Reminder: Ali Had a Mean Streak

Reminder: Ali Had a Mean Streak
AP Photo/Nick Ut

PBS recently aired a four-part, eight-hour documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns on the life, times and career of Muhammad Ali, the famous boxer and social activist who had an outsized presence on the world’s sporting and cultural stages for 40 straight years. At the very height of his notoriety, it could be argued that Ali was the single most recognized individual anywhere in the world. Burns’ past documentaries on complex and diverse topics like the Civil War, baseball, the Roosevelts and jazz have received almost universally positive reviews for their historical accuracy and even-handed treatment. This one was no exception. It was extremely detailed and informative, and Burns’ vantage point was admirably detached and neutral.

Very few subjects stir up controversy and emotions like the subject of Muhammad Ali. With the passing of well over a half-century since he burst into America’s collective consciousness, the details of those events have faded, in many cases, into cliché and popular lore. It’s getting increasingly difficult to find accurate contextural facts and a calmly reasoned analysis of Ali’s life and career. The goal here is to fill in some of the gaps in Burns’ otherwise excellent presentation of Ali’s important role in defining the social paradigm in late-20th Century America.

As background for those readers not familiar with the state of boxing in America 50-60 years ago, it was a very major sport, perhaps third in overall popularity and visibility to baseball and football. Major fights received significant television and newspaper coverage. There were “boxing writers” at the big national newspapers. The general public had a solid awareness of who the champions were in the various weight divisions. 

In that era, there was no “pay-per-view” for big fights like there is today. Instead, there was closed-circuit TV, where the telecast of the event was broadcast into a venue like a movie theater or convention center and people paid an admission fee to see the fight “live.” In many ways, closed-circuit TV was a more exciting experience than today’s pay-per-view. You were part of a large crowd, viewing the event live as it happened. The electricity of crowd’s anticipation, the buzz of excitement as the TV cameras picked up the fighters’ entrance to the ring, bobbing and shuffling down the arena’s aisle, surrounded by their handlers, it was like being there. No current-day at-home viewing experience — sitting comfortably in your recliner, beverage and snacks at hand, all the familiarity and conveniences of your home right there — can begin to match the feeling and immediacy of being part of a 5,000-person throng at a closed-circuit TV fight.

Pinnace of boxing was 1950s-1980s
Boxing enjoyed tremendous popularity a half a century ago. From the late ‘50s to the early ‘80s, there were arguably more highly skilled, truly excellent fighters competing for the various titles than at any other time in the sport’s history. Champions and contenders alike, there were countless names that transcended the boxing world and made it into the general public’s consciousness: Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Emile Griffith, Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle, “Sugar Ray” Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Alexis Arguello, Earnie Shavers, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, and dozens more.

In this Golden Age of boxing, one figure stood out above all the others: Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay). Ali (as Clay) won the Olympic light heavyweight gold medal in Rome in 1960, and turned professional shortly thereafter. His amazing skill brought him to the top of the sport at the tender age of 22, when he won the World Heavyweight Championship in 1964 in a huge upset over champion Sonny Liston. Liston was a bruising, muscular, hard-punching fighter. His mysterious background (no one knew his exact age or the details of his childhood) and checkered past (he was imprisoned for armed robbery and he learned boxing in jail) contributed to his dark persona and threatening reputation.  Liston was an 8-1 favorite over Clay, thought to be nearly invincible, especially following his two devastating first-round knockout wins over former champion Floyd Patterson.

Muhammad Ali (Wikipedia)

But Ali was supremely fast and agile, totally unlike any heavyweight boxer who’d come before. He befuddled Liston with his speed and superb defense, pot-shotting Liston with rapier-like jabs and blinding combinations, then ducking out of harm’s way before the confused, sluggish Liston could even try to counter. After six rounds of humiliation, tiring rapidly and with a bad cut under his left eye, Liston — claiming a “shoulder injury” — quit on his stool and the fight was over. Ali was the new champion. It remains one of the biggest upsets in any sport.

Right after winning the title, Ali did something that set his life on a controversial trajectory from which it would never deviate: He announced to the world that he had become a follower of the Nation of Islam religion and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, rejecting forever, as he put it, “my slave name” of Cassius Clay.

