A threat laid low
Once considered a dangerous radical and traitor, Muhammad Ali died an establishment hero. Paul Demarty wonders what this says about our era
The most striking thing about Muhammad Ali’s death is the scale of the mourning.
There are several different levels of popular grief appropriate to the current epoch. There is, first of all, the passing of somebody famous among only a small niche of persons - a tireless scientist whose works are known only to other scientists; the little-known musician or artist; that kind of thing. If you want to see public grieving, you will have to go look for it - albeit, in the age of the internet, not terribly hard. There may be an obituary or two forthcoming in the press.
There is, next, the death of a significant, newsworthy figure, for whom there is no great affection in the public mind - nor any interest among media bosses to cultivate a revisionist view of them. There will be retrospectives and the like, but no great outpouring of feeling. Then there are legitimately controversial figures - Margaret Thatcher, say - whose deaths will be mourned as intensely by some as they are celebrated by others. There are, finally, moments like the death of Lady Diana Spencer: grand, bizarre floods of hysterical grief.
Ali’s death places him closer to Lady Di than Mrs T - which, given his biography, presents us with an interesting view of the last half-century. Had he died 40 years ago, things would have been very different indeed. It was certainly not his sporting achievements since that time that made the difference; nor was it the ‘human interest’ angle - the tragedy of his slow succumbing to Parkinson’s disease. It was not Ali that changed, but the world around him: the United States, and the rest of the imperialist world, and its fraught relationship to race.
Perhaps the bellwether is the question of whether, as he never failed to assert, Ali was “the greatest” boxer, or even heavyweight boxer, of all time. The idea is not so much false as meaningless - sports change over time, and boxing is no exception, and it would be an odd thing to imagine Ali at any given point in history defeating all-comers easily. He was certainly a transformative figure in heavyweight boxing: his legendary agility and athleticism, the cobra reflexes and all that.
Yet we could imagine a lot of obituarising on the theme of ‘what might have been’, had Ali not squandered his best years to mere politics ... That is certainly not the line being taken at large in the reaction to his death. We are all prepared to believe, for a time at least, that he was the greatest and will never be topped.
Born in 1942, the young Cassius Clay came of age at the fag end of the Jim Crow era in the American upper South, in Louisville, Kentucky. At 12, he discovered boxing, after meeting police officer and trainer Joe Martin, when his bicycle was stolen; Martin encouraged him to learn boxing, and Ali later recalled being intoxicated by the very smell of the boxing gym. He rapidly displayed an exceptional talent for fighting, and in 1960 won Olympic gold in the light-heavyweight division at the age of 18. He then turned professional, winning bout after bout in what would ultimately be a streak of 31 undefeated matches.
At the same time, he discovered the organisation of which he would become the most prominent representative later on - the Nation of Islam. As his stature in the sport grew, it came his turn for a shot at the world title, his opponent Sonny Liston (the fight was almost called off, as rumours spread that he had joined NOI); Clay triumphed despite being briefly blinded under circumstances controversial to this day. Shortly after, he announced his affiliation with the NOI - a boxer who already had a richly deserved reputation for cocky outspokenness became a high-profile political dissident.
Ultimately, this would rob him of his title - and ‘rob’ is the only appropriate word - when he refused to serve in Vietnam (“No Viet Cong never called me nigger,” he famously quipped). But, as the war lost support, so Ali gained it; the supreme court found in his favour in 1971, and he was back to boxing. A defeat to Joe Frazier in 1972, by unanimous decision, surprised many - Ali had been out of things for four long years, and was now older, and slower. But he turned him over in a later rematch, setting up a title bout in Zaire (the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’) against the tough, hard-punching George Foreman, which he won - as with Liston 10 years earlier, against all expectations. He continued to fight - and to mostly win, losing and recapturing the heavyweight title once more - until his final retirement in the early 1980s, by which time the first Parkinson’s symptoms were already present.
This is the biography you have heard many times over the last week. It is pretty much accurate, but, as with all officially-sanctioned potted life histories, it is remarkable for what it leaves out - while we might naively expect that it would be the 60s radicalism that was brushed over in favour of a full treatment of Ali’s sporting genius, the radicalism is covered in full. If anything, what is omitted is Ali’s later support for Reagan, his willingness to play an ambassadorial role in Iraq (circa 1991) and Afghanistan, in evident contradiction to his earlier years. Today’s bourgeoisie likes Ali better as a disciple of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad than as a supporter of Ronnie Reagan.
In part, this is because his boxing genius was not so very separable from his political obstreperousness. Sun Tzu famously advised generals to win the battle before it is even joined; that was certainly Ali’s style. He taunted opponents as catspaws of the white man and the opponents found themselves a little too angry; Ali danced, and then pounced on them. The excellent documentary film When we were kings, about the Foreman fight, brings out this side of Ali’s strategy very well; in Africa, of course, Ali had ample opportunity to seize the initiative on the political front, at a time when national liberation struggles were still ongoing, despite the suffocating dictatorship of Mobutu in Zaire itself.
The more profound limitation of the coverage of Ali’s death is that his life becomes a purely individual business. There was, once upon a time, a man called Cassius Clay, and later Muhammad Ali; in that time, there was a lot of Bad Racism. Fortunately, Clay-Ali was a Hero, and stood firm against the Bad Racism. He suffered for his stance, unjustly; but, being a Hero, overcame it, and triumphed in 1974. Since then, we have all learned a few things, and racism is no longer the issue that it was. They all lived happily ever after.
In truth, while Ali did display admirable courage in the mid-to-late 60s, he was not alone. Ali’s story on this point is not so much one of great individual genius (unlike his boxing career): he was pulled along with a great and historic movement, and, if he ended up in one of the fishier corners of that movement as an NOI spokesman, so be it.
Growing up in a society that was overtly and repugnantly racist, at the wrong end of the racism, he had a choice: keep his head down and be a successful boxer, hoping quietly that others would win the political battle; or use his talent and fame to protest the injustice, at great personal cost. Ali would not have done a ‘proper’ tour of duty in ’Nam, any more than Elvis served as a ‘regular soldier’ in the late 1950s. He gained nothing by refusing the ‘call to duty’ - except authority as a man of principle, at a time when principles were much needed.
Today, things are somewhat different. The official racism of the Jim Crow south, and the official toleration of racism of the contemporary American north, is gone. Anti-racism has ‘won’, in the sense not that racism has disappeared, but that anti-racism has exclusive claim to moral authority over it. Many Alis had to suffer for this to come about; but here we are. Anti-racism is no longer, in America and Britain, a struggle against the state, but a struggle of the state against others (sometimes, admittedly, of more central organs of the state against more peripheral ones).
Those members of official society wilting in anodyne admiration of Muhammad Ali today have no right to do so, because they advocate policies today that are now as common-sensical as keeping up roads, when in former times - when Ali threw away his career and courted the disgraceful attacks of the establishment - they were thought tantamount to revolution. For that reason - along with his extraordinary talent - we salute him.