05 June 2016
"Worthy of Praise"
Once Muhammad Ali got sick, Joe Frazier liked to tell people: look at him and look at me and tell me who won our fights. In the end, Ali outlived him by four and a half years. Frazier was quite the character while he was still around. He also said, upon seeing a palsied Ali light the Olympic flame at the Atlanta games, that he wished he were there to shove Ali into the cauldron. By then it was refreshing to have that glaring exception to the reverence Ali enjoyed. Frazier had reason to resent him; he was probably as "street" as Ali was, if not more so, but got tarred as an Uncle Tom because he held the title that had been stripped from Ali and thus was seen as the establishment's pet. Also, a black person probably enjoys being called a gorilla no more when another black person does it than when a white person does. On some level, I suspect Ali enjoyed Frazier's hate, despite the occasional tales you heard of reconciliation. For much of his career, the former Cassius Clay enjoyed playing the heel. He was a pro wrestling fan (and even did some angles in the squared circle) and claimed to take some of his style from Gorgeous George, the paradigmatic arrogant heel of the early TV age. But Ali arguably created an archetype that looms large in pop culture today: the heel who turns babyface, to stick to wrestling lingo, because fans like him for being a badass. He was a heel early in his career, more or less, because his poetic boasting was conduct unbecoming a professional athlete. He turned face for his fight with Sonny Liston because Liston was a natural heel, white America's nightmare of a big, violent black man. You could almost believe that Clay changed his name and embraced the Nation of Islam in part because he wanted to stay a heel. The NOI seemed threatening fifty years ago and adopting such a foreign-sounding name must have seemed a form of treason, but in retrospect we should note that, for all the self-evident idiocy of Elijah Muhammad's theology, neither he nor his spiritual successor Louis Farrakhan has ever preached a jihad against the United States. If changing your name while repudiating the old one as a "slave name" seemed like treason, refusing to report for duty when drafted for the Vietnam War was the actual article as far as many Americans were concerned, but as things turned out Ali was just a little bit ahead of the curve of public opinion, and history has judged his resistance heroic, if only because it has also judged the war an error. He was the hero of a multiracial counterculture by the time he was reinstated as a boxer, but in dealing with Frazier he was determined to draw heat heel style, and it proved easy with someone who didn't seem to take ribbing well. For his trouble Ali was dropped on his ass in the fifteenth round and spent another three years in the wilderness before finding a different kind of perfect foil in George Foreman. It's difficult to see from our perspective, when Foreman is nearly as beloved as Ali himself, how frightening he seemed back in 1974, when he was just another big black man who just happened to annihilate Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, Ali's recent conquerors. Even then, though, there was something -- dare I say -- "whitebread" about Foreman, more benignly oafish than the authentically menacing Liston, that makes his type a perfect foil for the badass antihero. Ali's victory against the most impossible-seeming odds of his career kept him a babyface for the rest of his days, especially since Americans love nothing much more than a valiant battler against debilitating disease. In the final analysis, he really was a kind of epic hero, complete with his own Homer in Howard Cosell, whom technology enabled to spellbind audiences with tales of Ali's battles as they actually happened. And if you like your chroniclers more literary, I recommend to you Norman Mailer's brilliant accounts of Ali-Frazier I and the Foreman fight. In any event, Muhammad Ali was a hero of his time, and that tells us as much about his time as it does about the man. His death this weekend has been treated virtually as an apotheosis, with even Donald Trump praising him, but I wonder whether an Ali in his twenties today, behaving now as he did then and taking the kind of political stands he did, would be treated as a hero by today's media. Whether one is treated as a hero and whether one is a hero, after all, are two different things. Speaking for myself as a fight fan, I mourn him as one of the great athletes of my childhood, the best of a mighty generation of heavyweight boxers compared to whom today's fighters look sad. There's something decadent about his boasting that might be deplored, but at least he pulled it off with a panache beyond the reach of all his stylistic descendants today. Without disputing the reality of his achievements, we can call him the greatest sports entertainer of the 20th century.