Becoming Muhammad Ali

The great majority of people in America had never even heard of Islam or the Muslim religion. Many were confused by his actions and put off by his angry denouncements of “white” American culture and society. In the coming years, Ali would add to his controversial image by demeaning his opponents and boastfully predicting the exact round of their demise. Much of that braggadocio was intentional on Ali’s part, designed to hype the publicity (and therefore the ticket sales) of his bouts. Yet he remained a lightning rod for conflicting opinions, as people were equally divided as to whether they loved his outgoing, anti-establishment style, or whether they wanted to see his mouth “shut for good.”

Regardless, Ali was a compelling figure. Tall, handsome, and fast and graceful in the ring, he had a remarkably quick wit, an always-ready smile, and just enough of a constant twinkle in his eye that one never knew exactly how seriously he took himself.

He found the perfect foil in ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, whose own rise to fame came about primarily because of his coverage of Ali.

One exchange in particular seemed to exemplify the repartee the two enjoyed. Interviewing Ali before a fight with aging, lightly regarded contender Zora Folley in early 1967, Cosell — who thought of himself as quite the intellectual and linguist — said to Ali, “Muhammad, you’re being unusually truculent today.”

To which Ali replied, without skipping a beat, “I don’t know what truculent is, but if it’s good, then I’m it!”

Ali refuses to be drafted

Ali’s controversial image reached its zenith in April 1967, when he refused induction into the U.S. Army after being drafted, uttering his forever-famous line, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”

Joe Frazier (Wikipedia)

That solidified his positive image and standing among the growing numbers of anti-war young Americans, who never understood or agreed with our involvement in a seemingly meaningless foreign war in Vietnam, half a world away.

But just as many Americans — many older, more "conservative" types, but not exclusively — felt the opposite. Never having been particularly fond of his arrogant, bragging style and his insulting talk about traditional American culture, they saw Ali’s stance as an indication that while Ali was perfectly happy to benefit from and profit from the opportunities afforded him by the American sports profession, many resented him when he wouldn't give back — even a little — to the country in which he’d become rich and famous. History is full of notable American athletes and performers (like James Stewart, Ted Williams, Andy Rooney, Joe Louis, and Pat Tillman, to name just a few) who stepped up when needed and served their country bravely and honorably.

As a result of his refusing being drafted, Ali was stripped of recognition as champion by all the athletic commissions around the country and his boxing license was rescinded. He was forced into sports exile, a champion no longer.

Lost years? Not so much

It’s here in Ali’s history that most historians and boxing analysts make their biggest mistake, including Ken Burns and all of his guest analysts. The popular interpretation is that Ali lost his three best athletic years because of his government-imposed layoff between 1967-70. For Ali, that would be from age 25-28. “There’s no telling how great Ali would have been had he been allowed to fight in that time period,” goes the popular opinion. True, ages 25-28 are prime years for a boxer. Indeed, for any athlete.

But the layoff was not anywhere near as bad for Ali from a physical standpoint as commonly thought and from a career and personal standpoint, the layoff was immensely beneficial to him. Consider these points:

  1. No wear and tear: Ali didn’t suffer the extreme physical wear and tear of training and fighting for three years. When he came back in 1970 against Jerry Quarry, he was an extremely “young” 28, much more so than he would have been at 28 had he been fighting continuously since 1967.

Boxing is a tremendously punishing sport. The fights inflict damage and injury that is obvious to anyone, but the training — with its early-hours road work, hours of strenuous calisthenics and heavy- and speed-bag workouts and countless rounds of sparring (which entails the same level of physical abuse as an actual fight) — takes at least as hard a toll on a boxer as the fights themselves do. Ali endured none of this for three straight years. His body had a chance to rest and recover. He didn’t accumulate any additional damage or injury. At 28, Ali had the physical abilities of a much younger man.

  1. Ali benefitted from changing landscape: Between 1967-70, the country’s attitude and circumstance changed completely. They did such a 180˚-degree turn that Ali went from being scorned as a draft-dodging, unappreciative American to being the hero of the anti-Vietnam War sect, which was a huge swath of the country’s population. He personified the rebellion against what many viewed as an unjust war and he was the face of the anti-government youth movement in the turbulent late 1960’s/early 1970’s timeframe. The nation’s conditions changed around Ali through no action on his part, and he was the direct beneficiary of that fortuitous change.

  2. Best boxers improved: However, the biggest positive development that took place to Ali’s advantage between 1967-70 was that those three years gave his two biggest future boxing rivals a chance to cultivate and advance their careers, without having to fight Ali before they were truly ready. By 1967, Ali had cleaned out the heavyweight division. There was no one left who could mount a challenge. But in that 1967-1970 time span, Ali’s two biggest, most famous future rivals came of age: Joe Frazier and George Foreman. If Ali was active in that time period, he’d have fought both of them too early, when they were too inexperienced, before they were ready, and Ali’s boxing reputation and worldwide fame would not have developed the way it did.

