At least once a week, a stranger writing a book, magazine article, newspaper feature, or blog; representing a documentary film, radio serial, or podcast; researching a paper for middle school, high school, or college asks me for an interview about Muhammad Ali. I’m on the short list of live resources because I began covering him when he was Cassius Clay and I was starting out as a New York Times sports reporter.
Other than, I guess, Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ, the current go-to-guy for a quick symbolic fix of history, spirituality, and spectacle is that heavyweight boxer who called himself The Greatest. Somehow, he’s now right up there with two other once super-polarizing figures—the greatest American president and the greatest Christian of all time.
I’ve been wondering lately just how Ali actually reached such heights. There are plenty of people alive today who once hated him and yet, in American popular culture, he’s now a secular saint.
He would only have been 80 years old on January 17. He died in 2016 at 74. While Lincoln and Christ were dramatically killed in their prime, Ali’s life began fading away before our eyes while he was still in his 30s. That was when he gradually began losing his voice (and oh, what a voice it was!), his mobility, and his expressive affect, first from the pummeling that boxing gave him and then from Parkinson’s disease.
I rarely refuse interview requests about him. As one of a diminishing group of old, mostly white male journalists who knew Clay before he was champion, I feel an obligation to help set straight a willfully misinterpreted biography. I’m also always curious about why strangers are so fascinated by Ali and who they think he really was.
In recent years, they’ve ranged from the documentary king Ken Burns to an eighth-grader from California named Harmony. Like most of the scores of others, their questions were remarkably sharp and well-prepared, although most of them lean toward the Ali industry’s common image of him as a fiery social warrior who arrived fully formed at a time in need of just such a hero.
That image is easier than dealing with his early espousal of a separatist cult preaching that white people were devils genetically created by an evil scientist. On Allah’s chosen day of retribution, went the dogma of the Nation of Islam cult to which he then belonged, the Mother of Planes would bomb all but the righteous, who were to be spirited away. It was also easier than remembering Ali’s repudiation of his early mentor, Malcolm X. Ali chose the Nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, over him, a betrayal that may have doomed Malcolm to assassination.
Years after leaving the sect and converting to orthodox Islam, Ali offered a far more measured message. While he still gave the Nation of Islam credit for offering him a black-is-beautiful message at a time of low self-esteem and persecution, he also said definitively that “color doesn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart and soul and mind that count. What’s on the outside is only decoration.”
And he admitted that he had made a mistake in turning his back on Malcolm, partly in fear for his own life.
The Operatic Life
I’ve always thought that Ali’s journey from youthful ignorance to a hard-earned enlightenment was one of the most inspiring stories in the history of sports, perhaps even a kind of morality play or, at the least, an opera.
And so, I was hardly surprised last month, on the same day I answered an Austrian journalist’s e-mailed Ali questions, to learn that, thanks to Covid-19, Opera Las Vegas had indeed postponed the opening of a new opera, Approaching Ali.
Meanwhile, the Ali Center in Louisville was sponsoring a star-studded virtual event celebrating what would have been his 80th birthday. And the Smithsonian Channel announced a new two-hour documentary, Cassius X: Becoming Ali, about the five-year “spiritual and ideological journey” in which, from 1959 to 1964, that callow young boxer was transformed into a world champion. (And, yes, I’m a talking head in it, along with Burns’s eight-hour epic and too many others.)
All of this leaves us with the question of how Ali—or at least a version of Ali—became the Last American Hero. The American dream may be coming apart at the seams, but the glory of The Greatest is in full flower and still growing. Why?
The simplest answer—and the most discouraging—may be the right one. There is no one else. In the age of Trump, the Hero Pool has dried up, if at least you ignore the endless movie characters based on comic book super people (or creatures). Even my own childhood fave, Superman, who early in his career battled the Nazis, has lost his dominance.
In America, the terrible tribalization of the Trump era has made it almost impossible to consider any kind of consensus hero worship in any genre (Dr. King, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Who?) while culture was becoming as politicized as politics. The usual default for hero worship, sports, has turned into an all-star disaster area and perhaps a leading reason for the idol abyss of the present moment.
A Roster of Hyped (and Then Discredited) Heroes
Lately, almost every sport has contributed a major disappointment in the form of a hyped hero who came up all too short. Recently and typically, the popular golfer Phil Mickelson was one of a group of PGA pros who signed up for a lucrative tournament in Saudi Arabia (with its murderous regime) at about the same time the number-one tennis player, Novak Djokovic, was trying unsuccessfully to stay and play in Australia while unvaxxed.
As we inched toward the February 13th Super Bowl, many began rooting not for but against fan darling Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers who turned out to be another unvaxxed slickster. When the Pittsburgh Steelers were eliminated from the playoffs, their long-time superstar quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was relieved of a full-scale moral review, but he won’t be able to avoid it when he becomes a candidate for the Hall of Fame.
Among the sportswriters who vote for the future immortals, baseball has similarly had a long-simmering argument over the moral qualifications for its Hall of Fame candidates. And that, as it happens, offers a controversy all its own. Since induction brings a substantial boost in sideshow income, isn’t it a conflict of interest for so-called journalists to reward their subjects that way?
