In most cases, usually anything short of mass-murdering dictators or other unambiguously evil people, we try to hew to the rule about not speaking ill of the recently dead. The death on Saturday of former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali deserves some mention, however, and by now so much fulsome praise has already been heaped on the man that some more critical remarks about his life seem a necessary corrective to the record.
Ali was brutal in the ring and bumptious in his press conferences during his boxing prime, but he was no mass-murdering dictator, and anyone who also saw the poor fellow toward the end of his life when he’d been hampered and even endearingly humbled by the effects of Parkinson’s Disease and all the blows he’d absurd over his career will humbly admit that every life is to be judged by ambiguous standards, and that it’s best to leave the judging of any man’s soul to a higher power. Yet all that fulsome praise mentions his cultural influence, which cannot be denied, and any fellow citizen has not only a right but an obligation to consider whether that was more for the good or the bad. In Ali’s case, we think the self-proclaimed “Greatest of all Time” left the world a little worse off.
These days even the most ardent American sports fans would be hard-pressed to name the reigning heavyweight boxing champion of the world, so it’s now hard to imagine how a mere boxer could leave an entire world even a little bit worse off, but you should have been there back in Ali’s prime. Back then the reigning heavyweight champion of the world was still the most famous person on earth, and Ali was more famous than that. The Vietnam War was still being fought both there and here, and Ali’s refusal to be drafted had made him an important combatant on the domestic front, and he was also a key figure in the ongoing domestic battle over civil rights for black America, and was right up there with The Beatles and the Black Panthers and bra-burners a symbol of the emerging counter-culture that was overturning every aspect of “the establishment.” Even more than his undeniably impressive victories in the ring against the best of a golden era of heavyweight fighters, that is why such fulsome praise is being heaped on the man, but in every regard we take a dissenting view.
All the fulsome praise for Ali mentions that he gave up three prime years of his boxing career while his draft-resisting case winnowed its way up to the Supreme Court, where he ultimately prevailed by unanimous decision, and it is rightly noted that he did so on principle. Less noted, but well worth mentioning, is the fact that his principles were those of the Nation of Islam, a black supremacist cult that peddled the most fantastical notions about white people being a demonic race created by a mad Jewish scientist, and that the man who made his living and world-wide fame by beating people up had testified he was all on board for a race war and was not not your usual pacifist conscientious objector. By then the Vietnam War was so unpopular that any basis for opposition was applauded, and by now all the fulsome praise presupposes that only a few of us disagree fealty to the Nation of Islam and its crazed kill-whitey theories was more admirable than fealty to the supposedly racist America that somehow adored him and now sings his praises.
His unabashedly racist anti-war stance enhanced his reputation as an anti-racist icon, of course, in that age of “Radical Chic,” and his braggadocios and belittling taunts before every fight made him a much-touted role model for black men of his era. His golden era of heavyweight fighters was dominated by other black men, whom Ali routinely ridiculed as “gorillas” and “thugs” and every other racist stereotype one might imagine, but even then and even now the media loved his bravado. Then as now the media liked the idea that such brave champions as Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier and Ken Norton and George Foreman were somehow sell-outs because they didn’t hate the entire white race, and that Ali’s taunts and occasionally unproved boasts and unabashed racism were the more authentic expression of black masculinity. We were in a racially diverse and very uneasy junior high school at the time, and we well recall that this crazed notion didn’t do either the white or black students any good.
All the the “establishment” notions were under assault at the time, though, including the idea that any competition between groups or individuals should involve some notions of fair play and mutual respect. Since then braggadocio and trash-talking has become the norm on the sporting scene, as well as the de facto notion of black masculinity, and by now it permeates a black American culture that once enriched the broader culture with jazz and the blues and countless other cultural treasures, and at this late date it has even turned up a presumptive Republican nominee who can out-brag Ali and spins even more fanciful conspiracy theories about his opponents and promises to destroy whatever’s left of “the establishment.” All in all, we wonder how even the hampered and endearingly humbled Ali would assess his legacy.
If you’re wondering who the current reigning heavyweight boxing champion of the world is, it’s an Irish-Romany guy named Tyson Fury who’s arguably a bigger jerk than Muhammad Ali or the presumptive Republican nominee. Since an aging Ali lost a clear-cut decision to Larry Holmes, a boring fellow who dominated the heavyweight division before losing to “Iron” Mike Tyson, a wife-beating convicted rapist who bit a challenger’s ear off, and was also celebrated by our debased culture, the title went to the good guy Evander Holyfield and a couple of forgettable champions and some black British guy, and then a series of humongous white guys from behind the Iron Curtain and apartheid South Africa that no one in in supposedly racist America paid attention to. The big thing in violent sport these days is the “mixed martial arts” or “ultimate fighting” or whatever else you call those pay-per-view bar brawls, and the “sweet science” only gets mentioned on the sportscasts when there’s a big bout between two over-the-hill fighters who finally got around to a big-money fight, so at least we don’t worry that any of them will leave the world noticeably worse off.
— Bud Norman