‘Style,’ wrote the Marxist historian C. L. R. James, ‘is the perfect flow of motion’. Trinidad’s greatest son must have seen Muhammad Ali box at the height of his powers. The problems inherent in comparing fighters from different eras are such as to render the endeavour ultimately futile, but there is nevertheless a strong case for considering Ali to be one of the finest heavyweights ever to have graced a ring.
In many ways Ali’s technique was unconventional. He leaned out of range of punches instead of slipping them or deigning to bob, and he fought with his guard more or less permanently lowered. Weaknesses like these were occasionally exploited to great effect by opponents — Joe Frazier for one — but they were overridden — and then some — by a host of famous strengths. Ali’s lithic chin and body allowed him to withstand onrush after onrush from some of the hardest-hitting men in the history of boxing. The insouciance with which he appeared to flick those left jabs belied the quickness of his hands, which were capable of delivering out of nowhere slick combinations with earth-shaking power. And the apparitional quality of Ali’s movement — governed of course by his footwork — usually gave him complete control over distance and tempo. Opponents would eventually tire pursuing Ali, leaving him to uncoil in the blink of an eye to administer his estocada: more often than not a singing liquid salvo like the one which toppled George Foreman in Kinshasa.
It is true that Ali prolonged his career well beyond its natural conclusion and in defiance of the bleak findings of neurologists. It is true that many of his opponents — and not just during those later years — were mediocre, although this is perhaps not as serviceable a criticism as might first appear, since Ali fought and beat all of Frazier, Foreman, Liston and Norton — twice. There is always the ethical question of whether it is appropriate to glorify boxing, which — its highly technical nature and aesthetic appeal notwithstanding — is predicated upon gruesome violence and as obscenely commercial as any other professional sport. But Ali remains the only three-time heavyweight champion of the world, and it is therefore right that the obituaries should celebrate the excellence he displayed qua boxer.
The trouble is of course that no proper assessment of Ali or of the coverage that has attended his death can ignore the life he led outside the ring, for he was among the first sporting figures to become a global brand and icon.
The process of mythopoesis was set in train by the man himself through the persona he sought to cultivate. Ali was, after all, a master marketeer who employed his immeasurable charisma to promote himself and his fights — and often in a manner every bit as mesmeric as his agility on the canvas. Who can deny, for instance, feeling utterly enchanted watching this latter-day urban griot declaim with mock ferocity that
I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick!
The bon mots were many, and the man behind them seemed unique by dint of his guileless warmth and the impishness with which his eyes seemed to gleam. But it would be wrong indeed to reduce, with glib words and cloying smiles, a man like Ali to his witticisms — and not just because of the shameful way in which he abused and imbruted Joe Frazier all those years ago.
Two issues above all others convulsed the United States in the Sixties. The young Ali took a stand on both and was widely reviled for doing so. The first was of course the ongoing oppression and dehumanisation of African Americans, which the civil rights movement succeeded partially in relieving. In February 1964, days after he had deposed the reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, 22-year-old Cassius Clay — as he then was — declared that he would thenceforth be known as Cassius X. Indeed by this time Clay had fallen under the aegis of Malcolm X, and the reasons he gave for expunging his family name — branded upon his antecedents by a slavemaster — call to mind part of a speech which the older man once delivered:
[W]hy don’t you know now what your name was then? Where did it go? Where did you lose it? Who took it? And how did he take it? What tongue did you speak? How did the man take your tongue? Where is your history? How did the man wipe out your history? What did the man do to make you as dumb as you are right now?
In the end, Ali broke with the revolutionary minister — though he later expressed profound remorse for severing their relationship — and became more firmly embedded in the Nation of Islam, which Malcolm X left soon after Ali had publicly confirmed his membership and whose leader Elijah Muhammad bestowed on Cassius X the name Muhammad Ali. (For his part, Malcolm was assassinated a year after breaking with the NOI, supposedly by operatives of the movement itself.)
The NOI was and remains notorious for having struck fear into the bones of whites everywhere by referring to them as ‘devils’, and although Ali disavowed the notion that he personally regarded all whites as thoroughly and irremediably evil, he was placed under government surveillance and met with a great deal of public opprobrium for having revealed himself to be a ‘Black Muslim’. Never mind that such views as the NOI espoused — marginal though they were in the wider context of the civil rights movement — formed as a result of, and in reaction to, centuries of enslavement, discrimination, degradation and terror. Denunciations of the system of white supremacy — however expressed — will never cease to have an anxiogenic effect upon the consciences of white people. And yet the white American, as Malcolm X well knew,
is in no moral position to accuse anyone else of hate! Why, when all of my ancestors are snake-bitten, and I’m snake-bitten, and I warn my children to avoid snakes, what does that snake sound like accusing me of hate-teaching?
Ali for his part continued to speak out about the plight of his people for the rest of his career. But he came to be detested even more for his stance on the other major issue of the day. The Vietnam War was one of unconstrained imperialist aggression, waged solely in order to protect and advance the geopolitical interests of American global hegemony. In this much it resembled almost every course of military action ever launched by the United States, although it was of course singularly brutal: more tonnes of bombs were dropped by the U.S. on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos than were dropped by all sides in the entirety of World War II, and millions upon millions of innocent civilians were maimed or lost their lives. The depravity of U.S. policy-makers and the deceptions peddled by an all-too-obedient intelligentsia crushed a people’s capability for self-determination; engulfed their ancestral homes and villages in napalm; flattened and ‘defoliated’ on a scarcely conceivable scale the farms and forests which fed them; and continue hauntingly to inflict birth defects on their grandchildren. The Vietnam War stands today as little more than a mountainous collection of atrocities.
The perpetrators — in the immediate sense — of most of those atrocities were American soldiers, and in 1967, the 25-year-old Ali was drafted to join their number. He courageously refused to fight. ‘My conscience,’ he sombrely announced,
won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me n*****, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.
Ali was arrested and convicted for his resistance to the draft and swiftly stripped of his titles; he would not box professionally again for more than three and a half years. This young black man was willing whilst in peak physical condition to throw away both his liberty and the guarantee of riches so as to take a moral stand. In response, the national press redoubled its efforts to demonise and ostracise him.
Nowadays of course, Muhammad Ali is universally regarded a hero. Thus in the wake of his death on Friday, the corporate media was awash with seemingly thousands of over-sentimental panegyrics. What strikes one as unsatisfactory about this mass effusion of remembrance is the fact that it has largely glossed over the particulars of Ali’s heroism. It has hidden in somewhat patronising fashion behind his loquacity and presented a hollowed-out image of the man and his life. Where the most salient details of Ali’s humanitarianism are mentioned, it is in such a way as to imply that the evils he railed against — namely the racism and militarism still rampant in Western society — are long since dead and on display in the proverbial museum of ancient history.
The French Situationists defined recuperation as ‘the activity of [capitalist] society as it attempts to obtain possession of that which negates it’. In the case of Muhammad Ali, such an attempt gathered pace as he suffered dumbly and with dignity from the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, and now that he has passed away it is complete. Like Martin Luther King Jr and Mandela before him, Ali has had the substance — the dissidence — scooped out of him and been reduced to a highly marketable logo.
We should always be wary of elevating unduly the words and deeds of wealthy public figures — no matter how talented they are — but it is incumbent on us all to rescue those who like Ali have shown genuine moral courage from the squid-like clutches of capitalist appropriation.