In any case, the argument over qualifications seems to have boiled down to skirmishes between the Moralists, who can’t abide the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, or Curt Schilling, all of whom have been accused of using performance enhancing drugs, and the Analytics, who believe that only statistics should be the basis for such final judgments. (Allegations of drug use or bad behavior be damned.)
Such arguments have devalued the very idea of a Hall of Fame because the statistically minded sportswriters come across as mindless boosters hiding behind numbers, while the Moralists seem like all-too-tiresome finger-pointers. How do you get heroes out of that?
The answer is: You don’t. So you go back to Ali, who was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 after refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam-era Army for religious reasons. It’s always worth recalling that he was not penalized by some federal agency or central governing sports body, but rather by scores of politically appointed local boxing commissions.
Hero and Villain
Ali immediately became both hero and villain, celebrated for a principled stand against the Vietnam War (“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam after so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?… I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”), vilified for rejecting his country’s call of duty, and sentenced to five years in jail for refusing induction, later overturned by the Supreme Court. The passion of those 55-year-old reactions to Ali’s draft avoidance were echoed in 2016, several weeks after his death when, in one of sports’ most symbolic acts, Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem before a pro football game and instead took a knee.
As that season unfolded and Kaepernick became a right-wing target, it seemed as though the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback would prove a worthy successor to Ali as an all-American hero in chief. He, too, was clearly taking a personally dangerous and politically principled stand and his avowed purpose—to call attention to discrimination against people of color—seemed unassailable.
But even as Ali remained a secular saint, Kaepernick would be maligned and smoothly sideswiped. He really wasn’t such a good quarterback, it was said (although he had led his team to the Super Bowl), and anyway he was nothing but a pawn of the Black Lives Matter movement. Most damaging for Kaepernick, I think, was the lack of white support, especially among other National Football League players. (Black support wasn’t so widespread, either.) Ali, of course, never lost the favor of the millions of young white fans against the draft.
Ali’s hero status remains unsullied, especially because it’s been sanitized. The fearsome social warrior of 1967 came, in the end, to be celebrated as something of a teddy bear.
Ringing the Wrong Bell
The issue of neutering a feared social warrior has been covered most trenchantly by Thomas Hauser, the lawyer and novelist who is Ali’s most exhaustive and reliable chronicler. His description of Ali as “a beacon of hope for oppressed people all over the world” as well as “the embodiment of love” whose “dreams inspired the world,” has clearly led to his antipathy toward what he sees as the relentless commercialization of Ali. No example of this was more symbolic than his appearance at the New York Stock Exchange on December 31, 1999. Hauser says he thought Ali should have celebrated that millennial moment “at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter to draw attention to the plight of the disadvantaged.”
Ali, according to Hauser, was, however, adept at avoiding making rich white people feel guilty or even uncomfortable. The cruelest Ali had ever been publicly was to his most formidable opponent, Joe Frazier, a Black man—calling him a “gorilla,” while mocking his nose, lips, and skin.
“In real life,” writes Hauser, “Ali played the race card against Frazier in a particularly mean-spirited way. For the entertainment of white America, he labeled Joe as ugly and dumb. And at the same time, speaking to Black America, he branded Frazier an Uncle Tom, turning him into an object of derision and scorn within the Black community.”
One of the harshest observers of Ali’s commodification, Mike Marqusee, author of Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, broadened such a critique by writing:
Ali’s power in the third world grew precisely because he was a symbol of defiance against racism and the use of United States military power abroad. And those issues are very much alive today; so, it means a lot to the powers that be if Ali can be used to suggest to the rest of the world that they aren’t problems anymore. [Ali’s] history is now being plundered and deliberately obscured to sell commercial products and, more significantly, ideas.
No wonder I looked for hope in Harmony. After the Zoom interview and some follow-up e-mails, I asked the California eighth grader if she and her project colleagues would answer two short questions: Based on your research, what do you think Ali should be remembered for now? Is that the same thing you might have thought before you did your research?
Generously, Harmony offered the views of her classmate, Yaseen, who wrote that he thinks “Ali should be remembered for being arguably the most iconic athlete of all time and as a hero because he taught young Black people that they could do anything and he should also be remembered for the positivity and love he spread in his life.” Before researching his life, he had merely thought that Ali “was a good boxer.”
That was positive. And then, the day that Yaseen’s tribute arrived, part of a weekend that would include my birthday, as well as Ali’s and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, a request arrived from a Purdue University graduate student for information about Superman’s role in American culture. Many years ago, I had been involved in a TV show that peripherally addressed that subject. Of course, I agreed to answer his questions and started plowing through old notes where I found a reference to a 1978 DC comic book called “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” in which the two team up to defeat an alien invasion of America.
My heart raced at that. Alien invasion? We’re in the middle of one right now. They’re called greedy, gutless Republicans and they seem to be winning. And worse yet, they have a hero whose seedy charisma and shamelessness is enough to inflame his nervous and needy followers.
Spoiler alert: in the comic, the good guys win and Ali shouts, “Superman, WE are the greatest!”
And it’s true. Unlike Trump, the champ was willing to share the glory. What more can we expect from a “hero” these days?