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The Cruelest Sport

Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942, grandson of a slave, began boxing at the age of twelve, and, by eighteen, had fought 108 amateur bouts. How is it possible that the young man who, in his twenties, would astonish the world not just with the brilliance of his boxing but the sharpness of his wit seems to have been a dull-average student in high school who graduated 376th out of a class of 391? In 1966, his score on a mental aptitude test was an Army IQ of 78, well below military qualification. In 1975, Ali confessed to a reporter that he “can’t read too good” and had not read ten pages of all the material written about him. I remember the television interview in which, asked what else he might have done with his life, Ali paused, for several seconds, clearly not knowing how to reply. All he’d ever known, he said finally, was boxing.

Mental aptitude tests cannot measure genius except in certain narrow ranges, and the genius of the body, the play of lightning-swift reflexes coupled with unwavering precision and confidence, eludes comprehension. All great boxers possess this genius, which scrupulous training hones, but can never create. “Styles make fights,” as Ali’s great trainer Angelo Dundee says, and “style” was young Ali’s trademark. Yet even after early wins over such veterans as Archie Moore and Henry Cooper, the idiosyncrasies of Ali’s style aroused skepticism in boxing experts. After winning the Olympic gold medal in 1960, Ali was described by A.J. Leibling as “skittering…like a pebble over water.” Everyone could see that this brash young boxer held his hands too low; he leaned away from punches instead of properly slipping them; his jab was light and flicking; he seemed to be perpetually on the brink of disaster. As a seven-to-one underdog in his first title fight with Sonny Liston, the twenty-two-year-old challenger astounded the experts with his performance, which was like none other they had ever seen in the heavyweight division; he so out-boxed and demoralized Liston that Liston “quit on his stool” after the sixth round. A new era in boxing had begun, like a new music.

Ali rode the crest of a new wave of athletes—competitors who were both big and fast…. Ali had a combination of size and speed that had never been seen in a fighter before, along with incredible will and courage. He also brought a new style to boxing. Jack Dempsey changed fisticuffs from a kind of constipated science where fighters fought in a tense defensive style to a wild sensual assault. Ali revolutionized boxing the way black basketball players have changed basketball today. He changed what happened in the ring, and elevated it to a level that was previously unknown.

(Larry Merchant, quoted in Muhammad Ali)

In the context of contemporary boxing—the sport is in one of its periodic slumps—there is nothing more instructive and rejuvenating than to see again these old, early fights of Ali’s, when, as his happy boast had it, he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee and threw punches faster than opponents could see—like the “mystery” right to the temple of Liston that felled him, in the first minute of the first round of their rematch. These early fights, the most brilliant being against Cleveland Williams, in 1966, predate by a decade the long, grueling, punishing fights of Ali’s later career, whose accumulative effects hurt Ali irrevocably, resulting in what doctors call, carefully, his “Parkinsonianism”—to distinguish it from Parkinson’s disease. There is a true visceral shock in observing a heavyweight with the grace, agility, swiftness of hands and feet, defensive skills, and ring cunning of a middleweight Ray Robinson, or a lightweight Willie Pep—like all great athletes, Ali has to be seen to be believed.

In a secular, yet pseudo-religious and sentimental nation like the United States, it is quite natural that sports stars emerge as “heroes”—“legends”—icons.” Who else? George Santayana described religion as “another world to live in” and no world is so set off from the disorganization and disenchantment of the quotidian than the world, or worlds, of sports. Hauser describes, in considerable detail, the transformation of the birth of Ali out of the unexpectedly stubborn and idealistic will of young Cassius Clay: how, immediately following his first victory over Liston, he declared himself a convert to the Nation of Islam (more popularly known as the Black Muslims) and “no longer a Christian.” He repudiated his “slave name” of Cassius Marcellus Clay to become Muhammad Ali (a name which, incidentally, The New York Times, among other censorious white publications, would not honor through the 1960s). Ali became, virtually overnight, a spokesman for black America as no other athlete, certainly not the purposefully reticent Joe Louis, had ever done—“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he told white America. “I’m free to be me.” Two years later, refusing to be inducted into the army to fight in Vietnam, Ali, beleaguered by reporters, uttered one of the memorable incendiary remarks of that era: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

