The ecstatic, tragic life of Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay), right, lands on Don Warner's jaw in an early exchange of their fight in Miami Beach, Fla., Feb. 28, 1962 (AP Photo).Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay), right, lands on Don Warner's jaw in an early exchange of their fight in Miami Beach, Fla., Feb. 28, 1962 (AP Photo).

When my brother and I were young, our father, who had done some boxing in the Army during World War I, would put boxing gloves on us. He would get down on his knees, and we would attack him so wildly that he broke out laughing, happy that his sons could fight. We also had a punching bag attached to the basement ceiling, and he taught us how to stand on a chair and beat it, maneuvering fists and elbows to create that thrilling ratta-tat-tat that Joe Louis created in the wartime documentary film “This is the Army.”

Ali: A Lifeby Jonathan Eig

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 640p $30

Besides learning to play the piano, swim and ride horseback, he wanted us to learn to box. No one was going to push us around. In the 1940s, my heroes were Tony Zale, the middleweight champion famous for his fights with Rocky Graziano, and Ike Williams, the lightweight champion who lived only a few blocks from us in Trenton, New Jersey.

I thought of him while reading Jonathan Eig’s Ali, A Life, on the complex roles Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) played as a black boxer in what is still considered a white man’s world. In his detailed biography of one very popular athlete, Eig achieves several goals. It is first and foremost a history and critique of the boxing industry against the background of the ongoing struggle of African-Americans to assume their rightful place in American society, as well as an exploration of the influence of Islam in American culture. To what degree does a black boxer represent his fellow African-Americans? Ali, who became a disciple of Elijah Muhammad, told various audiences he did not favor racial integration, and yet won the affection of both black and white audiences. He avoided the draft in the Vietnam War, he said, both because his Muslim religion opposed war and because African-Americans were being killed disproportionately compared with whites.

The book is a powerful condemnation of boxing itself, a grim parade of broken jaws, bloody eyes and shattered ribs. 

The book is furthermore a powerful condemnation of boxing itself, a grim parade of broken jaws, blood spurting from eyes and facial wounds, brains irreparably shattered by constant deliberate pounding, young bodies pummelled until ribs break. It asks us: How can a civilized society allow this barbarous brutality?

It is also a devastating portrait of a charming but single-minded athlete who was enamored of his own image, so self-absorbed that the term “love” seemed to have lost meaning. In addition to blow-by-blow accounts of Ali’s boxing matches, Eig also bluntly guides us through Ali’s four marriages as well as a detailed list of his innumerable sexual partners, the children born out of wedlock, and Ali’s frequent failure to play a fatherly role with financial support and presence.

Readers who identify with Ali will have to shut their eyes to the negatives and praise the positives: his boxing skills, his desire to improve the lives of fellow black citizens, and his ability to bear his suffering as the battering on his brain and the suffering of Parkinson’s disease slowly dragged him down.

In and out of the ring

Ali was born as Cassius Clay on Jan. 17, 1942, into a family with some members claiming U.S. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky as an ancestor; over the generations his family tree had also included at least one slave, two murderers and an officer killed in the Mexican-American War. When Emmett Till was pistol-whipped and murdered by white men in Mississippi, Ali’s father showed him the photos of Till’s disfigured face, as if to say: This is what the white man will do to an innocent black person whose only crime is the color of his skin.

As a young man, Ali could run, but could not swim or play other sports well. At the age of 12, while searching for his stolen bike, he met a white policeman who trained amateur boxers. He was immediately drawn to boxing because, convinced of his strength and good looks, he saw it as a step toward fame. From the beginning of his career he called attention to himself as “pretty,” and even as a child he told an interviewer that he wanted to be “a big celebrity,” so he could rebel and be different, and show everyone behind him that “you don’t have to be Uncle Tom.”

Readers who identify with Ali will have to shut their eyes to the negatives and praise the positives.

Unfortunately, he applied that same rebellious mindset to his education. After dropping out of high school he spent much of his senior year traveling around to fight, but then returned for graduation. Several faculty members complained that he did not deserve to graduate, but the principal argued that some day Cassius Clay might be rich and famous, at which point the school could have him as their greatest claim to fame. He received a “certificate of attendance.” What if, one wonders, the dean had believed this young man should be held to the same standard as his fellow students?

To cover Ali’s boxing career, Eig interviewed over 200 witnesses, read tons of published literature and examined YouTube recordings of Ali’s fights. He offers a blow-by-blow account of every battle, including fights against Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Joe Frazier. A typical crowd at Ali’s fights, Eig notes, would include Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Arthur Godfrey and Ed Sullivan, as well as Ali’s own family.

