The Great Black Hope

1.

Not perhaps since the time of Pindar has any athlete been such catnip to the intellectuals. Muhammad Ali is the fisticuffer of choice for all manner of deep thinkers. Norman Mailer perceived that Ali did nothing so mundane as trade punch for punch with muscled fellows more shallow than he. His distinction was to “trade metaphysic for metaphysic with anyone.” (What was Sonny Liston’s metaphysic?) Mailer’s Ali is “the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet,” and “the first psychologist of the body.”1

Finding recondite meanings in the videotapes of Ali’s matches has become a cosmic (and comic) pastime. Ali (then Clay) said that he was blinded in the fifth round of his first Liston fight by something on Liston’s gloves. Nothing so prosaic would do for the British art historian Peter Fuller, who decided that Ali was blinded, like Oedipus, by a realization that he was slaying a father figure, that “Clay had displaced the idea of phallic struggle on to the eyes, so that blindness symbolized castration for him.”2 Ali was still feeling guilty “about what he did to Liston” in 1971, when “a powerful unconscious wish to lose” made him succumb to Joe Frazier. (What had made him win in the interval, a desire to keep doing in Liston?) Ali never gets beat, in Dr. Fuller’s book, just because someone could outfight him.

Where Fuller invokes Oedipus, Jan Philipp Reemtsma, a German philologist, needs the help of Odysseus, Proteus, Theseus, Hannibal, and Caesar to explain the many things that made Ali “the first postmodern strategist.” He seems more at home dealing with fictional myths than with the living legend of Ali himself. Thus much of his book is devoted to a deconstructive analysis of the Rocky movies. By the end of his brief book, Reemtsma feels he must create a whole new historiography to explain Ali. He finds in Europe three stages of personality, each with a counterpart, thus:

The associated(cult-member)individual The cult leader

The balanced (classical) individual The eccentric

The dissociated(modern)individual The megalo-maniac

Ali is a creative megalomaniac, making himself a principle of order in a disordered world. The only other examples Reemtsma gives of such in-spired megalomania are philosophical literary critics—the densely radical Theodor Adorno, the jokily conservative Karl Kraus, and Arno Schmidt, the plumber of deep meanings in Poe. One can only imagine a symposium of these Big Four in the postmodern Elysium, Kraus and Schmidt offering different readings of Ali’s poetry while Adorno unreads the readings and Ali corrects his interpreters.

Though Reemtsma invokes classical myths and heroes for an understanding of Ali, he never looks at the most obvious places in classical literature, which just might have something to say on the subject—the boxing matches that occur in poetry and art. After all, when Epeius, Homer’s boxing champion, predicts the outcome of his match (Iliad 23.669), he makes the boast of Ali himself: “I am the greatest (aristos).” Ali was condemned for his bragging and predictions, but the epic boxer, like heroes on the battlefield, regularly issued his “vaunt” (euchos) before an engagement, and Epeius describes what he will do, much as Ali painted the demise of hapless opponents: “His supporters have to be ready to carry him off, the helpless wreckage of my fists.”

Ali also called himself “pretty,” unlike the ugly bears he went up against—and the boxer celebrated in Pindar’s Olympian 10.120-125 is as pretty as Ganymede, whose beauty Zeus ravished, while the boxer described by Apollonius Rhodius is as beautiful as a shining star (Argonautica 2.40-42). Ali was known for his dancing mobility in the ring, and the boxers on Greek vases are up on their toes, as if illustrating the elusive footwork of Apollonius’ hero:

His foe loomed over him, a cresting wave
About to crash down through a ship’s sides.
But like a canny steersman at the helm,
He darted from under the cascading waters.
(2.70-73)

Like Ali, this fighter (Polydeuces) is so fast, he can avoid a blow just by a timely deflection of his head.

Polydeuces fights just as skillfully in Theocritus (Idyll 22), slipping blows with his head, dancing to one side or the other, with a play of his hands, a flurry of bewildering feints. It is clear that the Greeks admired finesse in their boxing. They honored as founding fathers of methodical boxing two men from the scientific world of Ionia—Onomastus of Smyrna and Pythagoras of Samos. Pythagoras was another pretty boxer, whose long hair made him as mocked as “Gorgeous George” would be in our time.

