THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
If you stopped reading the sports pages in the 1980s, you might very well have failed to recognize the former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali who died last week. The bragging egomaniac who taunted his opponents in the ring, often cruelly, and never missed an opportunity to tell the world how great he was, seemed to have been replaced by a sweet-natured humanitarian who toiled to bring peace and harmony to the world. You could hardly be blamed for assuming that this was a different Muhammad Ali altogether.
Of course, the real Ali was a complex man with a complicated life. Like most prominent individuals, others attached themselves to him and his story for a variety of reasons, some of them contradictory. For many young black men, he was a model of self-assurance, someone who demanded that the world take notice of him on his own terms and made it possible for generations to follow to do the same. For those with a black nationalist bent, his entire life was an implicit rejection of the white man's ongoing attempt to keep him in his place. For those steeped in the movement against the war in Vietnam, his defiance of the draft board was an act of heroism, a principled stance against a distant war fought largely by America's uneducated poor. For mere sports fans, he was simply a brilliant fighter, one of the most gifted athletes of his time and an innovator in his sport.
Regrettably, the mild old man who was on display in his later years, especially after Parkinson's disease robbed him of his voice, made it even easier for others to transform him into whichever Muhammad Ali suited their own vision of him. For a man so singularly and spectacularly verbal, famed for his rhymed couplets (mostly about the great things he had done or was about to do) and for his extreme gregariousness, the loss of his words must have felt like losing his very character. Not to take anything away from Ali's genuinely charitable work, but it is difficult not to wonder to what degree the image of the older Ali as a kindly, inspirational icon of inclusion was the invention of those around him, and of commentators and biographers, who, relieved of the familiar torrent of insults and bluster that streamed incessantly from his mouth, were able to complete a portrait in which Ali's less admirable qualities were simply erased. In the public appearances and interviews that he gave during the last period of his life, in which his wife and others literally spoke for him, it was absolutely impossible to discern what, if anything, he really thought. Like him or not, we cannot help but acknowledge that the younger, incorrigible Ali possessed a unique charm; but the mute puppet of later years was a blank canvas. The brash upstart who insisted on writing his own story was no longer in any position to contradict anyone else's narrative about him.
This agreeable, malleable persona was severely at odds with the arrogant young man who burst on the scene a half-century before and defiantly refused to live by anybody's rules but his own. It is easy now to forget how some in his home town of Louisville, which just laid him to rest with the honors normally reserved for a statesman, called him the "Olympic nigger" after he won a medal at the 1960 games. It seems long ago when sportswriters of an earlier generation derided him as "the Lip", and seemed eager to see him get his comeuppance. In a frontier society that once believed the ideal man was one who bore his own burden and suffered in silence — reticent men of Midwestern temperament who, as often satirized by Garrison Keillor, would sooner cut off their own right arm than talk about their accomplishments in public — the boastfulness of Cassius Clay was alien and appalling. While some were thrilled by his unexpected defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964, when he became heavyweight champion for the first time, and thought his in-your-face attitude refreshing and stirring, many others saw his behavior leading up to and during the fight as an affront to decency. To a country teeming with veterans of the war against fascism, there was widespread contempt for his decision a few years later to defy his draft orders, as there was for the anti-war movement in general. For years, opinions about Clay were divided at best. Many newspapers and broadcasters refused even to call him by his adopted, Muslim name.
What changed? How did he manage to make the journey from bad-boy to elder statesman? Simply put, he won. He won a lot, and he won memorably. Is it churlish to wonder whether anyone would have cared about anything he had to say had he lost? Why, you might respond, would anyone take notice of the opinions of the loser? Never mind that many individuals of superior character may have never won anything of note; in our competition-obsessed society, winning bestows legitimacy. The enmity Ali earned by refusing to be drafted gradually grew into a grudging respect for giving up three-and-a-half years of his fighting prime for a principle. In other words, it's not as if people forgot what he had done, it was only that his willingness to give up his hour in the winner's circle for the sake of his beliefs came to be seen as the greatest sacrifice a champion athlete could make. It might be too much to say that all was forgiven when he returned to the ring in the 1970s and started winning again, but his victories enabled him to stay in the spotlight, and from there he could garner attention for anything he wished to say. Had he never won a title again, he might have been remembered mainly as a gifted but loudmouthed contender, as his detractors had surely once hoped.
