Let us now praise famous men. Muhammad Ali is often touted for his courage outside the ring, for being a champion of justice, even when it cost him his livelihood. But let us not forget his matchless mettle in the ring. It could, after all, be argued that there is a relationship between physical and moral courage, that Ali’s ability to endure punishing fights bulked up his capacity to take blows of a different kind for justice.
Heavyweight championship boxing is nuclear war in a twenty-foot ring. When Ali was coming up as a young fighter, the cynical cigar-chomping boxing scribes were sure that one good lick from Sonny Liston would button the “Louisville Lip.” Ironically—and much to the detriment of his long-term health—no one could absorb punches better than Ali. Take, for a prime example, the ferocious back-and-forth between Ali and his archrival Joe Frazier in their 1975 “Thrilla in Manila.” It was an oven-like 107 degrees, and considerably hotter under the klieg lights when the fighters toed the line. The battle, which ended with an Ali victory after the fourteenth round, was mind-boggling—first because of the sheer superhuman grit of the combatants but also because Ali and Frazier, by dint of their prowess and infinite resolve, managed to transform an event so brutal it almost made you feel guilty to watch, into an exotic form of beauty.
For those of us who preach about the importance of commitment, Ali is an object lesson of someone who reached into the deepest parts of himself to achieve victory. In YouTube clips you can see the ledge that Ali pushed his body toward and over in his wars with Frazier, Norton, Foreman, and others.
His Achilles-like courage duly noted, let me confess that as a teenager with boxing aspirations I hated Muhammad Ali. Playful as he was, he had a vicious streak, especially with other black fighters who somehow threatened his center-stage status. I heard him disrespect Joe Louis and watched him torture and humiliate a hobbled Floyd Patterson in their 1965 fight. But Ali saved his real devils for my hero, the noble Joe Frazier. Before their fights—and even though Frazier had lent him money during the lean years when Ali was deprived of his boxing license—Ali sadistically taunted “The Smoke,” saying he was too ugly and stupid to be champion. In the buildup to their final encounter, he started calling Frazier “the Gorilla,” and even toted around a toy gorilla to yank out and smack around at media events. It stung Frazier and his family to the bone, so much so that in the moments before their epic fray, Frazier, a devout Christian, literally prayed to be forgiven for the murderous intentions he harbored toward Ali.
To be fair, Ali grew as a person after he grew out of boxing. Again and again over the years, he personally and sincerely apologized to Frazier and his family. Sadly, Joe was never able to pull the stingers out, and it seems as though he took his resentment with him to the grave in 2011.
But there were other less substantive reasons that Ali was glass in the gut for me. With his almost feminine good looks, his flitting about the ring, and his incessant jibber-jabber, he was at odds with the code of strong-and-silent masculinity that I instinctively revered. And for all I know of my cultural unconscious, maybe his flamboyant expressions of black pride chafed against the soft underbelly of my “liberal” self. But again, I didn’t like him back then. When Frazier knocked him on his rump in the final stanza of their first fight, I almost jumped through the ceiling with joy. Maybe it took Ali’s being defanged by illness, but I finally began to grasp the radiant beauty of this comet of a human being.
THERE ARE PEOPLE WITH egos that dwarf those of the merely driven and highly ambitious. Muhammad Ali’s was one of them. Angelo Dundee once confided, “Even when he started out you couldn’t tell Muhammad what to do. Even then, he had too big of an ego. So if I wanted to give him some instruction, I would compliment him. If I wanted him to bend his knees more when he was jabbing, I would wait until the end of the workout, slap him on the back and say, ‘I loved the way you bent your knees today.’ Afterwards Muhammad would smile and say, ‘You liked that huh?’”
Unlike any braggart I have ever known, Ali had a self-love that was transferrable. While he beat up his opponents and pick-pocketed their confidence, he miraculously helped millions see a fresh set of possibilities in their bathroom mirrors.
Evander Holyfield once told me, “In my neighborhood, when I was just a boy, everyone was always telling me, ‘You ain’t gonna be nothing.’ Then one day I heard Ali on television boasting about how he was the greatest and telling people ‘you can do anything.’ I was amazed. How could he talk that way? But then I thought, if he can do it, I can do it. He changed my life.”
There are a few rare people who see themselves as the sun and the moon, but who are still somehow able to get outside their own orbit and care about others. For all his bluster about being the greatest and most beautiful, Ali was no narcissist: he noticed the people around him.
