The King is Dead. Long Live the King.
Here is our man John Schulian’s 1998 Ali appreciation for GQ, reprinted here with the author’s permission.—AB
Ali! Ali! Ali!
By John Schulian
I remember a night in New York and Muhammad Ali doodling on a paper placemat, his heavyweight glory behind him and the bittersweet future daring him to step toward it. There would be a banquet later, then an award ceremony, and he would fall asleep between the two. Before he did, he nudged me and gestured at what he had wrought with a felt-tip pen and a water glass. It was a globe, complete with continents. “I used to be champion of all that,” Ali whispered in a gentle rasp. Suddenly, I felt the way the nation, and maybe the entire world, would feel eleven years later when he carefully made his way out into the Atlanta night to light the Olympic torch. And yet, as I think about his words now, it seems that Ali, of all people, was understating the case. He was so much more than a champion.
He beat the kind of giants the fight game no longer breeds—Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, the young and thuggish George Foreman—but the true measure of the man was that he instinctively knew what to do afterward, when power and glory were his. No hiding behind the millions he earned, no morphing into the monster that success makes of so many in and out of sports. That would have been too easy, and Ali chose no easy paths in his life outside the boxing ring.
He shed the name Cassius Clay as if it were a slave master’s shackles, he found peace in a religion that confounded the heartland’s sensibilities, and he declined to wage war on a country that hadn’t come looking for a fight. This was a free man in every sense, one who could inspire black Americans when pride became their rallying cry in the sixties. He taught them to believe in themselves, and he taught the rest of us to believe in him. And he made the nation laugh while he was doing it, gleefully tormenting Howard Cosell, performing magic tricks for delighted strangers, and astounding the future pooh-bahs at Harvard with what remains both history’s shortest poem and the best description of his impact on society: “Me. I Whee!”
Transcending his sport, transcending all sports, Ali became the first truly global athlete. He took championship fights out of the traditional fleshpots and deposited them in Third World countries whose faraway villages needed no electricity to get word of his greatness. It didn‘t matter that he ruled the planet in those dark days before ESPN and marketing deals and the other phenomena that have turned his successors into international products instead of mere sports-page swashbucklers. He had himself, and that was enough. At the end of a century in which our relationship with sports has evolved from pastime to preoccupation, you can look as long and as hard as you want and never find anyone who is the equal of Muhammad Ali.
Only four men come close to matching his impact, which may seem a harsh judgment considering the multitude of heroes and champions we have anointed. But this counting is not solely about affection (Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle) or awe (Jim Brown and Wilt Chamberlain), nor is it about one bright, shining moment (Bobby Thomson) or even a career burnished with relentless excellence (Joe DiMaggio and Joe Montana and so many more). It is about all those things and the rare athletes who somehow climbed still higher to write their names so large that they actually forced a seismic shift in society.
The first was Babe Ruth, who drank bathtubs full of gin and bashed enough home runs to single-handedly save baseball from ruination after the Black Sox scandal. Seven decades later, his name is still evoked as a symbol of power, size, and strength, although never so colorfully as when Japanese soldiers taunted their American foes during World War II by shouting, “Fuck Babe Ruth!”
Joe Louis dealt in muscle, too, when he ruled the world’s heavyweights and set the myth of black inferiority to crumbling. “He came forth,” Jesse Jackson once said, “and the cotton curtain came down.” But Louis never talked about it; silence was his style. It was the same proud silence that Jackie Robinson kept when he was breaking baseball’s color line. Once that first season in Brooklyn was history, though, a different Robinson emerged, his voice suddenly as slashing as his style on the diamond. A lifetime of rage poured out of him, filtered by the Ozzie-and-Harriet fifties but still a harbinger of the thunder that Ali would shake down. Michael Jordan shows no sign of knowing about such righteous anger, for he is the ultimate modern athlete, a well-spoken, well-groomed tool of commerce as much as he is a force of nature when the Chicago Bulls absolutely need to win. No one has ever played better basketball than he does, and he may even have surpassed Ali in terms of worldwide impact. But Jordan uses his clout to peddle sneakers and star in unwatchable movies with Bugs Bunny, leaving the very distinct impression that he has the social consciousness of a baked potato.
