Not being a sportsperson and coming from a family of non-sportspeople, growing up I mainly knew Cassius Clay as the black celebrity who boasted in extemporized rhymes (why isn’t he considered the father of hip-hop? or is he?) and later changed his name to Muhammad Ali. I was 9 when he was stripped of his title and stopped appearing on talk shows, and no one explained to me what it all meant–or if they did, I didn’t understand it.
I have no memories of his return to the ring or of the Frazier fights, but I can remember seeing his picture in magazines, resplendent and muscular in shorts and gloves, flashbulbs exploding in the background, his still-handsome but thicker face gleaming with sweat. Then in 1977, when I was 19, I found myself in a bar while the first Spinks/Ali fight was being broadcast. I looked up at the TV and saw him being pounded. There was blood running down his face and a look of defeat in his eyes and the brutality of it just overwhelmed me. And then the shock of his Parkinson’s disease in the early ’80s. They showed reruns of Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life on late night TV around that time. I saw one in which Joe Louis was a contestant, and he had that same slow, slurred speech.
Whenever I saw essays on boxing by big-name writers after that–Joyce Carol Oates, Mailer, AJ Liebling, Gay Talese–I would think of that image of Ali on the ropes and shudder. I was 23 when Scorcese’s RAGING BULL came out, and for me, he and DeNiro captured the essence of the sport–a depraved gladiator spectacle of class exploitation and misdirected sexual aggression and insecurity. And now another 36 years have gone by and Muhammad Ali has died. Not knowing anything about boxing, I now realize, means not knowing a lot about people in general, and about this country in the last century in particular.
For example, when a Donald Trump talks about punching protestors, or forcing China to assassinate Kim Jong Un, or bragging about how he’s strapped (“I always carry a weapon on me. If I’d been at the Bataclan or one of those bars, I would have opened fire. Perhaps I would have died, but at least I would have taken a shot. The worst thing is the powerlessness to respond to those who want to kill you”), you see how capitalism both fetishizes and outsources violence. I can just imagine him at the smoker in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, getting off on the spectacle of two black kids beating the shit out of each other. As people mourn Ali’s beauty, grace, and moral courage, I hope they also remember the ugly people who profited off them and used them to promote their own very different personal brands.