When I travelled to Louisville for the opening of the Ali Center in 2005, I met one person after another whose life had been pushed in a new direction by a fortuitous encounter with Ali. One fellow in his fifties told me that many years earlier he had given Ali a cookie. The champ, who had a sweet tooth, thought it was delicious and helped get the man started in what would become a thriving business. Howard Bingham, who would become of one of Ali’s lifelong friends, told me the tale of bumping into Ali in 1962 in Los Angeles. At the time, Bingham was a fledgling photographer. By giving him access, Ali catapulted him into a stellar career behind the lens. Over the course of the event, I heard many other testimonies from folks Ali had simply put his arms around at a difficult moment. Like a great cornerman, he gave them the fortitude to deal with the foe of a disease or a death in the family.
In his Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard observed that we humans tend to identify need with weakness: the needier you are, the weaker you are. Then Kierkegaard reminds us that the need for God is the highest perfection. Likewise, we ungrateful bipeds heap praise upon the mighty men and women who overflow with strength and creativity; we are not as impressed with those possessed of an overabundance of love and need for others. That was Ali. He was blessed with a boundless affection for his fellow human beings. Even though he was arguably the most recognizable person on the planet, he always needed to immerse himself in crowds; he would wade into them, shaking hands, hugging and kissing babies like a presidential candidate, and bantering with fans. In our time, celebrities have become secular saints, but I don’t know of anyone with the Hollywood halo whose boundaries with mere mortals were as tender and porous as Ali’s. Sure, your Oscar-winning actor might donate a million dollars to a shelter for battered woman, but he is not likely to invite you to take a ride in his RV, hang out with you all day, and stay in touch for years.
One of my favorite tales about Ali comes from the author Davis Miller, who as a young man was a fanatical Ali devotee. After his retirement, Ali agreed to meet with Miller at his farm in Michigan. Naturally, Miller was star-struck, but Ali, who was a first-rate magician, knew how to put the rabbit of nervousness back in the hat. Within an hour or so the two were hanging around like old pals, slap-boxing and going out to McDonalds together. But now and again, Miller would remember who he was with. At one point, he excused himself to use the bathroom. After he closed the door, Ali quietly padded over and held the door handle so that Miller couldn’t get out—all the while knowing that Miller was too bedazzled by the champ to start yelling for help.
Ali’s sense of humor was as deep as his boxing talent. Years ago, he was being interviewed by a cadre of renowned reporters who saw him as a minor deity but at the same time felt something bordering on pity about his Parkinson’s. They sat down at a table for a bite to eat and Ali, in the middle of the conversation, pretended as though he were slowly drifting off to sleep. There was an awkward couple of moments when the media pros scratched their heads and looked at each other as if to say “What do we do now?” Seconds later Ali, still seemingly asleep, started throwing punches. The reporters pulled back, embarrassed and trying to figure out how to respond. Then Ali seemed to slip back into a quiet sleep only to erupt with another flurry a few seconds later. No doubt Ali recognized that the guys with the notebooks saw him as punchy. About a minute later, he leapt up wide-eyed and with a beaming gotcha smile.
BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL those dark years when Ali slowly closed up in the clam shell of Parkinson’s? Looking back, Dundee, his cornerman for twenty-plus years sighed, “Even when he got afflicted by Parkinson’s, I believed in my heart that he would beat it. That’s the kind of faith he built up inside of you because he was such a remarkable human being.” But Parkinson’s was not something Ali or anyone else could rope-a-dope. Was it worth it? He was frequently asked whether he would do it all over again, knowing the illness those hurricane blows would eventually lead to. The answer was always the same: No regrets.
When I met the Great One at the opening of the Ali Center, he was already enveloped in the disease that would rob him of his divine wit and supernal gift of gab. That day there was a long line of adult fans waiting to have their photo taken with Ali as though he were Santa Claus. Sick and exhausted as he was, Ali wanted to accommodate everyone. At times, his once-beautiful countenance would contort and freeze in the grotesque shape of someone bolting up from a nightmare. It was a shot to the liver to see. For a moment, I could not help imagining that, for whatever bizarre inscrutable reason, the silver-tongued trickster—half-huckster, half-sage—was being played by the ultimate Trickster.
In his marvelous The Tao of Ali, Davis Miller recalled that when, near tears, he told Ali how sorry he was about his illness, Ali repeatedly assured him that this was just God’s way of reminding Ali that he was just like everyone else.
Yes and no, God. Yes and no.