Ali towers above the competition, despite his own dalliances with show business and roach-trap commercials. What may surprise you is that it isn’t heart and soul that elevate him, though he possesses those qualities in abundance. It is, rather, intellectual courage, a rare concept in the nation’s locker rooms, where the heaviest thinking tends to involve how many bimbos you can
fit on the head of a pin. Though neither scholar nor autodidact,Ali was not afraid of ideas, of the things that hang in the air unseen, daring those who know they’re there to do something with them. He took the dare, just as Robinson did before him, and he made more of it than any athlete ever has or maybe ever will.
Of course, his intellectual courage would mean nothing to us if he hadn’t proved his physical courage first. He did it in our cruelest sport. Boxing kills some men, and it scrambles the brains of others, and an army of doctors will tell you that it cursed Ali with Parkinson’s syndrome. He used to joke about punchy fighters, saying no one would ever catch him walking on his heels and conducting his conversations in mumbles. There is a sad irony to his humor now that he moves through life in slow motion, but he couldn’t have survived in the ring if his mind had been calibrated any other way.
No heavyweight ever traveled a road more fraught with peril than Ali did. Even the second-tier contenders in his era made you realize how soft Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield have had it. Just think of those old wallopers: Earnie Shavers, Doug Jones,Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, and the surprisingly memorable Ken Norton, who not only defeated Ali but broke his jaw in the process. Ali came back to avenge himself against Norton (barely), and he beat the rest of them, too, because that is what champions do.
He called himself “the Greatest,” though when it comes to assessing modern-day prizefighters, that title may be too rich for those who embrace the savage artistry of Sugar Ray Robinson, a champion as both a welterweight and a middleweight. But as far as heavyweights go, only Joe Louis and JackJohnson deserve to keep Ali’s company in the same sentence, and Ali was bigger and faster than either of them. Lord, could he move. And that isn’t the half of it. He could take a punch, a virtue admittedly with a severe downside, and he could improvise in the middle of a fight like Rodney Dangerfield in a club full of hecklers. If victory lurked somewhere with a microbe’s cunning, Ali would track it down, ever the sweet scientist. He did it when his right hand was dynamite and when it barely qualified as a popgun. He won as a big-mouthed kid from Louisville clinging to his gold medal from the Rome Olympics, and he won after losing prime time in his athletic life for refusing induction into the armed forces. He went through all those changes, and he never lost sight of the fact that he was a showman as well as a render of concussions. So it was that he fought some of the most memorable fights ever, fights that were the stuff of high drama, fights that riveted even those in our midst who take no joy from watching5 men deviate one another’s septums.
He was still Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., so easily dismissed as more prankster than contender, when he plucked the heavyweight crown off baleful Sonny Liston’s noggin in 1964. What a wild ride that was, starting with his driving his bus onto the lawn of Liston’s Denver home in the middle of the night to challenge the head-breaking ex-convict he called “a big, ugly bear.” Came the weigh-in in Miami and his pulse rate more than doubled while he and his goofy shaman, Bundini Brown, shouted his trademark slogan: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” But he was doing neither when he came howling back to his corner at the end of the fourth round. He had been blinded by the caustic goo slathered on Liston’s bum shoulder—no one ever identified it more precisely than that—and he wanted out. Fat chance. Angelo Dundee, the amiable pragmatist working his corner, did what he could to wipe away the goo and thrust Ali back into combat. Hell, this was for the championship. Two rounds later, Liston quit in his corner and Ali climbed the ropes to shout, “Eat your words!” at the sportswriters who had said he didn’t have a prayer. It would not be the only time he gave them religion.
Still, the general reluctance to believe in him endured until he fought Liston again fifteen months later in a hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine. When they were finally in the ring, everything changed in, oh, let’s call it a minute. That was all the time it took Ali to find an opening to throw what was either a perfect punch or the excuse Liston needed to take a dive. The fight racket’s historians may never stop debating the right hand that couldn’t have traveled more than four inches. But know this: No matter how loudly Ali challenged him once he went down—“Get up and fight, sucker!”—Liston stayed that way until the referee counted ten over him.