Fighters on the vases take a stance almost like that of fencers, turned sideways to each other, on their toes, one hand out as if wielding a duelist’s foil, the other held back at head level or above the head.3 The hands were bound with soft leather strips to protect the fingers when hitting the cranium—for, like Ali, these men were “head hunters.” Indeed, in the epic Greek matches described by Homer, Apollonius, and Theocritus, there is not a single body blow thrown. The careful fencing with the extended left hand is indicated on the vases by the fact that the palm of that hand is open, as if feeling out the adversary with an antenna or an epee. There seem to be no left-handed fighters on the vases or in the poems—the long duel before a blow is struck is suggested by the preliminary moves in the one-punch match of the Iliad:

Met in an interplay of heavy [left] arms.
They ground their teeth with strain, and all their body
Poured down sweat.
(23.687-689)

Only after this tense period of maneuver is the knockout punch (an uppercut) finally launched. The preliminary fencing could be so long and wearing that Dio Chrysostom tells the story of a champion who trained at keeping his guard up for hours, and then wore his opponents out without striking a blow (Oration 29). Ali’s dancing early style impressed some as a way of avoiding a fight—he was warned that he must mix it up in the Olympics, or forfeit the match.

2.

The Ali of David Remnick’s King of the World is the Greek boxer of the vases, light on his feet, blindingly swift, left hand flickering toward the head, psyching out his foe, a master at maneuver. (The fighter in Theocritus—22.83-84—keeps turning so that his adversary faces into the sun.) This is the floater and stinger who flashed into the stumblebum world of boxing, pushing in his nose and mumbling to caricature the inferior sorts he could outdazzle and humiliate, David without armor skipping all around the tongue-tied Goliaths.

Remnick describes well the inability of conventional commentators to take this new phenomenon’s measure. In fact, he sometimes seems even more interested in the fight writers than in the fights—an assessor of the Pindars who sing modern epinician odes. His case that Ali introduced a new era rests heavily on the new kind of coverage he prompted in talented writers. Celebrators of the old sport myths, like Jimmy Cannon, found themselves being shoved aside by young journalists with some of whom Remnick seems to identify himself—people interested in psychology (Gay Talese), civil rights (Robert Lipsyte, Jack Newfield, Pete Hamill), social rankings (George Plimpton), or mysticism (Norman Mailer). Big Thinkism had arrived.

Anyone writing about a boxer’s career runs into the problem that descriptions of bout after bout soon blur into a repetitive left-right left-right. Even watching a long string of Ali’s matches on video can have that effect—and verbal description just dilutes what is after all a visual spectacle. Reemtsma tried to solve this problem by dwelling on just one fight, the 1975 “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier. He stretches this out across the book, interrupting it to tell us about Stallone movies or whatever. Remnick treats three fights as the climax of Ali’s career, in 1964-1965, those with Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. This approach has its problems—two of the three encounters were not much as boxing matches. Patterson was so outclassed as to make him a pitiable foil, and the second Liston fight was aborted by the “phantom punch”—which Remnick tries to persuade us was a real one. Watching the punch over and over in slow motion, we should be as surprised as Ali was with the result. His right arm was already extended when he saw an opening and swerved his fist in from midair. There was no body behind the punch, or even much arm. It was a wrist blow. Liston, for whatever reason, decided to take an unscheduled (or too-scheduled) vacation. It does not suit Remnick’s dramaturgical purposes to allow for this.

The Patterson “fight” told us nothing significant about Ali as a boxer. If Remnick were really interested in the Greek perfection of Ali’s early style, he could have told us more by observing a fight like that with Cleveland Williams (1966), where Ali’s lightning punches played all through and around Williams’s guard. Punching while he pedaled backward, Ali made retreat a form of conquest. But Remnick is less interested in Ali as a boxer than as a character in a triple scheme quite different from Reemtsma’s typology of personality, but with its own limiting effect. The 1964-1965 fights allow Remnick to contrast three ways of being black in the modern world. In the mouth of Jack London, a “white hope” in boxing embodied a reactionary wish for some white man who could keep blacks from winning. But Floyd Patterson was a liberal’s white hope—a good integrationist who would show that blacks can be civil and socially responsible. Jimmy Cannon had proved that even a black man who follows these rules (like Joe Louis) can be a kind of sepia “white hope.” Talese’s celebration of Patterson was therefore less new than it looked—it was just Cannonism updated.

