"Impact", Blackness, Bonds, Boxing, Closed-Circuit TV, Death, HBO, Legacy, Life, Maurice Eugene Washington, Meaning, Muhammad Ali, Parkinson's Disease, Robert Farmer, Roots (1977), Self-Awareness, Self-Discovery, The Greatest (1977)
There is so much I could say about Muhammad Ali. His greatness. His contradictions. His imperfections and frailness. And all of them would be true. He was both a great man and a deeply flawed man at the same time. But, from 1964 through 1980, Muhammad Ali was the most recognizable person on the planet, with every aspect of his complicated onion on display in every corner of the world.
I have a few childhood memories of Ali’s headier days and nights. One was in ’74. It was the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Ali and George Forman. My father Jimme took me and my brother Darren over to his drinking buddy Robert Farmer’s house to watch the fight on closed-circuit TV (yep, Mr. Farmer spent good money on this fight). I do remember seeing bits and pieces of the fight, with Ali using the ropes around the ring like they were a trampoline. But mostly, I remember my dad and Farmer and Lo and others drinking and smoking away while watching the fight. October 30, 1974 was also the night that I learned my first colloquialism, the “rope-a-dope.” I know that the “dope” was Foreman, but I’ve seen lots of people as dopes in the four decades since that fight.
I remember watching the “Thrilla in Manila” nearly a year later between Ali and Joe Frazier, either at Mr. Farmer’s place or at a bar, I’m not sure. Again, smoke, drinks, beer cans, sunflower seeds and cigars, all in the midst of two fellas knocking the hella outta each other. My father sure knew how to show his two young sons (I was five and Darren was seven at the time) a good time.
These two fights became vague but embedded memories, perhaps two of the greatest bouts of all time. Although, Jack Johnson-James Jeffries, Joe Louis-Max Schmeling I and II, and Ali (née Cassius Clay)-Sonny Lister also come to mind in terms of historical significance.
But where I remember seeing Ali in a context beyond the right was in this movie The Greatest in May 1977. Believe it or not, my soon-to-be idiot stepfather Maurice took us to see this mediocre docudrama of a biopic on Muhammad Ali’s through 1974. (So I guess I was wrong when I said my stepfather had only done two good things for me growing up). At seven, there was no way I could know how bad the film was, between scenery chewers Ernest Borgnine and James Earl Jones. Still, the movie put those hazy memories from ages four and five in better perspective. After having seen Roots a few months earlier, I was really conscious of the wider world, of race, and of Muhammad Ali’s importance for the first time.
Unlike Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Prince, and going back before 2016, Michael Jackson, I’ve been expecting Ali’s death for quite some time. His Parkinson’s wasn’t just Parkinson’s, but likely brain damage the likes of which NFL players have come to fear. That it took Ali until 1984 to announce what millions had suspected as far back as 1978 told us that he had taken a long time to come to grips with what would become his second act, his new reality. That Ali became a symbol of philanthropy, activism, and humanitarianism during this second act suggests that his strong will and support system deserves way more credit for the quality of his life than anything he did in the ring.
“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy” comes from the 1920 mind of F. Scott Fitzgerald. If he were to write Muhammad Ali’s story, it would likely read as a tragedy. Luckily for us, Fitzgerald isn’t around to do so.
We have glossed over a few things in our millions of small eulogies for Ali this weekend. His sexism and occasional misogyny and abuse, both in words and deeds. His obvious colorism, calling Joe Foreman a “gorilla” and most of his somewhat darker skinned opponents “ugly” as a euphemism for their failure to pass the brown-paper-bag test. His rejection of Malcolm X at the very time when Malcolm needed him the most. Ali in the years between his biggest bouts and his mostly silent second life expressed regret about these -ism words and actions.
Despite this, Ali was still a father, a husband, a Muslim, a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, an author, a poet, an actor, an anti-war activist, a civil rights advocate, a social justice leader, a humanitarian, a hostage negotiator, and a Parkinson’s survivor. Ali was a fighter, in the most panoramic sense of the word. And yes, he was a Black man, in the narrowest and most intersectional senses of that two-word phrase. And all of that made him an icon. RIP.