Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)
He was a star so young, and got old so fast, and was silent for so long, that it was a surprise to me that Muhammad Ali was only 74 when he died yesterday.
In the 1970s, when I was growing up, we weren't a boxing family, and I wasn't a “Wide World of Sports” guy, and I had that Minnesota aversion to braggarts, but Ali was ubiquitous. When I became aware of him he was already champion a second time. When he did it an unprecedented third time, I kept the newspaper. That was the world I grew up into: Harmon Killebrew always hit two homeruns, the Vikings always lost the Super Bowl, Muhammad Ali was always champion of the world. I thought it was stable.
I remember seeing a news report about the Soviet Union in the late '70s, early '80s, maybe about the refreezing of the Cold War. People on the streets of Moscow were being interviewed; one young Russian man, 20s, wore a Muhammad Ali T-shirt. I loved that. I felt such pride in that. The things that transcend geographical and ideological boundaries. I thought: Here is our power.
We'll hear a lot of effusive praise over the next few days, weeks, years, but it's worth remembering that Ali was once disliked by many Americans. Despised even. Bill Siegel's documentary “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” begins with this hatred, and it's startling, the invective, spoken right to his face, by David Susskind: “He's a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly calls his profession”:
His true heroism is right there, taking those blows, staring down that invective. It's in the sacrifice he made. Most of us compromise in the shitty jobs we have so we can keep those shitty jobs, while here was a guy who was the best in the world at what he did. Undisputed. And he gave it up, in his prime years, for a political/religious stand, and despite the hatred and invective that it brought down upon him.
“When We Were Kings” is a well-known, much-recommended doc on the Ali-Foreman fight. Less well-known is Norman Mailer's excellent book, “The Fight.” I also recommend his essay on the first Ali-Frazier fight, “King of the Hill,” which begins with a word that describes both writer and subject well: Ego! Ali lost that fight, but it went 15; and Mailer, with his usual gift for prognostication, writes at the end:
The world was talking instantly of a rematch. For Ali had shown America what we all had hoped was secretly true. He was a man. He could bear moral and physical torture and he could stand. And if he could beat Frazier in the rematch, we would have at last a national hero who was hero of the world as well...