He also was fortunate in gradually gaining advocates among sports reporters, none more important than Howard Cosell. Whole books have been written about the relationship between Cosell and Ali, and about the mutual benefits each gained from the successful career of the other. Boxing is peculiar among sports in that it has long inspired a lofty sort of rhetoric. Since at least the 19th century, writers have waxed poetic about the gladiatorial nature of boxing's hand-to-hand combat, often likening fighters to military heroes. Not unlike Hemingway's glorification of bull-fighting, with its aura of masculine courage, consummate grace, and grave danger, boxing has its own quasi-literary tradition. In Cosell, the sport found a spokesman who gave gravitas to what was seen by many as an increasingly seedy and archaic business. Compared to other sportscasters of the time, Cosell seemed a veritable scholar, infusing his commentary with ancient history and literary allusions, elevating a violent and bloody enterprise to mainstream respectability and bringing it to a wider audience. And in his bombastic, self-promoting style, he proved a perfect foil for the rhyming Ali. Each in his own way embodied a new brand of public celebrity, one in which the elegant remove of the high and mighty was pushed aside in favor of unabashed narcissism. The era of conceited rebelliousness was here to stay.
But while millions were clearly entertained and enlivened by the banter and bluster of Ali and Cosell, others were disgusted by it. The quintessential sports hero was an exemplar of American grace, and exuded a quiet dignity: think of Lou Gherig, or Jesse Owens. They didn't talk endlessly about themselves, let alone about their talents and achievements. It was possible to admire Ali as a fighter but still recoil at his habitual self-absorption. Perhaps in private he was a different sort of man, as his supporters in later years would have us believe. He ultimately rejected the anti-integrationist teachings of his one-time mentor Elijah Muhammad, and came to befriend many people of different races and religions. But that is not the persona he chose to display in public, even in the midst of his humanitarianism, at least at long as he had the physical power to choose his own path. The trash talk never stopped, until he didn't have the ability to carry on any further.
A Legacy We May Come to Regret
We have become so accustomed to cocky, insolent young stars, whether in sports, music, movies or television, that we forget how recent a phenomenon they are. There have always been immodest braggarts in the world, but the modern American version of the presumptuous neophyte who thinks that attitude counts at least as much as ability can be traced directly back to Cassius Clay. In many ways, we have ceased to distinguish between those with real ability and those with mere attitude. Sadly, this blindness extends well beyond the confines of sport, where there is no particular harm in rooting for obnoxious wannabes rather than devoted practitioners of their craft. As the barriers that used to separate sport and entertainment from news and politics melt away, so the distinction between those who talk a good game and those with real ability becomes more difficult for most people to discern. The lines have been blurred hopelessly by a thousand pale imitations of greatness.
Unlike many who emulated him later, Ali had the talent, character and brains to back up his boasts. His genuine greatness as an athlete puts him in a class apart from the modern-day wide receiver who dances in the end zone after a touchdown as though he had just conquered a fatal disease, or the showboat who drops his bat after hitting a home run and stands in admiration of his own wonderfulness. Similarly, though Cosell helped to usher in a new style of blunt, on-air commentary, not only in sports but across the media spectrum, he represented, like Ali, the high water mark of a trend that would nonetheless come to dominate the field. In the voices of lesser talents — radio shock jocks, slander-mongers, political hit-men — erudition has descended into cliché, profundity into mere righteousness. Bombast is no longer a rhetorical style, but an end in itself.
When Ali visited the White House in 1974, he joked with President Gerald Ford, "You made a big mistake letting me come because now I am going after your job." As the latest hollow braggart captures the country's political imagination, we would do well to consider the irony that a public attitude of unapologetic self-aggrandizement first arose, in the person of Ali, in response to centuries of entrenched racism. The joke is now entirely on us.
June 12, 2016
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