Sonny Liston, on the other hand, was the kind of thug who might send people running back to Jack London’s code for delivery. Murray Kempton finds a silver lining to this black thundercloud: “He has already helped us grow up as a country because he is the first morally inferior Negro I can think of to be given an equal opportunity.” Remnick rightly plays Ali off against these two types to establish him as the new black, one who does not accept the white man’s rules for how he should conduct himself.

This approach determines the structure of the book. The first eighty pages are not devoted to Ali at all, but to the other two men, their upbringing, their symbolic status in America. We learn a lot about the mobs who used Liston and about the liberals who favored Patterson. Then Ali’s background is described. Remnick offers evidence that Ali’s attraction to the Muslims was of long standing—he wanted to write a high-school term paper about them in 1959 when he was seventeen—and he provides a psychological insight into the importance of discipline and physical perfection as part of that attraction.

What sets Ali off from both Patterson and Liston is, in Remnick’s eyes, his courage to be his own man, “uppity” by the former code that bound Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson, not controllable by the good or the bad forces that constrained black freedom of expression before him. He makes Ali a forerunner of rap music (though both he and it descend from the black boasting style called “playing the dozens”). He could as well be called the forerunner of Dennis Rodman. The assertive black consciousness was invading all forms of social life in the 1960s and 1970s, and it was bound to show up in sport, Ali or no Ali. Would Tommie Smith and John Carlos not have given the black power salute at the 1972 Olympic games without Ali? Perhaps not, but other people have a better claim as influences on that event—Rap Brown, say, or Stokely Carmichael. Remnick is very good in his stress on the lack of a larger ideology in Ali’s defiance of the draft—it was an act prompted by his idiosyncratic Muslimism (as a preacher, he claimed a clerical exemption), not a general recommendation of resistance. Ali’s religion was as opposed to civil rights activism as to integration. Many black athletes who are their own men were on the horizon when Ali fought—and they have continued their line in Reggie Jackson, Charles Barkley, and Dennis Rodman, to name just a few.

Once we are past the symbolic encounters of 1964-1965, Remnick has only twenty-one pages left, and he does not spend them on the sixteen years of fighting still ahead of Ali—this is a book without the climactic fights with Foreman in Kinshasa and Frazier in Manila. Instead, he circles back to his beginning, describing the sad later days of Patterson (brain-damaged), Liston (dead of drugs and violence), and Ali (brain-damaged but happy in his faith and a symbol of love to the universe). He makes some brief comments on the brutality of boxing, and says the final bouts that sent a maimed Ali back and back into the ring were “nothing short of criminal.” But the impression the book leaves is of the triumphant and beautiful young Ali who fills the body of the book, the pre-1965 man, Ali up to the age of twenty-three. No strong connection is made between the things that made him his “own man” and the sport that would destroy him as relentlessly as it does most of its long-term practitioners. Nor does Remnick directly address our complicity in a brutal pastime meant to damage the human brain and body for our delectation. I know that people will say (I used to say it) that the sport is a celebration of timing, conditioning, mental conflict, and grace—a rougher kind of ballet, a muscled game of chess. But all these qualities would still be displayed if boxers wore head guards and larger gloves, as in amateur boxing. Under those conditions, what crowds still come would instantly disappear, because what they pay to see is the knockout, the brain-deadener, the blood drawn, the gladiatorial showdown.

