The writer is professor of English and African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis and editor of “The Muhammad Ali Reader.”
There was a risk during Muhammad Ali’s lifetime, one that becomes even more elevated with his death, of overesteeming Ali and, consequently, both misunderstanding his significance and diminishing him as a person. The mythology surrounding Ali is stifling in its enormity; over recent decades, that image has become glazed by guilt and plastered with pity, because of the painfully public nature of Ali’s illness and deterioration. All this demands a rescue mission to comprehend, remember and value the man beneath.
Against the headwinds of the panegyrics that are to come, I offer these three facts that I think are essential in understanding Ali:
First, he was not a civil rights advocate or activist. The Nation of Islam, which Ali joined in 1964, was, if anything, against the civil rights movement and, as a separatist group, opposed to racial integration. The Nation also thought that whites were unnatural beings, while its millennialist bent made members feel superior to civil rights activists.
In fact, the Nation of Islam was criticized by these activists for its lack of participation in the movement. Do not mistake Ali’s outspoken denunciation of racial injustice as activism. That was his defense of the orthodoxy of his religion.
Second, despite his quick wit and oral agility, Ali was self-conscious about his lack of education. He was always embarrassed that he failed the Army’s IQ test and was originally declared intellectually incapable of being in the military. This fact, disguised by his humor, was always a source of insecurity for him. That Ali felt that the Army was trying to publicly shame him clearly did not endear the institution to him even before his opposition to the Vietnam War.
Third, in his prime, Ali saw himself as the anti-Joe Louis. Ali was keenly aware of his role as a historic figure in boxing and knew of the black boxing heroes who preceded him. He frequently compared himself to Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion (1908-1915), who, because of his white lovers, was vengefully convicted under the Mann Act. Ali opposed miscegenation but he felt he and Johnson were alike in opposing a racist establishment.
By contrast, Ali viewed himself as distinct from Louis, faster and smarter. He also swore he would not wind up broke like Louis. Most notably, in his opposition to the Vietnam War, Ali clearly defined himself as the anti-Louis; Louis had become one of the principal symbols of American democracy and patriotism during World War II. Louis, part of the Greatest Generation, was the first black boxing champion who became a crossover American hero, which was something that Ali always imagined himself as being.
In fact, Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War initially was more accidental and panic-stricken than informed political protest. He knew nothing about the war’s politics, and his famous utterance about having nothing against the Viet Cong was just his shocked reaction to reporters about his draft status being changed. Yet he grew into one of our country’s most compelling, sincere and important dissidents.
In recent years, there has been revisionist criticism of Ali, particularly centered on his treatment of archrival Joe Frazier, whom he beat twice in three fights, much of it about how unfairly and cruelly Ali castigated and belittled Frazier in the pre-fight promotions as an Uncle Tom and a gorilla. Frazier remained always bitter about how, even when he was champion after beating Ali in 1971, he was never given his due because he existed solely as Ali’s foil.
Certainly, Ali politically denigrated his black opponents, who posed far more competitive threats to him than the relatively few white boxers he fought. Ali had few other options to interest the general public in a bout between two black men other than politicizing his fights. The politicization also served to celebrate and defend his new consciousness as a politically aware black man.
Finally, as a champion athlete Ali was a fierce competitor who defined his greatness by his rivalries; boxing, since its bare-knuckle days, has always featured a tradition of trash talking and masculine put-down. Was Ali’s rivalry with Frazier really very different or worse than that between actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis or between scientists Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison or between soul singers Joe Tex and James Brown?
Ali’s reinvention in the 1970s as a wily, quick-handed boxer who could take a lot of punishment was remarkable but self-destructive in the long run — yet he did indeed have a second act, and he sustained himself longer on the American pop culture scene than do most athletes, especially boxers.
What we should remember Ali for is his will to win, his willingness to defend his ideas publicly against considerable opposition, and his acceptance of his flaws and his twilight as a pummeled god. We should all wear our scars with such glorious indifference to the cost of doing life’s business.