George Foreman was the other classic bully Ali left hoist on his snarl. Big George hardly fits the description now that he has assumed the role of boxing’s jolly, cheeseburger-eating uncle. But in 1974 Foreman reveled in the meanness he had exported from Houston’s bloody Fifth Ward. He was the undefeated champion by then, and after the way he had laid waste to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, it looked as if he would rule until he grew bored or got locked up. Going to Zaire for his “Rumble in the Jungle” with Ali seemed an annoying formality. He grumped and glowered every step of the way, while Ali charmed the Africans he embraced as long-lost kin. Foreman’s disposition didn’t improve any when the fight had to be delayed six weeks after he was cut in a sparring session. Worst of all, he and Ali had to put up their dukes at four in the morning to accommodate the dosed-circuit crowd back home—hardly a mood enhancer.
But the ultimate indignity for Foreman was the way Ali flummoxed him once they finally climbed into the ring. Ali even had a name for the flash of inspiration that struck him when he realized he didn’t have the legs to dance for fifteen rounds. He called it the “Rope-a-Dope.” Starting in the second, he leaned against the ropes and let Foreman blast away at his forearms and elbows. Nobody could believe what was happening, least of all Dundee, who had assumed until now that he was on the same wavelength as Ali. But this was a singular thinker at work, and by the sixth, what had seemed madness was being hailed as genius. Foreman didn’t have anything left—the danger in his punches had been used up. All that remained for Ali was to knock him out in the eighth so he could walk into the dawning day and do magic tricks for the African kids who had come to love him.
The fights that best defined Ali, however, were the three with Frazier. Here was Smokin’ Joe, a sharecropper’s son who punched his way from a job in a slaughterhouse to a heavyweight title of his own, and the purity of his vision in the ring touched something deep in Ali. When they did battle—and what transpired between deserves no less noble a phrase—it was never about money or a championship or any of the other things for which men beat one another senseless. Something far more personal was at work. It was as though, someone once said, Ali and Frazier were fighting for “the championship of each other.”
Frazier hated Ali, and not without reason. Ali called him “ignorant.” Ali called him “gorilla” and “Uncle Tom.” Ali called him the white man’s hope, when every aspect of Frazier’s life had been shaped by his being poor and black. So it doesn’t take much to imagine the rage with which Frazier stalked Ali the first time they fought. The year was 1971; the place was Madison Square Garden; the atmosphere was unlike anything you can possibly imagine for a fight today. The entire nation was swept up by the anticipation of what would happen between the undefeated Frazier and Ali, whose only loss up to this point had come at the hands of the U.S. government. Fifteen rounds later, Frazier had beaten Ali’s handsome face lopsided and won a unanimous decision. But Ali salvaged something from the wreckage: respect. He found it in the final round, after Frazier dropped him with a left hook that Ali’s unborn children must have felt. The easy thing would have been to lie there and be counted out. Ali couldn’t do that, even though the fight was almost over and winning was out of the question. He climbed back to his feet and got punished some more. If there had been questions about his courage, they were answered right there.
Ali-Frazier II barely registers in memory. Neither man was a champion at the time, and the pre-fight scuffle they had on national television, with Howard Cosell ducking for cover, was in its bizarre way more interesting than the fight itself. But Ali won the unanimous decision this time, leaving them even and setting the stage for the legendary “Thrilla in Manila.” Not that anyone anticipated greatness when the fight was made. Frazier was in small pieces after Foreman demolished him to take away his title. Ali had been coasting since he, in turn, had waylaid Foreman in Zaire. When he reached the Philippines, change didn’t seem imminent. Just riding herd on his entourage, which numbered half a hundred and ran to the exotic, seemed a job that would have stymied Patton. And then there was his second marriage, crumbling while he frolicked publicly with Veronica Porche, the icy beauty who would become the next Mrs. Ali. But the sight of Frazier boring in on him one last time snapped everything back into focus.
It was a fight in three acts—classic Hollywood structure. When the curtain went up in the sweltering Araneta Coliseum, Ali greeted Frazier with a boxing lesson that lasted for the first four rounds, sticking and moving, even giving him a dose of his own left-hook medicine. Frazier ate one punch after another until his time arrived, and then, from the fifth round until the eleventh, he gave Ali a beating of biblical proportions. Ali tried to cover up against the ropes, but Frazier hammered his arms and body until they went soft and left his head an unprotected target. Asked afterward how he felt, Ali said, “Next to death.”
