As with Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali changed the times in which he lived so thoroughly that anyone coming along afterwards will probably struggle to understand the scale of his achievement. At the time, rock’n’ roll had seemed bad enough ; but that could (for a while) be brushed aside as a kid thing, as a passing fad. Boxing, however, was the citadel of old school white conservative masculinity. Entire generations of black fighters had been raised to be a humble and deferential credit to their race, before being put into the ring to fight each other for the amusement of white audiences. Ali knew the deal from the outset, long before he described it in these terms:
“They stand around and say, ‘Good fight, boy: you’re a good boy; good goin’,” Ali said, in 1970. “They don’t look at fighters to have brains. They don’t look at fighters to be businessmen, or human, or intelligent. Fighters are just brutes that come to entertain the rich white people. Beat up on each other and break each other’s noses, and bleed, and show off like two little monkeys for the crowd, killing each other for the crowd. And half the crowd is white. We’re just like two slaves in that ring. The masters get two of us big old black slaves and let us fight it out while they bet: ‘My slave can whup your slave.’ That’s what I see when I see two black people fighting.”
In 2016, it is probably hard to grasp the hostility that mostwhite people in New Zealand (and elsewhere) felt towards Cassius Clay in the early 1960s. Clay was seen as being embarrassingly brash, bold and assertive in ways that seemed completely out of control. Almost deranged. Clearly, this guy – this weird young black guy – needed to be taken down a peg. Clay was no one’s polite and humble athlete, inside or outside the ring. Inside it, he was so fast with his hands and feet, that even veteran boxing writers struggled to get a handle on his skills. Flashy, they concluded. Lacks substance. A motormouth and a fraud overdue for a beating from someone, anyone. Surely, the big bad bear that was Sonny Liston would do the job for white America and shut this guy up.
Well, that didn’t happen. As a teenager, I remember listening to the radio broadcast when Liston didn’t come out for the seventh round and thinking : “Oh God, now Clay’s gonna be really insufferable.” We didn’t know the half of it. Almost immediately, Clay converted to Islam. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and announced his allegiance to the Black Muslim movement with Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam’s feared chief lieutenant, standing right alongside him. For a long time, newspapers in New Zealand and in the US refused to recognise Ali’s new name – he kept on being called Clay here for years – or would not accept his identity as a Black Muslim..
Soon afterwards, Malcolm split from the Nation of Islam, and – crucially – Ali chose to snub Malcolm publicly, in a gesture that Ali later called one of the biggest mistakes of his life. The snub from Ali vastly increased Malcolm’s isolation, and it made his eventual assassination more likely than would have been the case if Ali had defended him. Or had, at the very least, chosen to be a voice urging co-existence. By the mid 1970s, Ali had also split from the Nation of Islam. He became a mainstream Sunni Muslim, with a particular interest in the teachings of the Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan. Always, Ali was opposed to the puritan Salafist versions of Islam that hold sway in Saudi Arabia, and which have come to dominate the likes of Islamic State.
In 1967, Ali was stripped of his title after refusing induction into the US Army for the war in Vietnam. Initially, he was sentenced to five years in jail. He had no quarrel with the Viet Cong, Ali famously said, and they’d never called him nigger. Or lynched people who looked like him. As he told the boxing writer Thomas Hauser :
I’m expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam, and at the same time my people here are being brutalized and mistreated, and this is really the same thing that’s happening over in Vietnam. So I’m going to fight it legally, and if I lose, i’m just going to jail. Whatever the punishment, whatever the persecution is for standing up for my beliefs, even if it means facing machine-gun fire that day, I’ll face it before denouncing Elijah Muhammad and the religion of Islam.”
Ali also spoke to Hauser about his response to being stripped of his title and denied the right to fight:
“The power structure seems to want to starve me out. The punishment, five years in jail, ten thousand-dollar fine, ain’t enough. They want to stop me from working, not only in this country but out of it. Not even a license to fight an exhibition for charity, and that’s in this twentieth century. You read about these things in the dictatorship countries, where a man don’t go along with this or that and he is completely not allowed to work or to earn a decent living.”
