Ali the fighter and Ali the man can’t be separated

by John Kass | June 9, 2016 12:02 am

Muhammad Ali was more than just a fighter.


You must have heard that phrase hundreds of times by now, echoed in eulogies that cement it in the public mind, splitting one man into two, the prizefighter and the icon.

But separating the fighter from the man — because some are squeamish about what he did for a living — is to cheat him and to cheat us, too, not only of his glory but of the story of his redemption.

Prizefighting is cruel, of course, cruel to boxers but also to those of us who love it in the darkest places of our hearts. But obituaries can be cruel, too, even glowing obituaries, as memories of the dead are carved into a totem to serve the politics of the living.

Still, Ali was all of what they say: a champion of civil rights; a champion of young black men speaking their minds when black people were supposed to shut up in this country; a champion of finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease; a champion of the notion that Islam is more than some two-dimensional talking point for more war; a champion of the idea that a man with malevolent fists can also be intelligent, kind and gentle and inspire others.

But let’s not cheat him by stepping over what he was. He was heavyweight champion of the world. And by definition, that means danger.

A fighter so skilled and so talented, and so mouthy with his ego unleashed that he taunted people into loving or hating him. That sold tickets and made him a fortune as an entertainer, the young, brash black daring to speak and mock the culture that expected him to be humble.

Ali could be cruel with his mouth and with his fists and his will made it so. When young, he would ridicule his opponents outside the ring, demeaning black opponents with horrible, almost unforgivable racial taunts, the beautiful, light-skinned black man calling others “gorilla” or “Uncle Tom.” And then, once on the terrifying side of the ropes, he’d humiliate them.

He was this way in Houston, fighting Ernie Terrell, after Terrell refused to address him by his Muslim name, and called him by the old one, Cassius Clay. Throughout that fight Ali jabbed him, shouting, “What’s my NAME?! Uncle Tom WHAT’S MY NAME?!”

For others, he’d predict the rounds they’d drop, and as they crumpled he’d turn to the sportswriters at ringside and make comments. They were white men mostly; the older ones didn’t like his attitude. After his humiliation of Terrell in Houston, they pronounced him barbaric and cruel.

But a champion has to be cruel. It is the nature of what boxers do. They drive their fists at another man’s head.

When he was young and pretty and fast, many hated him. But then he began to take beatings. And as he became mortal and frayed, America began to love him.

Ali took a beating from the government and politics, stripped of his title for refusing induction into the military, saying he had no reason to fight in Vietnam. He wasn’t a senator’s son. He was a black man who wouldn’t shut up. So retribution fell upon him. He was not only stripped of his crown but of his athletic prime, and when he could fight again, Ali was in decline.

Then the beatings began in the ring. He took them and fought on. The odd thing is that, as the slower, more human, imperfect Ali took those beatings, a sea change occurred in the public’s attitude.

He paid a price for refusing the draft. He paid a price for growing old and paid for it in pain. And those who didn’t like him began to respect him. That, for many, turned first to admiration, and then love.

Joe Frazier, whom he called a “gorilla” and worse, hit him with that perfect left hook in their first fight. Two more fights followed with Frazier, a hooking machine, pounding Ali’s body, relentless. The trilogy ended in Manila, where both men faced death, not as a metaphor in a column, but death for real, breathing on them.

Years later, after Ali retired and as his body continued to betray him, I saw him at a diner across from Chicago’s City Hall. He was eating a sandwich alone, immaculate in a beige suit.

I was sitting a few tables away and said, “Hi, champ,” and he smiled and then I left him to his privacy. But I had to steal another look. This was Ali.

Ali had put the sandwich down and turned his chair slightly sideways, big hands on his knees, that great, courageous head tilted, and I thought of that masterpiece fourth century bronze sculpture known simply as The Boxer at Rest.

And through the memorials and the highlights of his greatness, I’ll think of him that way. Not two divided men, but one, icon and champion together.

Ali at rest.

(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His e-mail address is [email protected][2], and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)

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