Somehow he survived. Reaching down into the well of fury and courage that only Frazier could drive him to, Ali summoned three of the most magnificent rounds of his career. He pounded Frazier relentlessly, hammering the sweat off him in sheets, knocking his mouthpiece flying, and turning his face into a Halloween mask of lumps and bruises and blood. There would be no fifteenth round for Frazier; he stayed on his stool when the bell called him to action. In the winner’s corner, with everyone who hadn’t thrown a punch going nuts, Ali celebrated by sitting on a stool, wondering if his heart would explode.
If he had only stayed there, he might not be in the muzzy limbo where we find him now. Surely Frazier had inflicted enough damage to last Ali the rest of his days, just as he in turn had done to Frazier. But Ali was a fighter, and fighters fight, so he marched off to war for six more years. The low point was the beating he incurred in 1980 at the hands of Larry Holmes, once his sparring partner and before that a housing-project kid who was only too happy to stow away on the champ’s bus. The last traces of Ali’s boxing genius were pillaged that night in the parking lot outside Caesars Palace, and the prevailing emotion afterward was true sorrow. At the end of the line, Ali had achieved a state of grace with the public he had amused, agitated, enlightened, and sometimes simply scared to death.
Grace, however, was a long time coming, for he wasn’t always an easy icon to love. There was, for one thing, the anger that poisoned his early fights, an anger far beyond whatever a boxer needs to function in that Darwinian environment. The beatings he inflicted on Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell for calling him Cassius Clay were cruel, even barbaric, and his ugly baiting of Frazier was mean-spirited and, far worse, completely unjustified. He was just as cruel to the wives who had to put up with his relentless philandering, although it would have taken a eunuch to resist the temptation he faced daily. But none of that roiled public sentiment as much as his entrance into the Nation of Islam, which smacked of nothing less than a black man’s version of the Klan. In one instant, he was the Louisville Lip, sure to get busted open by Liston; in the next, he was the unlikely champion and Elijah Muhammad, the crusader who decried white devils, was bestowing a Muslim name on him. Whites, both devils and otherwise, suddenly looked at Ali as if he were the one who had sprouted horns and a tail.
It was only the beginning of the spiritual gauntlet he had to run. When he responded to his draft notice by saying, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” his world was turned upside down. There would be no conscientious-objector status for him on religious grounds; instead he was hit with the loss of his championship and a federal conviction in 1967 for refusing induction into the army. As far as boxing went, the next three and a half years vanished, but Ali persevered, touring college campuses to speak out on Vietnam, race, and religion. John Kennedy had been assassinated, and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were fated to cross paths with lunatic killers, and still Ali forged ahead, working the same territory as those brave souls. The FBI shadowed his every step, but that didn’t stop him, either. He kept on telling the truth as he±an unlettered, basically apolitical man—knew it. And the truth set him free.
The sixties took care of the rest. It was a time for rebels, for Bob Dylan with his protest songs and Eugene McCarthy with his crusade against the war, and Ali was a perfect fit. The kids who delighted in scorning most everything else were the first to flock to the light he gave off. Their elders would follow in the years ahead, moved in part by the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to overturn his conviction, but primarily because he was able to move beyond the rage that had been so necessary. Then the holdouts embraced him the way they never would Jane Fonda, the sixties’ other great celebrity rebel, or the contemporary athletes who think they honor his legacy by strutting and running their mouths.
No matter how his late-arriving admirers looked at him, Ali proved impossible to resist. Profile left, he was a three-time champ with a place in history outside the ring and a black man who, even at his most amusing, never let himself be hamstrung by the whiteman’s world. From the right side, he was the movie-star handsome scamp who billed himself as “Dark Gable” and the dead-pan joker who, when a pair of his boxing gloves were enshrined in the Smithsonian, asked, “You gonna put a rug in here?” Taken straight on, he was the dreamer who wanted to open soup kitchens for the poor around the country and the soft touch who had a thousand-dollar-a-day habit when it came to handouts.
Every time the spotlight that was always on him moved, it seemed to reveal something new about Ali, something worth study at the least, admiration at best. Yet all those angles and all those facets led to a single conclusion, and it endures to this day: He was exactly who he was put on earth to be. One of a kind. One for a century.
[Photo Credit: by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images]