Beginning this evening, the life and meaning of Muhammad Ali will be examined in a four-part eight-hour PBS series from Ken Burns and his team. The reviews have been kind, and a podcast interview I heard with Burns conducted by former NFL player Chris Long in which Burns described Ali as a "prophet of love" intrigued me.
It made me think of a story that appears in Jonathan Eig's recent biography "Ali: A Life."
In 1982, an old man and a young boy from Africa showed up at Ali's mansion in the gated Fremont neighborhood in Los Angeles' Hancock Park. Larry Kolb, a former U.S. intelligence operative who worked as an adviser to Ali, opened the door.
"We are here," the man explained, "because before I die, I wish to introduce my grandson to the great Muhammad Ali."
Ali said to let them in. They hadn't arrived empty-handed; the boy had brought Ali an offering of a Big Mac. Ali hugged the child, ate the burger, and performed a magic trick for him.
They had traveled from Tanzania to find Ali. They had first stopped in Chicago and had been searching Los Angeles for three days.
"Today we found you," the old man said. "Tomorrow we can go home."
Ali gave them dinner and drove them back to their cheap airport hotel. He embraced them and told them to go with God.
On the drive home, Kolb asked Ali why he had taken so much time with the pilgrims. Ali said it was because he believed every person on the earth had an angel watching him all the time, marking whether their actions were good or bad. Ali called it a "Tallying Angel."
"When we die," he told Kolb, "if we've got more good marks than bad, we go to paradise. If we've got more bad marks, we go to hell ... I've done a lot of bad things. Gotta keep doing good now. I wanna go to paradise."
When he died five years ago, Ali was arguably the most beloved human being on the planet. But I remember when he was viciously hated by some of his fellow Americans.
It took my father a while to warm to him. He hated what he perceived as swagger and braggadocio. He didn't like it when he changed his name to Cassius X and then to Muhammad Ali. He didn't like it when Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army.
But he always admired Ali as a boxer, and my father knew boxing. He'd been a good amateur, and when he was dying I found out he'd had one secret professional fight, using a pseudonym he filled in on an undercard after someone got hurt. He lost to a fighter who later lost to Carmen Basilio, who won titles as both a welterweight and middleweight (and who sponsored a semi-pro baseball team my dad played on for a time).
I remember my dad telling me how great this Clay kid was, and that I should pay attention to him because we'd never see a heavyweight like him again.
But my father also perceived Ali as "mouthy," and though I don't believe he was especially bigoted (sports and the Air Force had exposed him to different kinds of folks, and racist rhetoric was regarded as "ignorant" in our house), he was a product of his time. I'm sure he thought Ali was un-American and ungrateful.
And I don't know when he came around, but by the early '70s, after Ali returned from his sojourn in the wilderness, my father was in his corner.
My father died when I was a young man--when he was still a young man, really--but not before we had a few long talks. I was surprised to learn that he had been prepared to take steps to keep me out of Vietnam. He understood that Ali had been right, that we didn't have any beef with the Viet Cong either.
By the mid-'70s, my father realized that Ali was essentially a playful and generous figure, that despite the violence he could command, he was essentially a warrior for love. People could and did hate him. But then some people hate Jesus Christ.
The career of Muhammad Ali is both a good case for the abolition of boxing and the best argument for the sport.
On the one hand, it clearly damaged him. In a 1983 television interview on the BBC, he made an effort to debunk reports that he was suffering, that he was having difficulty talking and walking. And presenter Des Lynam dutifully noted that Ali was talking, and that he walked into the studio under his own power. But Ali was moving and speaking with a kind of ginger deliberation--at 41, he seemed old. The next year he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
There are those who would maintain Ali's Parkinson's was not related to his long career in the ring, but those arguments seem dubious. The world is filled with punchy ex-boxers. My father always said the worst thing ever to happen to Ali is that he finally learned to take a punch.
In three fights, Joe Frazier punished him with blows that might have killed an ordinary mortal. Against Foreman in Zaire, Ali adopted the tactically brilliant "rope-a-dope" strategy--he leaned back against the ropes and literally allowed the powerful Foreman to punch himself out on Ali's forearms and body.
Yet were it not for boxing, there never would have been a Muhammad Ali. While Ali was athlete enough that he might have excelled as a basketball, football or baseball player, he needed the autonomy that boxing provided; an Ali beholden to a team, to a league could never have affected world culture the way Ali the boxer could have.
Boxing, on the other hand, is a world sport, and the boxer answers only to himself. Ali could utter the truth: he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong, he could refuse to wear the white man's name, he could exhibit his verbal acuity, his wit and his mind. He could define a kind of sportsman's style; for all intents and purposes he invented "trash talk," though late in his career the good humor behind his words was palpable.
Ali dragged the Black oral tradition of trading humorous insults into the world's klieg-lit arenas. His style has been appropriated by rap artists and athletes who refer to it habitually, almost reflexively, probably unconsciously. And Ali's style is no longer a signifier of Black American culture like rock 'n' roll; it has infiltrated the universe. The whole "in-your-face" ethos is traceable to Ali.
Ali is boxing's gift to the world. He's more important than boxing itself. Maybe there is something to the macho gnashings of apologists: Were it not for the crucible of the ring, the mano a mano contest that tends to polarize combatants into heroes and villains, saints and apostates, Blacks and whites, we might never have heard of Muhammad Ali.
When you add it all up, Ali was more than good. He was the best we'll ever know.
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