Even at the time of its greatest refinement, the sport of boxing gave the ancient Greeks some qualms. It destroyed the beauty it glorified. Pindar seems to have preferred victors in the boys’ boxing events (two of his three boxing odes are to them), where less damage was done. Homer’s champion Epeius is not an aristocratic warrior (he admits he is not much on the field of real combat), but a lower-class artisan (the carpenter of the Trojan horse). By the fourth century, the brutal logic of the game had taken over. The pliant thongs were replaced by hardened leather gloves, with raised ridges that cut furrows called “ant tracks” all over a boxer’s face. Epigrams that made fun of eyeless and earless fighters began to appear.4 Things deteriorated further in Rome, where the caestus, a metal-studded glove, was encased in a leather gauntlet running up the whole forearm. Boxing was now a brutal event that caved in faces and scraped out eyes. The change is reflected in Roman epics, whose boxing scenes are far removed from their Greek models. In Homer, brains beat brawn and youth beats age. In Virgil, the shining young challenger blanches when the bulky veteran brings out his caestus, boasting that he has seen the gloves of Hercules “blood-dyed and flecked with scattered bits of brain” (Aeneid 5.413). The fight has to be stopped before the veteran kills the boy. The same thing happens in Statius’ Thebaid, where the old brute is ready

To rub into the rough earth all that grace,
That girlish beauty that had turned men’s eyes.
Now bloodied in the dust.
(6.819-821)

That is what Ali had boasted would never happen to him. He would stay pretty because no one was fast enough to catch him. People who saw the popular recent documentary When We Were Kings, devoted to the Foreman fight in Kinshasa (1974), watched a different Ali in action. Now unable to dance in an endless youth, the thirty-two-year-old Ali toughened himself to take endless punishment. The man who could not be hit became a bundled-up target for endless hitting. This was praised as a marvelous new strategy for winning. Let the other person tire himself, giving out less punishment than Ali was prepared to take. In this war of attrition, Ali was making his own the boast of numberless stumblebums that they “could take a punch.” This redeemed Ali in the eyes of some old sports experts, who said he was not a true member of the fraternity until he went through this ultimate ordeal. “Rope-a-dope” was a kind of mutual assured destruction, but with an apparent escape clause. Ali would have just enough ammunition left in the devastation to pull off a last-minute victory. He would win the fight. But the destruction was assured. He lost the war. He went on to lose fights as well, to lesser men, at greater and greater cost.

Remnick makes one of those visits to the retired Ali that have now a ritual air. Ali plays some magic tricks, then explains the secret of them, then explains that he is morally bound to explain deception. He shows that he can make a cricket sound by scraping his fingers together. He recommends the faith that sustains him. This most articulate of men, who trained his young body as a holy thing, now lives inarticulate in the wreckage of that superb body, undone by the very skills it acquired. Remnick conveys the pathos of this, but stresses the large meaning Ali has for many Americans, as “a symbol of faith, a symbol of conviction and defiance, a symbol of beauty and skill and courage, a symbol of racial pride, of wit and love.”

When I met Ali after his decay had set in, I was so disturbed that I decided never to watch a boxing match again. I have kept that pledge, not even going to see When We Were Kings when my friends raved about it. I rented the videocassette of that film and watched again old tapes of Ali only to write this. The viewing renewed my resolve not to be part of this degrading activity. Remnick himself calls it degrading, yet he devotes almost all of his book to glorifying the triumphant young Ali to the age of twenty-three, the new racial era he is given credit for, and the writers who celebrated it. The degradation is admitted but tends to get lost—as will any boxers lured to a brutal world by the glamorization of Ali.

  1. 1

    Norman Mailer, “Ego,” in The Muhammad Ali Reader, edited by Gerald Early (Echo Press, 1998), pp. 110, 101, 103. 

  2. 2

    Peter Fuller, The Champions: The Secret Motives in Games and Sports (Allen Lane, 1978), p. 179. 

  3. 3

    Examples of the boxers’ stance on the vases are in E. Norman Gardiner, Athletics of the Ancient World (Ares, 1987 reprint of 1930 edition), figures 173, 181, 184; and Michael B. Poliakoff, Combat Sports in the Ancient World (Yale University Press, 1987), figures 71, 85, 86, 91. 

  4. 4

    Poliakoff, Combat Sports, pp. 73-74, 87.