At the heart of the problem facing black communities, Ali felt, was the dearth of positive images of blackness within the popular culture of the day ::
“We’ve been brainwashed. Everything good is supposed to be white. We look at Jesus, and we see a white with blond hair and blue eyes. We look at all the angels; we see white with blond hair and blue eyes. Now, I’m sure there’s a heaven in the sky an it coloured folks die and go to heaven. Where are the coloured angels? They must be in the kitchen, preparing milk and honey. We look at Miss America, we see white. We look at Miss World, we see white. We look at Miss Universe, we see white. Even Tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he’s white. White Owl Cigars. White Swan soap, White Cloud tissue paper, White Rain hair rinse, White Tornado floor wax. All the good cowboys ride the white horses and wear white hats. Angel food cake is the white cake, but the devils food cake is chocolate. When are we going to wake up as a people and end the lie that white is better than black?”
On appeal, the jail sentence was overturned and Ali resumed fighting in 1970. His victory over George Foreman in Zaire – in political terms, this was a virtual replay of the first Liston fight, and it ended in as big an upset for the champion of black pride – made him into a globally significant figure. Epic, brutal battles with Joe Frazier followed, and these fights almost certainly contributed to the Parkinson’s disease that plagued him during the last few decades of his life.
New Zealand Trip
In the late 1970s, Ali and members of the Muhammad Ali Amateur Sports boxing troupe (including his long time friend Bundini Brown) visited New Zealand. Externally, Ali had seemed the man in charge during that New Zealand visit, which mainly consisted of a public dinner held at Trentham race course, and a boxing exhibition held in Auckland. On assignment for the Listener at the time, it took me all week with Ali and the troupe to figure out that throughout, Ali had actually been an employee on a retainer paid by the troupe’s road manager, the shadowy Harold Smith. Soon afterwards Smith was imprisoned for master-minding a massive fraud against the Wells Fargo bank in California.
By 1977, when Ross Fields obtained a passport under the name Harold James Smith, he had changed his appearance and had persuaded the former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali to lend his name to Muhammad Ali Amateur Sports(MAPS) .
Muhammad Ali was paid 25 percent of any profits from a MAPS show or $10,000, whichever was larger, for the use of his name. He did not participate in the management or control of either the amateur enterprise or MAPS and has not been implicated in Mr. Fields’s business dealings or in the Wells Fargo fraud case.
In his final years, Ali became a beloved figure, a generational icon for those who had grown up and old with him. As mentioned, his appeal can be elusive for those who came along after. On showing the Rumble in the Jungle documentary to my children, I was interested in how much as teenagers they preferred the quietly spoken George Foreman to Ali, whose showmanship just seemed weird and off-putting to them, in the light of the new normal.
Ultimately, Ali’s illness weakened and infantilised him to the point where – no longer a threat – all of America could embrace him and sentimentalise the times through which he’d lived. In death – and as with Malcolm X – it is worth celebrating the fact that this poor black kid with few opportunities did eventually come to be a symbol of national reconciliation. All good, so long as we don’t forget the reality he faced, and that others still do. Separatism can be necessary – if it is the only route through which the oppressed can gather their strength, to the point where they can command respect. Ali, in his prime, had said as much :
“I don’t hate nobody and I ain’t lynched nobody. We Muslims don’t hate the white man. It’s like we don’t hate a tiger; but we know that a tiger’s nature is not compatible with people’s nature since tigers love to eat people. So we don’t want to live with tigers. It’s the same with the white man. The white race attacks black people. They don’t ask what’s our religion, what’s our belief? They just start whupping heads. They don’t ask you, are you Catholic, are you a Baptist, are you a Black Muslim, are you a Martin Luther King follower, are you with Whitney Young?……So, we don’t want to live with the white man; that’s all.”
Songs About Ali
There are plenty of songs that name-check Muhammad Ali. Most of them (eg the tracks by Johnny Wakelin and Dennis Alcapone ) are simply not that good. This hallucinatory track by John Darnielle cites “ the young Cassius Clay” as a vision, a recurring element in a fever dream. Clay’s cool black and white image on the television screen serves as a counterpoint ( disappearing, re-appearing) to the visions of the woman that he is also watching, as she moves through the summer heat.