How ingloriously white America responded to Ali: the government retaliated by overruling a judge who had granted Ali the status of conscientious objector, fined Ali $10,000, and sentenced him to five years in prison; he was stripped of his heavyweight title and deprived of his license to box. Eventually, the US Supreme Court would overturn the conviction, and, as the tide of opinion shifted in the country, in the early 1970s as the Vietnam War wound down Ali returned triumphantly to boxing again, and regained the heavyweight title not once but twice. Years of exile during which he’d endured the angry self-righteousness of the conservative white press seemed, wonderfully, not to have embittered him. He had become a hero. He had entered myth.

Yet the elegiac title of Angelo Dundee’s chapter in Dave Anderson’s In The Corner3—“We Never Saw Muhammad Ali at His Best”—defines the nature of Ali’s sacrifice for his principles, and the loss to boxing. When, after the three-and-a-half-year layoff, Ali returned to the ring, he was of course no longer the seemingly invincible boxer he’d been; he’d lost his legs, thus his primary line of defense. Like the maturing writer who learns to replace the incandescent head-on energies of youth with what is called technique, Ali would have to descend into his physical being and experience for the first time the punishment (“the nearest thing to death”) that is the lot of the great boxer willing to put himself to the test. As Ali’s personal physician at that time, Ferdie Pacheco, said,

[Ali] discovered something which was both very good and very bad. Very bad in that it led to the physical damage he suffered later in his career; very good in that it eventually got him back the championship. He discovered that he could take a punch.

The secret of Ali’s mature success, and the secret of his tragedy: he could take a punch.

For the remainder of his twenty-year career, Muhammad Ali took punches, many of the kind that, delivered to a nonboxer, would kill him or her outright—from Joe Frazier in their three exhausting marathon bouts, from George Foreman, from Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes. Where in his feckless youth Ali was a dazzling figure combining, say, the brashness of Hotspur and the insouciance of Lear’s Fool, he became in these dark, brooding, increasingly willed fights the closest analogue boxing contains to Lear himself; or, rather, since there is no great fight without two great boxers, the title matches Ali–Frazier I (which Frazier won by a decision) and Ali-Frazier III (which Ali won, just barely, when Frazier virtually collapsed after the fourteenth round) are boxing’s analogues to King Lear—ordeals of unfathomable human courage and resilience raised to the level of classic tragedy. These somber and terrifying boxing matches make us weep for their very futility; we seem to be in the presence of human experience too profound to be named—beyond the strategies and diminishments of language. The mystic’s dark night of the soul, transmogrified as a brutal meditation of the body.

And Ali–Foreman, Zaire, 1974: the occasion of the infamous “rope-a-dope” defense, by which the thirty-two-year-old Ali exhausted his twenty-six-year-old opponent by the inspired method of, simply, and horribly, allowing him to punch himself out on Ali’s body and arms. This is a fight of such a magical quality that even to watch it closely is not to see how it was done, its fairy-tale reversal in the eighth round executed. (One of Norman Mailer’s most impassioned books, The Fight, is about this fight; watching a tape of Ali on the ropes enticing, and infuriating, and frustrating, and finally exhausting his opponent by an offense in the guise of a defense, I pondered what sly lessons of masochism Mailer absorbed from being at ringside that day, what deep-imprinted resolve to outwear all adversaries.)