Ali’s three-year layoff enabled both Frazier and Foreman to blossom into experienced, well-known fighters with fearsome reputations, making their eventual matches with Ali the huge, unforgettable sporting events that they were.

Considered in total, Ali’s three-year layoff was without question the best thing that could’ve possibly happened to his career, a crucial point that is undeniable in its verity and also missed by virtually every boxing historian.

Frazir's rise good for Ali
Philadelphia’s Joe Frazier was Ali’s most notable opponent. Joe rose to the top of the heavyweight boxing world during the time of Ali’s forced layoff. Frazier was a simple, uncomplicated person, totally apolitical, the complete opposite of Ali. He didn’t boast. He wasn’t involved in political controversy. He was down to earth, friendly (“I’m Joe Frazier, sharp as a razor! What’s your name?”), and hard working. Early in his career he trained at night in the gym after working in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse all day. (The Sylvester Stallone scene in the original Rocky movie of him punching a carcass was inspired directly from Frazier’s early experiences.)

Short, stocky, with an ungainly ring gait, here too, he was the complete opposite of Ali’s graceful, almost melodic movements in the ring. But in his own way, he was just as effective and soon ran up an impressive string of victories over the top fighters in the heavyweight division. Frazier was universally recognized as the new heavyweight champion after he stopped Jimmy Ellis after four rounds on Feb. 16, 1970.

Joe and Muhammad became fairly friendly during Ali’s three-year forced exile from boxing. As Frazier’s success grew, he loaned Ali money to assist him and lobbied hard to the various boxing authorities to reinstate Ali’s boxing license. There was undoubtedly a measure of self interest in such actions for Frazier (a future bout between the two would be a high-paying extravaganza for them both), but compassion played a major role for Frazier as well. That’s simply who he was.

As circumstances developed, Ali’s boxing license was reinstated in the summer of 1970 and he resumed his boxing career after his involuntary layoff. He quickly established himself as the top challenger for Frazier’s title with impressive victories over top contenders Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena. That set up the Ali-Frazier title fight at Madison Square Garden. The match took place March 8, 1971 and was simply referred to as “The Fight.” It presented these two top boxers, each undefeated, each with a legitimate claim to the heavyweight title, in an atmosphere of unprecedented social strife and tension. Ali represented the cool, hip and stylish as well as the anti-Vietnam War younger set, while Frazier — unwittingly, since he was such an uncomplicated, apolitical figure — was cast as the “establishment’s” champion, the hero of the white, over-30 crowd.

Regardless of the social/political overtones, "The Fight" itself was a once-in-a-lifetime sporting event of unmatched drama and skill. Frazier and Ali fought with a brilliance and bravery hardly ever seen in boxing before. "The Fight" went the full 15 rounds, a close, but decisive Frazier win punctuated by his dramatic knockdown of Ali in the 15th and final round, courtesy of Frazier’s trademark thunderous left hook.

Ali and Frazier battle it out in the “Thrilla in Manilla” (Wikipedia)

The 'Thrilla in Manilla'

Ali and Frazier would meet in three memorable fights. Their trilogy set the standard for sports rivalries, as Yankees-Red Sox, Celtic-Lakers, and Borg-McEnroe contests have always been referred to as “Ali-Frazier confrontations.”

Yet it’s their third fight (held in Manila, in the Philippines, Oct. 1, 1975) that really defined for the ages who they were as boxers — and as people.

Ali had always taunted Frazier in the publicity build-up to their previous fights. Frazier, for his part, seemed overwhelmed by the events. A simple man from a poor, humble background in rural South Carolina, Joe never knew exactly how to respond to Ali’s taunting. He seemed to wonder, "Play along or ignore him? Am I ‘in’ on the joke or am I the butt of the joke? Is Ali serious when he says these bad things about me or is it all tongue-in-cheek, designed to maximize the publicity and ticket sales for a future fight between us?"

But this time, Ali went further — much further. He derided and insulted Frazier to an extent never seen before in sports history. Standing at a podium during a pre-fight press conference, Ali pulled out a small rubber toy gorilla, and announced, “It’s gonna be a thrilla and a chilla and a killa when I get the gorilla in Manila!” while he repeatedly punched the rubber toy, its head wildly bobbing back and forth. “Take that Joe! You so ugly, Joe!”

