”
Then he added wistfully, “I wish Lumumba was here to see me. I want to win so I can lead my people.”
Ali’s rebirth has inevitably generated its own backlash, most notably Mark Kram’s half-excellent book Ghosts of Manila, published last June. The book gives Joe Frazier all the respect and poetry he is due. But it goes on to claim that Ali was just a dupe of the Nation of Islam in his draft resistance.
Kram argues that Ali didn’t know what he was doing when he refused induction, that he was being manipulated, and may have feared being assassinated by the Nation. Kram compares Ali to the empty simpleton Chauncy Gardner from the Jerzy Kosinski novel Being There, whose vague clichés were mistaken for deep insights.
“Seldom has a public figure of such superficial depth been more wrongly perceived,” Kram writes of Ali.
This is a caricature of a complicated history. The Muslims wanted Ali to keep fighting so they could continue to make money off him; Herbert Muhammad, the Messenger Elijah Muhammad’s son, was his manager, who took a third of all his ring earnings and a third of all his commercial-endorsement contracts. At the same time, the Messenger was–in theory–opposed to boxing as an enterprise.
When I asked Ali about this in 1991, he said, “If anybody used anybody, I used the Nation. They didn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to do.”
What is not generally known (or remembered) is that the Muslims repudiated and banished Ali during his exile from boxing, when he was at his lowest ebb of earning power and legitimacy. On April 4, 1969, the Messenger published a statement in the Muslim newspaper that said:
We tell the world we’re not with Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali is out of the circle of the brotherhood of the followers of Islam…for one year. Mr. Muhammad Ali shall not be recognized with us under the holy name Muhammad Ali. We will call him Cassius Clay.
The way the Nation exploited Ali is well told both in the film Ali and in one of the most sensitive books about Ali–Redemption Song, by Mike Marqusee (Verso).
The small reason the Messenger stripped Ali of his holy name was explained by the late Philadelphia Muslim minister Jeremiah Shabazz in Hauser’s oral biography. Jeremiah was a large and much-feared figure in the Nation. He started Ali’s conversion to Islam before Ali met Malcolm, he was a confidant of Elijah Muhammad and he maintained close ties to Ali. He told Hauser:
In early 1969, Ali was questioned on a television program about whether or not he’d go back to boxing. And Ali said something to the effect of, Yeah, I’d go back if the money was right. And that comment angered the Messenger, because to him, it was like Ali was saying he’d give up his religion for the white man’s money. The Messenger sent for Ali, and I went with him to Chicago. I was there when the Messenger told Ali he was taking his name back and suspending him from the faith, that he didn’t want to be involved with anyone so weak as to go crawling on hands and knees to the white man for a little money.
The Nation of Islam had no control over Ali after this brutal excommunication.
The rebuttal to Kram’s depiction of Ali as a manipulated Muslim dupe is even further complicated. Ali’s reaction to being reclassified as 1-A and thus eligible for the draft went through a process. It began on that first day of reclassification (February 17, 1966), and it evolved over the next few months, as his emotions changed and as the tactics of his lawyers changed.
Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times was present on that first day, and his observations are quoted at length in Redemption Song. Lipsyte heard Ali whine at first about how he could be drafted out of all the thousands of eligible kids in Louisville. Ali kept asking, “Why me?”
Lipsyte felt that in those first hours, as media calls poured in, Ali’s attitude was “self-centered.” Also, Ali did not seem to know where Vietnam was on the map.
But at the same time, also on the first hectic day, Ali was humming to himself Dylan’s antiwar anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind.” And on this first day Ali did say to a reporter perhaps his most famous line–“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
In that moment Ali began to change the world more than the world was changing him. This quote resonated and took on a life of its own.
Lipsyte has been a supporter of Ali in general, but is critical of his first, peevish response to being made eligible for the draft. He remembers Ali’s anger over being reclassified for the draft on the basis of the recalibration of the intelligence-test standards, so that Ali’s result was now counted a pass without his being retested. (Tom Hauser thinks Ali flunked the test legitimately because of his poor math skills.)
On that first day, Lipsyte heard Ali whine that his tax payments were paying for “three jet bombers and lots of bullets.”
But within a few months Ali’s selfish emotions subsided, and he grew into a critic of the war. He read, watched television and saw gory photos of the carnage in the newsmagazines.
The FBI certainly did not regard Ali as a brainless dupe. They began surveillance of him in early 1964, after he was observed with Malcolm X. An FBI memo dated July 25, 1967, recommended intensified surveillance of “Clay.” Five of his phone calls were illegally recorded by the FBI, including one with Martin Luther King Jr., whom he called “brother.”
By the end of 1966, Ali’s opposition tothe war was more advanced than that of most senators. He told the great photographer Gordon Parks, “How can I kill somebody when I pray five times a day for peace?”
This is not to suggest that Ali had the complex global sophistication of I.F. Stone or Norman Mailer, or the towering moral authority of Martin Luther King Jr. He was still a fighter, not an intellectual or a foreign policy expert. But he was the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, and whatever he said or did got on television and into millions of homes with draft-age children. The combination of principle and position made him dangerous.
