CASSIUS CLAY, born in 1942, was the grandson of a slave; in the United States of his boyhood and young manhood, the role of the black athlete, particularly the black boxer, was a forced self-effacement.
White male anxieties were, evidently, greatly roiled by the spectacle of the strong black man, and had to be assuaged. The greater the black boxer (Joe Louis, Archie Moore, Ezzard Charles), the more urgent that he assume a public role of caution and restraint. Kindly white men who advised their black charges to be a “credit to their race” were not speaking ironically.
And yet, the young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali refused to play this emasculating role. He would not be the “white man’s Negro” — he would not be anything of the white man’s at all. Converting to the Nation of Islam at the age of 22, immediately after winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston, he denounced his “slave name” (Cassius Marcellus Clay, which was also his father’s name) and the Christian religion; in refusing to serve in the Army he made his political reasons clear: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
An enormous backlash followed: where the young boxer had been cheered, now he was booed. Denunciations rained upon his head. Respected publications, including The New York Times, continued to print the “slave name” Cassius Clay for years. Sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for his refusal to comply with the draft, Ali stood his ground; he did not serve time, but was fined $10,000 and his boxing license was revoked so that he could not continue his professional career, in the very prime of that career. In a gesture of sheer pettiness the State Department took away his passport so that he couldn’t fight outside the country. After he was reinstated as a professional boxer three and a half years later, he had lost much of his youthful agility. Yet he’d never given in.
The heart of the champion is this: One never repudiates one’s deepest values, one never gives in.
Though Ali had risen to dizzying heights of fame in the 1960s, it was in the 1970s that his greatness was established. Who could have imagined that, being reinstated as a boxer after a lengthy suspension, Ali would expand the dimensions of the sport yet again; that, past his prime, his legs slowed, his breath shorter, out of an ingenuity borne of desperation he would reinvent himself as an athlete on whose unyielding body younger boxers might punch themselves out. He could no longer “float like a butterfly” but he could lie back against the ropes, like a living heavy bag, and allow an opponent like the hapless George Foreman to exhaust himself trying to knock him out.
What is the infamous Rope-a-Dope stratagem of 1974 but a brilliantly pragmatic stoicism in which the end (winning) justifies the means (irreversible damage to body, brain). The spectator is appalled to realize that a single blow of Foreman’s delivered to a non-boxer might well be fatal; how many dozens of these blows Ali absorbed, as in a fairy tale in which the drama is one of reversed expectations. In this way, with terrible cost to come in terms of Ali’s health, he won back the heavyweight title at the age of 32, defeating the 25–year-old Foreman.
Great as Ali-Foreman was, it can’t compare to the trilogy of fights between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971, 1974 and 1975; Frazier won the first on points, Ali the second and third on points and a TKO. These were monumental fights, displays of human stamina, courage and “heart” virtually unparalleled in the history of boxing. In the first, Ali experienced the worst battering of his life, yet he did not give up; in the second and third, Ali won against an exhausted Frazier, at what cost to his health we can only guess — “The closest thing to dying,” Ali said of the last fight. Yet, incredibly, unconscionably, Ali was exploited by managers and promoters who should have protected him; his doomed career continued until 1981 with a devastating final loss, to the much-younger Trevor Berbick. Ali then retired, belatedly, after 61 fights, with 56 wins.
What does it mean to say that a fighter has “heart”? By “heart” we don’t mean technical skill, nor even unusual strength and stamina and ambition; by “heart” we mean something like spiritual character.
The mystery of Muhammad Ali is this spiritual greatness, that seemed to have emerged out of a far more ordinary, even callow personality. With the passage of time, the rebel who’d been reviled by many Americans would be transformed into an American hero, especially amid general disenchantment with the Vietnam War. The young man who’d been denounced as a traitor was transformed into the iconic figure of our time, a compassionate figure who seems to transcend race. A warm, sepia light irradiates the past, glossing out jarring details.
Ali had long ago transcended his own origins and his own specific identity. As he’d once said: “Boxing was nothing. It wasn’t important at all. Boxing was just meant as a way to introduce me to the world.”