These hard-won victories began irreversible loss: progressive deterioration of Ali’s kidneys, hands, reflexes, stamina. By the time of that most depressing of modern-day matches, Ali–Holmes, 1980, when Ali was thirty-eight years old, Ferdie Pacheco had long departed the Ali camp, dismissed for having advised Ali to retire; those who supported Ali’s decision to fight, like the bout’s promoter, Don King, had questionable motives. Judging from Hauser’s information, it is a wonder that Ali survived this fight at all: the fight was, in Sylvester Stallone’s words, “like watching an autopsy on a man who’s still alive.” (In The Black Lights, Hauser describes the bedlam that followed this vicious fight at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, where gamblers plunged in an orgy of gambling, as in a frenzy of feeding, or copulation: “Ali and Holmes had done their job.”) Incredibly, Ali was allowed to fight once more, with Trevor Berbick, in December 1981, before retiring permanently.

Hauser’s portrait of Ali is compassionate and unjudging: Is the man to be blamed for having been addicted to his body’s own adrenaline, or are others to be blamed for indulging him—and exploiting him? The brash rap-style egoism of young Cassius Clay underwent a considerable transformation during Ali’s long public career, yet strikes us, perhaps, as altered only in tone: “Boxing was just to introduce me to the world,” Ali has told his biographer. Mystically involved in the Nation of Islam, Ali sincerely believes himself an international emissary for peace, love, and understanding (he who once wreaked such violence upon his opponents!); and who is to presume to feel sorry for one who will not feel sorry for himself?

The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing describes a small, self-contained arc—a few years in the career of a boxer named Billy Costello, at one time a superlightweight titleholder from Kingston, New York. Like Muhammad Ali, it is a sympathetic study of its primary subject, Costello, his manager Mike Jones, and their families and associates; yet, in the interstices of a compelling narrative taking us through the preparation for a successful title defense of 1984, it illuminates aspects of the boxing world generally unknown to outsiders—the routine and discipline of the boxer in training; the complex role of the fight manager; the exhausting contractual negotiations; the state of this “red-light district”—

Professional boxing is no longer worthy of civilized society. It’s run by self-serving crooks, who are called promoters…. Except for the fighters, you’re talking about human scum…. Professional boxing is utterly immoral. It’s not capable of reformation. I now favor the abolition of professional boxing. You’ll never clean it up. Mud can never be clean.

(Howard Cosell, quoted in The Black Lights)

Like others sympathetic with boxers, who are in fact poorly paid, nonunionized workers with no benefits in a monopolistic business without antitrust control, Hauser argues strongly for a national association to regulate the sport; a federal advisory panel to protect boxers from exploitation. His portrait of Billy Costello allows us to see why a young man will so eagerly risk injuries in the ring, which is perceived as a lifeline, and not a place of exploitation; why he will devote himself to the rigors of training in a sport in which, literally, one’s entire career can end within a few seconds.

Black Lights ends dramatically, with Costello retaining his title against a thirty-seven-year-old opponent, Saoul Mamby, and with his hope of moving up in weight and making more money. Since its publication in 1986, the book has become a boxing classic; it is wonderfully readable, and, unlike Ali, judiciously proportioned. Yet to end the book with this victory is surely misleading, and even, to this reader, perplexing. The “black lights of unconsciousness” would be experienced by Billy Costello shortly, in a bout with a dazzlingly arrogant and idiosyncratic Ali-inspired young boxer named, at that time, “Lightning” Lonnie Smith, who would KO Costello in one of those nightmares all boxers have, before a hometown audience in Kingston. Following that devastating loss, Costello would fight the aging Alexis Arguello, one of the great lightweights of contemporary times, who would beat him savagely and end his career. To end with a tentative victory and not supply at least a coda to take us to the collapse of Billy Costello’s career deprives Black Lights of the significance it might have had—for boxing is about failure far more than it is about success. In the words of the battered Saoul Mamby, “I’ll miss it. I love boxing. Everything passed too soon.”

Letters

Not a Lightweight May 14, 1992

  1. 3

    See both Dave Anderson, In the Corner: Great Boxing Trainers Talk About Their Art (Morrow, 1991), and Ronald K. Fried, Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers (Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1991). Irresistibly readable and informative books of interviews: Angelo Dundee, Eddie Futch, Ray Arcel, Charley Goldman, Lou Duva, Emanuel Steward, Kevin Rooney, et al.

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