Frazier was incensed. “Do you know what it’s like to have your young son go to school and have to answer questions about why his father is being called an ugly gorilla? This was a man I helped when no one else would. I spoke up for him. I gave him money when he was broke and desperate. Now he does this?”

There was no monetary incentive behind Ali’s verbal torture of Frazier. Their purses were already guaranteed. “Stoking the fires” by publicly deriding Frazier would not redound to Ali’s financial benefit, so the inescapable conclusion is that Ali’s insulting of Frazier was born of some personal animosity, perhaps resentment of having to share the spotlight with Joe. This ugly, distasteful incident is usually glossed over or omitted completely by the majority of Ali’s media supporters.

'Thrilla' stands among most brutal fights ever
Their third fight (the “Thrilla in Manila” name stuck) was perhaps the most brutal, hard-fought boxing match ever. Frazier — thought to be washed up by most boxing experts and by Ali also — fought with an intensity rarely, if ever, seen before. Ali, his inherent physical advantages over Frazier notwithstanding (he stood four inches taller, outreached him by nine inches, and outweighed him by 10 pounds), was pushed beyond his limit and he dug down deep within himself to produce a superhuman effort of skill, courage, and stamina that may never be eclipsed in a ring again. At the end of the 14th round (with just the 15th and final round to go), Ali came back to his corner and said to his trainer Angelo Dundee, “Cut ‘em off,” indicating that he’d had enough, he couldn’t go on, cut off my gloves. But astonishingly across the ring, Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, had already motioned to the referee, Carlos Padilla, that Frazier couldn’t continue. The Thrilla was over and Ali had won. Ali later called that fight, “The closest thing to death.”

The health of both men was profoundly affected by their hard boxing careers. Joe suffered from severely limited mobility and debilitating arthritis. He drank heavily after his fighting days, which many feel contributed to the liver cancer that took his life at age 67. 

Ali’s well-known Parkinson’s was thought to be the direct result of the many hard blows he took over such a long career.

Ali’s post-fight life is popularly thought of as being one of a humanitarian, a “citizen of the world,” his charitable works and his amazingly genuine ability to relate to children defining for many his permanent image and reputation. For many, especially those not old enough to remember first-hand his active boxing and religious conversion days, Ali’s public persona is exemplified by the image of him bravely lighting the Olympic Torch in Atlanta in 1996, as his hands trembled almost uncontrollably from his Parkinson’s Disease.

In the interests of historical completeness and balance, it has to be remembered that Ali denounced his given name of Cassius Clay as his “slave name,” frequently referred to American culture as being run by “white devils,” and proclaimed his hatred of “white America” on many occasions. In addition, Ali openly and repeatedly called for a separation of the races. “Red birds should be with red birds and blue birds should be with blue birds, “ he said. “Us black folks don’t want you white people around us.” This was his stance, said many times in public, with abundant, unequivocal video evidence to back it up. Not exactly in keeping with the tolerant, inclusive sentiment espoused by so many in the woke atmosphere of today.

He was also gratuitously cruel to Joe Frazier — a man who helped him personally and financially — for no discernable reason at all, other than just to be mean. There was no financial or professional advantage to be gained by mistreating Joe Frazier. Apparently, Ali simply enjoyed demeaning Frazier, perhaps because he felt that Joe’s boxing competitiveness posed a real threat to his own continued dominance on the public stage. Ali was also a womanizer to an almost unthinkable degree, having numerous affairs outside his many marriages and fathering children out of wedlock. It also has to be remembered that Ali was only too eager to enjoy the essentially unlimited fruits of success that this country afforded him, yet he was unwilling to give back even a little to that same country when called on.

Muhammad Ali was indeed a fascinating and charismatic figure in modern American history, and perhaps the “Greatest” boxer of all time, as he was only too quick to point out. But he was a multi-dimensional figure. Ali was certainly a man of staunch principle and unyielding commitment. He took a public anti-war stand at great personal and professional cost to himself, and whether or not one agrees with his position, there can be no denying the earnestness and honesty of his conviction.

But not all of Ali’s personal and public behavior was good by any means. Unthinking admirers — especially later-day media analysts — would do well to not jump to easy conclusions, and instead make the effort to look at the full picture. Regardless of whether one admires his steadfast adherence to his core beliefs or decries his seeming disrespect for his home country, there is very little likelihood that a captivating, mercurial personality like Muhammad Ali will arrive on the scene at a time of such unprecedented national dissention as existed in the America of late 1900s.

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