“The Thrilla in Manila”

Typical of Ali’s performances was his third fight with Joe Frazier, on Oct. 1, 1975, in Manila. Ali was guaranteed $4 million, while Frazier would collect $2 million. Ali and Frazier had each previously beaten the other for the heavyweight crown. Ali arrived with 38 handlers, plus girlfriends. The Newsweek reporter covering the fight observed that “[l]iberals who cherished him as a symbol of problack antiwar attitudes have been replaced by wry connoisseurs of his pure showmanship.” Ali was openly flaunting his relationships with other women, and actress Veronica Porche was being called Ali’s “other wife.” When his real wife saw this, she flew to Manila, knocked over Ali’s bedroom furniture and threatened to break Porche’s neck. Ali told a reporter that he didn’t let domestic problems interfere with his work. He was on a divine mission, and Allah had chosen him for a reason: “It ain’t no accident that I’m the greatest man in the world at this time in history.”

Ali’s boxing strategy always included pre-fight insults, attempts to hurt and anger his opponent. Before the Frazier fight, he questioned his opponent’s intelligence, manliness and blackness: “He not only looks bad, you can smell him in another country. What will the people of Manila think? That black brothers are animals. Ignorant. Stupid. Ugly and smelly.”

Ali raised up from his seat to accept the victory and fell to the mat.

Ali threw far more punches than Frazier in the first round, and some landed. “Big, solid, thudding shots,” Eig reports, “his face taut in a sneer.” Ali wanted a knockout. As the fight continued, Ali began to execute his rope-a-dope maneuver, leaning on the ropes and letting his opponent in close enough to feel his breath, then delivering right hand blows to knock his head back. Ali absorbed a significant number of punches, as he had done in previous fights, relying on his endurance.

In the 11th round, a re-energized Ali threw 76 punches, and “[g]obs of blood flew from Frazier’s distorted face.” In the 13th round he knocked out Frazier’s mouthpiece. By the 14th, Frazier’s eyes were so swollen he could barely see. “Ali nailed him with nine straight.” Sweat, mucus and blood flew from Frazier’s brow. As he slumped into his stool, his manager said, “It’s over.” (The manager had been a trainer at four fights where the fighter died.) Ali raised up from his seat to accept the victory and fell to the mat.

The tragic aftermath

From the age of 30 on, odd symptoms piled up evidence of something wrong with Ali; his weight soared to 245 pounds while his body got flabby. His speech slurred, hands shook; it was becoming clear he had Parkinson’s disease. After each fight he would say it was his last, but he needed the money—or rather his handlers who controlled his schedule wanted more—so he would look in the mirror, like what he saw, hear the rapturous cries of his admirers, and fight again.

In 1980 more evidence of his decline came with the Larry Holmes fight: In the ninth round, shocking the sportswriters, Ali let out a long and frightening scream. Holmes had landed 340 punches to Ali’s 42. The brain damage was becoming more obvious.

In 1996 he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta, and in 2005 President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016 he died of respiratory failure.

Press accounts of his life, writes Eig, remember him as a man of courage and principle. President Obama quoted Ali saying, “I am America, I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me—black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.” He added that “Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it.”

One can admire Ali’s many athletic achievements and the courage and resignation he showed as death approached even while objecting to the way he treated the people closest to him. But I, for one, would not call him “The Greatest.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 months 3 weeks ago

Great article, Fr. Schroth. (My goal is to one day be able to write like you.) A KY native, I can remember listening on the radio to the 1964 fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston. A Louisville boy, we were rooting for Cassius.

I continued to follow the Cassius/Ali story throughout his life. That cockiness was right out front, but Cassius was anything if not authentic, true to who he was. What other black Muslim could get away with refusing to go to war during the Vietnam era?

I was recently in Louisville and a friend pointed out to me the cemetery where Ali was buried. It doesn't surprise me that Clay/Ali is descended from Henry Clay's slaves.

Vince Killoran
9 months 3 weeks ago

I agree with this assessment. It's puzzling that many Americans, especially progressive, lionize Ali (especially given his support for Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election). Yes, he took a stand against conscription but he did not support the anti-war movement. His other positions were downright indefensible. Here, for example, is what the fighter told Playboy's interviewer right after proclaiming that all interracial sexual relations be met with death:

"'And what if a Muslim woman wants to go out with non-Muslim blacks - or white men, for that matter?' asked the man from Playboy .

'Then she dies,' Ali replied. 'Kill her, too.'"

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