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Celebrity, in America, is the most potent of narcotics, more hallucinogenic and elusive than any of the cooked powders and colored pills upon which we periodically declare war. Foreign populations prostrate themselves en masse before the altar of bloated personality, making fame our prime export, our grossest national product. We hire newscasters to explain the fame of the famous; writers scramble to cull profundity from the most empty-headed of the tribe; and, on a good day, the death of a mediocre comedian will top news of two unstable governments locked in a game of atomic chicken. And it is, perhaps, this sickening thrall to the beautiful people that has led the major writers of our era to chronicle the sayings and doings of that handful who seem actually to merit their notoriety. Such is the case with the greatest fighter to ever live.
Until the arrival of Muhammad Ali, never had there been a fighter who could violate the sacred canons of pugilism, holding his hands out of position, leaning backward, throwing punches while in retreat, and still outbox his opponents. The left hook was the bane of his professional existence, a flaw that seemed in concession to his other abundant talents, but he was remarkably adept at avoiding others in the catalog of punches and combinations. He brought a jazzman’s sensibility to the sport, fought with an indelible sense of rhythm, improvised physical riffs. He was the first to make art from fisticuffs.
Muhammad Ali has once again etched his name all over our consciousness, a fact that speaks as much of our yearning for an epic hero as it does of his Christlike capacity for public resurrection. Gerald Early is well aware of this yearning and therefore compelled to present us with a portrait of the enduring Ali, an image refracted through the lenses of 28 writers. The Muhammad Ali Reader is impressive in the sheer scope of voices discussing the self-proclaimed greatest: Wolfe, Plimpton, Baraka, Schuyler, Patterson, Robinson (Jackie, that is), Kempton, Kahn, Hamill, Mailer, Reed. So complex a figure is the ex-champ that he garners the praise of white liberals and black conservatives consecutively in this collection. Early has touched upon almost all the most important commentary on Ali, though the book’s exclusion of Larry Neal’s “Uncle Rufus Raps on the Squared Circle” borders on the criminal.
It’s been said that great men are the embodiment of the times in which they live. Ali, it seems, was sent from central casting, or, better yet, wrote the script for the era in which he performed his most brutal labors. We know now how the story turns out, but in the moment, the willingness of Ali to be impolitic, to state that he would not fight in Vietnam, was unprecedented.The fact that he surrendered his crown, forfeiting millions in purses and three years of his prime rather than boost morale for a war he didn’t believe in, made Ali heroic, not simply famous. Such matters are not beyond the vision of Jimmy Cannon, who declares without a trace of hyperbole, that Cassius Clay was the ’60s. The young Clay exorcised from the scene the humble joes of the preceding era; no longer would the champ mumble patriotic platitudes. Here was a champion endowed with wit and fire, with idealism and the stubborn anti-establishment ethic that characterized the decade of his youth.
And, as for all epic figures, the work of dismantling, of copy-editing his life into acceptable fairy tales, has already begun. He was, like all of us, imperfect. Yet in the public memory, today’s brown warrior with the terribly palsied hands is removed, by a millennium, from the handsome boy who told whites they were devils, taunted his battered opponents, and claimed Joe Frazier was too ugly to be the champion. And thus comes the temptation to airbrush Ali’s life into a saccharine tale of athletic triumph.
But the man, at least in these pages, remains intact, fully, thoroughly, and imperfectly human, particularly in Early’s kaleidoscopic introductory essay. Early raises prose to nearly the level at which Ali himself operated athletically. He moves beyond simply lionizing Ali and provides a thoroughly balanced perspective: good, bad, and ugly. His claim that “Ali is not literate nor analytical” rests neatly beside his cogent comparison of Ali’s genius to that of Armstrong or Ellington.
The general brilliance of the collection does not, however, immunize Ali from the noble-savage imagination of Norman Mailer or the acid-trip prose of Hunter S. Thompson. In speaking of Ali, many of these writers are, inadvertently, commenting on the commentator. To many in the ’60s, Ali was precious exotica, a black man whose unparalleled grace seemingly transformed violence to artistry. Fighters are, above all else, men willing to do physical harm to another in pursuit of money. Nonetheless, when Mailer writes that “white [people]…put our emphasis on learning to talk with the mind. Ghetto cultures, black, Puerto Rican, and Chicano cultures having less expectation of comfort tend to stick with the wit their bodies provide,” he plays his hand as a bottom-dweller of the most insidiously liberal sort. The fact that so many pens were drawn to write about Ali says nothing of their ability to understand their subject. Thus, the most able analysis is handed in by those with whom Ali had something in common, particularly the sportswriters and columnists.
Pete Hamill, for instance, writes movingly of “The Disintegration of a Folk Hero,” in the aftermath of the most famed left hook in all boxing history, the one issued from the malignant hands of Joe Frazier that left Ali horizontal in its wake. Fighters, like empires, fortunes, and marriages, rise and fall, but the seemingly eminent collapse of Ali was a matter of public mourning. By the time he had beaten the monumentally gifted George Foreman in 1972 and ascended once more to the heavyweight throne, he attracted writers for entirely different reasons. He now was mortal; he no longer danced through bouts; he was a talented fighter slugging the heavy bag of father time. Ira Berkow’s “Muhammad Ali and the Fly” is a sublimely concise and empathetic airing of just this fact.
For Ali, even the tumult of the ’70s, years in which he concentrated more on athletic fights than political ones, was a respite from the crossfire of the previous decade. The most significant fight of that decade, the seven-round war with Foreman, is oddly underrepresented here. In fact, much of the work included in the book is concerned with Ali’s import as a social icon rather than his athletic triumphs or travails. Ishmael Reed’s “The Fourth Ali,” ostensibly about the second fight with Leon Spinks, discusses almost no details of the actual fight. The end of Ali as a fighter comes in 1980, when Ali is brutalized by an ascendant Larry Holmes.
The final essay, David Maraniss’ “Ali’s Amazing Grace,” is a brilliant survey of Ali’s days from past to present. That Ali, capable of playing the roles of Negro Harlequin and fiery racial exhorter, benevolent soul and merciless fighter, should now find himself exiled behind the placid mask of Parkinson’s disease is the cruelest of ironies. Malcolm X told of a grizzled Harlem beggar named Fewclothes who in a past life had been the swiftest of all Harlem pickpockets. As an old man, his fingers, gnarled into arthritic abstractions, mocked his former greatness, a reminder that, as the elders say, talent is on loan from God, and the divine repo man is never denied his due. It would be easy to assume, from Ali’s expressionless gaze, that he had gotten it already from Ali. But Maraniss taps Ali’s fluid personality, still coursing just below the surface, and holds it up for public revelation.
Here, in the last, dwindling days of the century, it is difficult to overestimate the weight of Ali’s life as an example. For one, his odyssey, and the scar tissue he has collected along the way, lays bare the heresy of celebrity idol-worship. Who among our present cavalcade of painted luminaries would voluntarily end his career on the basis of a moral principle? And this collection fuels a growing public reckoning with the fact that Ali, when he declared himself the greatest of all time, was not talking solely about boxing.