Ali became a willing symbol, catalyst and martyr to the antiwar movement. He may have started out selfish and irritable, but he evolved into a serious man, a fearless American dissident who made the racist J. Edgar Hoover anxious and angry.
At first, Ali’s lawyers argued that his Army induction would be an “undue financial hardship” on his family. But a month later they began to invoke his religion as alternative grounds for refusing to fight in the war.
Another historical detail that is often neglected is that the original hearing officer for his Louisville draft board (retired Judge Lawrence Grauman) actually ruled in favor of Ali’s conscientious objector claim. But Grauman was overruled by the all-white draft board.
Ali’s draft refusal seemed to be intuitive and authentic. Whether or not he was capable of shooting anybody, he certainly wouldn’t kill any Vietnamese on behalf of a government that, in 1966, oppressed black people in his own country and in his own discriminatory hometown of Louisville. His quarrel was with his own government, which was the implication of his Vietcong remark.
Ali’s feelings about the war were strong enough, and clear enough, for him to speak at an antiwar rally in Los Angeles on June 23, 1967, with Dr. Benjamin Spock. Ali told the crowd of about 20,000:
“Anything designed for peace and to stop the killing, I’m for 100 percent. I’m not a leader. I’m not here to advise you. But I encourage you to express yourself.”
Ali’s stand against killing wasn’t vindicated until the Supreme Court threw out his conviction and five-year sentence on June 28, 1971, in an 8-0 ruling. The High Court agreed that his draft resistance was rooted in his religious faith.
This exoneration came three months after Ali lost to Joe Frazier. Years later he acknowledged to me, “I wasn’t ready for Joe after only two tune-ups. But I felt I had to take the fight when I did because I needed the money. I assumed I was going into prison in a few months, and had no choice on the timing of the fight.”
(The only major historical inaccuracy I noticed in the film Ali is that the Supreme Court exoneration is portrayed as coming before the loss to Frazier.)
Ali’s first fight after his three-and-a-half-year exile from boxing was in Atlanta, against Jerry Quarry in 1970, because the local politics were favorable to Ali. There was no boxing commission in Georgia. And a local black state senator named Leroy Johnson cut himself in for a piece of the promotion. Johnson controlled enough black votes to be able to force the mayor, Sam Massell, to let Ali fight in his jurisdiction. An injustice was cured, and State Senator Leroy Johnson made a nice piece of change.
Ali had his blemishes, and committed his blunders, as a young man swept up in the wildest conflicts and largest personalities of the 1960s.
When he sided with the cranky, despotic Elijah Muhammad against Malcolm X, it left Malcolm naked to his enemies for the kill. If Ali, as the new heavyweight champion, had remained loyal to his mentor, and continued to lend his public support to Malcolm, history might have gone in a different direction. Malcolm might not have lost his power base. Louis Farrakhan might not have taken his place.
Ali shows the champion sobbing in remorse when he learns that Malcolm has been murdered (by Nation of Islam assassins), as Al Green sings Sam Cooke’s soul masterpiece, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” on the rising soundtrack.
The way Ali deployed his verbal skills to dehumanize Joe Frazier was indefensible. He used his wit and vocabulary to redefine “black authenticity,” to cast his rivals as less black than himself, to rob them of their true identity. (Interestingly, he was never cruel to white opponents like Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo. He did not try to mess with their minds.)
He called Frazier an “Uncle Tom” and a “gorilla” and the “white man’s champion.” Frazier experienced these racial insults as a personal betrayal, since he had befriended Ali during his years away from the ring, offered to lend him money and campaigned to get Ali his license back, so they could fight and make money together.
The taunting positioned Ali favorably among intellectuals–black and white–but it was essentially the tactic of an artful politician, campaigning for votes. Black laborers and cops tended to favor Frazier. It was Frazier who had the more impoverished origins, the darker skin color, the more African features, the black trainer and the black doctor. Frazier was pure blue-collar work ethic, a proud warrior from the slums and fields who was subservient to nobody.
In an interview in the early 1990s, Frazier told me: “I had to swallow a lot of razor blades when the butterfly ran his mouth. He grew up nice in the suburbs and says he learned to box when somebody stole his bicycle. I didn’t have no bicycle! When I was 12 years old my family was sharecroppers in South Carolina. One day the bossman told me the mule had just died, and I had to replace the mule in the fields. I’m a lot blacker than the butterfly.”
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be” endures as Muhammad Ali’s credo of self-creation, social defiance and historical significance.
The moral of his imperfect life remains: redemption through suffering, emancipation through courage, vindication through adherence to principle. Whenever he got knocked down, he got up, which is the best any of us can do.
Yet there is also the inescapable element of Greek tragedy to Ali’s physical decline over the past twenty years. The same gift the gods gave him has also partially destroyed him. He was most renowned for his speed and speech, and now both those gifts are disfigured beyond recognition. He could survive astonishing punishment and still win, but this bravery eventually betrayed his body.
But what Muhammad Ali accomplished in his youth under two different names, both in the limited boxing arena and in the unlimited world arena of values and consciousness, changed history forever–and for the better.