The first time I heard the name Muhammad Ali was on April 1, 1973 at exactly 7:30 AM. I was 8 years old. The night before, he had suffered his second loss as a professional to the now all but forgotten Ken Norton. Norton, who won a split decision at the San Diego Sports Arena after breaking Ali’s jaw in the eleventh round, was also the greatest fighter ever to come out of the United States Marine Corps. My father, who always read the New York Times at the kitchen table from 7:30 to 8:00 AM, right before driving my brother and me to school, was pleased.
“I don’t like Ali,” he said. “I don’t his attitude.”
My father was rarely, if ever, openly racist. At least in the morning when he was sober, whatever bigotry he may have had against black people was usually kept within the bounds of polite, suburban, passive aggressive liberalism. On the surface, he was simply rooting for a fellow veteran of the United States Marine Corps. After all, Ken Norton was black. Nevertheless, the message came though loud and clear. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps, a patriotic American who quoted self-help books instead of Malcolm X, had put the “uppity” draft dodger Muhammad Ali in his place.
The next year, I was sitting at the snack bar at the Federal Lanes, a bowling ally in Elizabeth New Jersey where I belonged to a children’s league, eating French fries covered in ketschup, and watching the television set behind the counter. It was Sunday morning, and. Ali and Joe Frazier were being interviewed by Bob McAllister, the host of the children’s show Wonderama, the night before their first rematch. I was waiting for my mother, who was always late, and who always gave me a dollar for French fries, to pick me up. Looking at the episode of Wonderama after all these years, I’m struck by a certain innocence. Ali and Frazier actually appeared the night before their famous match on a low budget children’s television show, put aside their differences, and put on a good humored comedy routine for an audience of mostly black elementary school kids. Even the manager of the snack bar, a surly Polish or Italian American – I forget which — probably a Republican and probably a racist, was charmed, laughing along with McAllister, utterly taken in by Ali’s and Frazier’s playful game of marbles. “I don’t that guy,” he said, “but he’s pretty funny. I’ll admit that.” Later on, when McAllister asked Ali if he had any advice for the children in the studio audience, Ali advised them not to become boxers.
“Stay in school,” he said. “Don’t be a bum like me.”
If the line sounds familiar, it’s probably because Sylvester Stallone ripped it off almost word for word for his movie Rocky, putting it in the mouth of Rocky’s antagonist Apollo Creed. I don’t know if Stallone watched the same children’s shows I did. I doubt it. I’m sure Ali used the same routine in multiple interviews, but it shows just how well Stallone had read the Ali’s cultural significance. Stallone didn’t only want to see Ali knocked out. He wanted to coopt his image as a rebel. So he invented Apollo Creed, a very thinly fictionalized version of Ali, and Rocky Balboa, a somewhat more loosely fictionalized composite of Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Chuck Wepner, the white heavyweight who almost, but not quite went the distance with Ali in 1975. Wepner, a dirty fighter was also, like Ken Norton, a veteran of the Marine Corps, an apolitical conservative. In the form of Rocky Balboa, however, he becomes the personification of the underdog, a gritty and authentic working class underdog. Ali, in turn, a real underdog who faced down the awesome power of the United States government, becomes the establishment, a flashy capitalist showman who enters the ring in red, white, and blue shorts to the sound of the Marine Corps Hymn.
I was much too young to have seen Ali in his prime, or even in his early 30s, when he defeated an amazing trio of rivals in Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and George Foreman. The early 70s really was the Golden Age of professional heavyweight boxing, lacking only the participation of the great Cuban fighter Teófilo Stevenson. I did see Ali fight a few times on TV in the late 70s, when he was pushing 40, and had no business in the ring. Boxers, unlike writers or musicians, can only excel as young men. Middle aged men are best advised to stick to long-distance cycling, that old man’s sport par excellence. But it was only when I turned 30, after I saw the film When We Were Kings, that I truly began to understand the importance of Ali’s black nationalism and resistance to the draft, just how much he gave up to resist that evil and genocidal war against the people of Vietnam. A documentary about Ali’s comeback fight against the overwhelming favorite George Foreman, it’s testament both to how much he gave up for his antiwar politics, and how much he struggled against media and government attacks to become the icon we know today.
I have little use for black separatism or for nostalgia for the Civil Rights Era – Hillary Clinton’s successful use of John Lewis against Bernie Sanders is proof that what’s progressive in time almost always becomes conservative – but Ali’s willingness to give up his prime years as a fighter in order to prevent the United States government from sending him to Vietnam transcends not only his loyalty to the Nation of Islam and his betrayal of Malcolm X, but the (brutal and corrupt) sport of boxing. One only has to compare him to Michael Jordan, by far and away the greatest basketball player who ever lived, but a politically shallow man who has never meant much outside of the world of basketball, or making money. Jordan, his youth gone, is mainly known by the millennial generation as a the old man in the “Sad Michael Jordan” meme on social media. Ali, even after he contracted Parkinson’s disease and disappeared from the public view, still loomed large.
Even for the greatest athletes, if all you’re about is the sport, your life ends when you turn 35 or 40 (if you can keep going that long). If you’re also about money (like Jordan) you eventually become just another capitalist who had a more interesting life than most people as a young man. But if you’re a nationalist, anti-war activist (proof that in spite of his membership in the Nation of Islam Ali’s “circle of empathy extended beyond black Americans to people in Vietnam), and an idealist, you can continue until the day you die. That day came way too early for a lot of black nationalists in the 1960s. One only has to think about what happened to Fred Hampton. Ali’s celebrity wouldn’t have saved him if the government had really wanted him dead. One only has to think about what happened to the Kennedys or Martin Luther King. By his very public opposition to the war in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali was risking more than just jail time or the end of his career. He was risking his life.