Saturday, June 4, 2016

The five part legacy of Muhammad Ali ...

Yesterday, famous heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74 after a short illness in the hospital that led to septic shock.  Ali's fame in the boxing ring is unquestionable, as he is regarded by many experts to be the best heavyweight fighter of all time and potentially the best pound-for-pound fighter to put on the gloves.

Ali's legacy isn't quite as simple as the media is portraying at this moment (and I understand that society doesn't like to speak ill of the recently deceased).  The real question that society should be looking at?  What is the ultimate legacy of Muhammad Ali?  His influence is felt in a number of facets, and not all of them have been positive.  

One of the more intriguing traits of Ali's life was undoubtedly his showmanship.  The boisterous Ali enjoyed boxing because presumably he was good at it and could make money from it.  However, Ali took boxing as more than just a fight.  It was an event.  At pre-fight events, such as weigh-ins, Ali would take every opportunity to denigrate his opponent and attempt to make a spectacle that would intrigue viewers.  Ali later admitted this was for the spectators, to draw in the fans and give them someone to root for -- or against.  He bragged about how he was 'The Greatest,' and that after decades of fighting, he was still the prettiest.

Large swaths of people attended fights wanting to see the flashy Ali get pummeled, hoping someone would shut his smart mouth.  More often than not, those fans left with no satisfaction.

The most well-known story of Ali's taunting took place in his fight against Ernie Terrell, a strong respectable fighter who had known Ali before he changed his name from Cassius Clay.  Ali became annoyed that Terrell kept referring to him as Clay and during the later rounds of their fight, Ali barked "What's my name?" at his opponent.
Liston could have gotten up ...

Ali's taunting took on an even more entertaining tone when he fought a re-match against former champion Sonny Liston.  During the fight, Ali was clearly in control and knocked Liston to the canvas when it became clear that Liston wanted no part of any more of a beating.  As Liston lay on the mat, Ali yelled at him to "Get up and fight!"  That moment also spawned one of the most iconic boxing photos of all time.

The showmanship of Ali also stemmed from his ability to cleverly turn a phrase:

  • "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, hospitalized a brick;
    I'm so mean I make medicine sick."
  • "Float like a butterfly sting like a bee - his hands can't hit what his eyes can't see."
  • "It will be a killer and a chiller and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila."
  • "I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and got into bed before the room was dark."

Part of the vibe Ali presented was this larger than life figure who put on a show that either had you completely in his corner, or praying that someone would punish him for the entire fight.

Ali's persona and legacy will also be remembered because he was so incredibly talented as a fighter.  His legend might actually surpass his skills as a fighter.  Ali was blessed with size, speed, excellent reflexes, and power -- a combination of skills that sometimes eludes most fighters, particularly heavyweights.

Ali shocked everyone in 1964 when he won the heavyweight championship from then-champion Sonny Liston.  The surprise wasn't so much that Ali won, but that he was 22 years old and was only competing in his 20th professional fight at the time.

When you look at the list of fighters that Ali not only fought, but defeated, it includes some of the most well known and talented heavyweights of the 20th century.  Ali defeated Joe Frazier in two of their three fights, knocked former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson out twice, defeated former heavyweight champion Ken Norton in two of three fights, split a pair of contests with former champion Leon Spinks, won a decision against Earnie Shaver (often considered the hardest puncher in boxing history), lost a rough fight to champion Larry Holmes, and most notably, Ali knocked out champion George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle."

Even if you don't believe that Ali was the greatest fighter of all time, I can't say any other fighter had such a track record of both fighting and defeating top quality opponents.  His resume was that impressive and he was more than competitive into his late 30s, past the prime of most fighters.

The legacy of Ali includes aspects of his life that transcend boxing.  Ali's political engagement and defiance of the establishment rank (in my opinion) as his most important contribution to society.  Shortly after winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston, Ali joined the Nation of Islam and had his name legally changed.  This in itself was a surprise to the boxing community and to the United States as a whole.  Typically, Americans have preferred sports to be somewhat devoid of political overtones.

Ali changed this by embracing not only the Islamic culture, but his identity as a black man.  During the racially charged era of the 1960s, Ali's actions and demeanor were not what the white establishment wanted to see in a boxing champion.  Instead of a docile and quiet champion, Ali became a force for equality and an anti-Vietnam War advocate.

The hardest punches Ali threw or took might have been in the courtroom, when he refused to serve in the United States military during the Vietnam War.  Ali was quickly convicted and placed in prison for his declaration that he was a conscientious objector and would not serve.  However, many people tend to remember Ali's public statement about the issue, where he noted,

I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong -- My conscience 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 nigger, 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's statement and refusal to become part of the violence in Vietnam became a powerful symbol, as one man would be willing to sacrifice money, fame, and potentially his freedom to do what he believed was right.  The battle for Ali's freedom brought ultimate vindication when the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction through a unanimous decision.

Even after the conviction was overturned, the refusal to serve made Ali detestable in the eyes of mainstream America.  Criticism was from all corners of life, including from Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play in major league baseball.  Americans were annoyed that an individual who had financially benefited so much from the public would refuse to serve the nation.

Though Ali was strong in the ring and the courtroom, there were serious moral failings that often have been glossed over, including his involvement with the Nation of Islam (NOI).  Ali was befriended by Malcolm X, who fostered the conversion of the champ to Islam and mentored him.  The NOI had somewhat resisted Ali's entry into their group because he was a boxer.  Yet, when Ali won the heavyweight championship and raised his overall profile, the NOI became more interested in permitting his membership.  Ali allowed himself to be used and manipulated by the NOI and its nefarious leader, Elijah Muhammad.

Incidentally, Ali's alignment with the NOI linked him to their official doctrine, which advocated racial separatism.  In a time when Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other civil rights activists tirelessly worked, fought, and died for achieving measures of equality, Ali had been duped into a political organization that did not bend toward King's arc of justice.

In his personal life, Ali was married four different times, some of which began as extramarital affairs, a stark contrast to the rigid moral standards which the Nation of Islam purports.

Also, Ali abandoned the one friend in the NOI that genuinely cared for him.  When Malcolm X questioned Elijah Muhammad's extramarital affairs and the concept of racial separatism, he was quickly ostracized by the group, including Ali.  Shortly after being exiled from the NOI, Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City.   

To the credit of Ali, he did recognize some of his mistakes and express regret over the betrayal of Malcolm X and a blind following of the Nation of Islam.  Like most men and women, age has a way of tempering us and shedding light on the flaws and mistakes of youth.

The final part of the Ali legacy is the saddest, which is the damage done to human beings in the name of entertainment and sport.  Muhammad Ali finished his boxing career with an impressive professional record of 56 wins and only 5 losses.  Though Ali was rarely knocked down and only one of his losses came by way of knockout, he took repeated blows to the head, which caused a tremendous amount of damage.

During his late 30s, Ali employed a strategy often referred to at the "rope-a-dope," where he would cover up and allow his opponents to punch themselves into a tired state, and then used his conserved energy to wear them down.  Though an effective concept in the ring, his added to the considerable amount of head trauma.

The deterioration of a boxer's skills occurs naturally over time, and the physical toll became more apparent in his last few fights, particularly when an aging Ali was over-matched against a younger and stronger Larry Holmes, who brutally punished the former champ for 10 rounds before delivering a knockout.

The fight against Holmes was motivated by Ali's then need for money, and Holmes supposedly wanted nothing to do with the fight because he was aware of how badly the fight would go for Ali.  Yet, no one seemed to have any qualms about letting the fight go on.  Around the same time this fight was set to take place coincided with the beginnings of tremors and speech problems for Ali.  These physical symptoms became more permanent and Ali was eventually diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome.

Ali is a symbol of what can happen to even the best fighters.  The physical abuse and degeneration of boxers is often overlooked, particularly since professional fighters do not manifest these symptoms until after they have left the public eye.

While prizefighting isn't going anywhere in the immediate future, the brokenness of Ali should serve as a warning for anyone in the boxing world.  Despite money, women, fame, and being at the absolute pinnacle of his profession, I wonder what Ali would have given for his health and well-being.  How many fights would he have traded to rid himself of Parkinson's?  And how many fighters without the high profile of Ali suffer because of a fighting career and have no resources to assist them? 


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