Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali; drawing by David Levine

Boxing is a cruel art. Both the cruelty and the art are made possible by the modern sport’s key feature—the cushioning of the hands. This is not done to protect the person being hit. Far from it. The human fist is a fragile little bird cage of bones. Impressive as Muhammad Ali’s fist looked, photographed life-size for Esquire, it is not the “lethal instrument” outside the ring that legal fiction makes it. The more powerful a man’s punch, the more body leverage he puts behind it, the worse would he shatter that bony wicker basket against any solid target—especially against the head.

Experiment with a skeleton. Fold that pterodactyl-webbery of hard bones, wired together like a Calder, then crunch it down on the holdable Yorick-ball of cranium, the attached helmet-guard flap of cheek bones, or the awning over the eye sockets. Admittedly the bare fist, perfectly placed, might get at the jawbone’s juncture with the skull. But in trying to hit that precise joint, while ducking enemy blows and seeking the spot on a moving target, the fastest man would first disjoint and splinter his fingers two by two. The myth of facial vulnerability to the fist rests mainly on schoolboy memories of nosebleeds: nose cartilege is more friable, even, than knuckles.

A man who really learned to fight, in the first instance, as a boxer would be in very bad trouble if he took his acquired art into the nearest bar. My father was a melancholy example of this truth. He knew, in theory, that you cannot punch a man’s head with your bare fist; but his fighting instincts had been so patterned by ring training that he always forgot it in the heat of battle. One time, when he had gone out to collect money from a resisting debtor, he came back holding the money in his broken hands, himself held up by the debtor: “I figured I better pay the little son-of-a-bitch, before he made me kill him.” He regularly had to give up his other favorite sport, golf, until healing and a new grip made it possible for him to fold those sprung pterodactyl wings back around a club.

What my father did by force of training, some barroom brawlers do by movie-reflex. The great myth of the head punch controls all the hokey fight-out scenes on film. John Wayne, planted knock-kneed in his boots, fetches an Antaeus rocket from the dirt, and hits John Carradine “right on the button.” The resulting sound is somewhere between the click of billiard balls and the crack of a rifle. I remember watching an early gangster movie in which the hero (Jimmy Cagney?) took a roll of quarters and wrapped his fist around it. A few seconds later we hear the rifle shot against the bad guy’s jaw, and the quarters come rolling out under a door. In real life, it would have been the sound of all his little bones springing apart from each other in pain. The roll-of-quarters gimmick must have arisen from fantasies of the palm grip on “brass knuckles.” Ancient boxing was done with hard leather prototypes of such “knuckles.”

What on earth is supposed to make that pistol-shot sound when the hero hits another man’s chin? The chin breaking? No, the villain gets up and takes twenty or so more shots to the same spot without any sign of fracture. The hand? That would make more sense—but the hero keeps swinging his fist, and never even loses skin off the knuckles. The clap of one surface on another? A slap would come closer to the sound, without getting anywhere near its plosive force. Go into the butcher’s freezer, pick yourself up a plucked turkey, take its wing off, and punch it crisply in the shoulder socket. Even if you cradle it in your left arm while punching its shoulder bone with your right hand, you will not get much sound. Hang it up like a speed bag, where it has give when you hit it, and your efforts will be almost totally silent. The sound of the face punch in movies (or on radio, where it was even more dramatic) is as unearthly a pure artifact as Tarzan’s yell.

Well, if bare knuckles are no good against the skull, what did bareknuckle fighters hit? We get part of an answer from the reforms and rules that have grown up over the years—against things like kidney punches, rabbit punches, holding, butting. We get another clue from the stance of bareknuckle fighters. The hands were held high, but with the fists turned back toward oneself. This let the fighter strike blows down backhanded when they were aimed at his kidneys, ribs, lower abdomen, testicles—after which his fist was in a position to ram the body. Holding and grappling were allowed even under London Prize Ring rules, the most restrictive of the pre-Queensberry era. Since fights were open-ended, and lasted often for hours, men were worn down by fatigue, and then, against a practically immobile opponent, the “chopper” could be used to bring about the knockout—the chopper was a hammerlike blow with the fist, where the real impact was taken by the fleshy part of the palm—very good for breaking noses and punching into eye sockets. (Oriental martial arts work from the obvious fact that the flat of the hand—and even the extended fingers—is far more deadly than the clenched fist.) The bare fist can break a man’s ribs precisely because the ribs are padded.


The Marquis of Queensberry did not introduce his rules to make boxing less brutal, but to make it more interesting. Most matches of his day degenerated into one long clinch, with men bear-hugging each other between flurries of blows to the back of the neck and the kidneys. A round was ended by a knockdown—which meant any man could buy himself a rest by slipping to one knee. The Marquis wanted to make the fighting brisker, so he created the determinate round of three minutes; within that time, a man knocked down had to get up within ten seconds or forfeit the match. More important was the no-clinch rule; men were no longer allowed to hit (among other things) but required to hit (and nothing else). No grabbing, holding, gouging, elbowing. The only weapon left was to be the fist punch.

But to make that possible, the Marquis had to introduce his most important innovation, the “muffling” glove. That meant not merely that a fight could be prolonged with the use of fists alone, but that the fist could be used repeatedly and hard against the head. The modern fighter’s hands are not only gloved, but bandaged. The hand is bound in gauze wrappings, given a mummy’s case knuckle by knuckle, the wicker-work extensions turned monodactyl. Evolution is reversed and the hand shrinks to a hoof. Fighters may not all be mumbling brutes, but they do all cease to be articulate at the finger tips; and the condition sometimes spreads. Only in this way can the fist become a weapon approaching the power of more obvious and effective parts of the body—the foot, which uses the much larger muscles of the leg for kicking; the knee and elbow, deadly in the right places; the head, used as a battering ram; the teeth.

The boxer’s hand is wrapped so that the whole area between first and second joints on his fingers will present a single level plane, diffusing impact across its surface, not concentrating it on any one knuckle or letting finger slide against finger, fighting each other. Then the glove diffuses the impact even further, out beyond the original plane, and puts a cushion between one’s fist and the other man’s head. The effect is to put a thin but yielding bag around the head, so it can be hit with impunity. Of course the gloves cannot be too large, or it would be hard to slip them past the other man’s guard. The aim is maximum diffusion of impact on the hand’s surface, and maximum concentration of impact on the head.

On the head, since the gloves make it not only possible to hit the head often, but desirable. That is where the art comes in, and the cruelty. A hit in the face is an affront. Slap a friend abruptly on the arm, and he will ask you what the hell you think you are doing. But slap him only half as hard across the face, and demons rise in him. There are many reasons for this. The face is the expression of our consciousness. It guards those vulnerable jellies, the eyes—which is why we flinch from a face blow. Even a slight swelling or discoloration affects facial expression immensely—contrast a huge bruise on the arm with a comparatively restricted “black eye.” A hit to the head is far more dramatic and symbolically hostile than one to any other part of the body—which is the source of the anatomical absurdities risked to give us the movie punch-out.

And a hit to the head is more difficult than a blow to the trunk—just as it is harder to hit the speed bag than the heavy bag. The speed bag, a little head hung upside down, a bounceable leather scrotum, is a boxer’s way of practicing his scales. (And remember that, even when hitting this airball, the fighter uses leather mittens, so as not to skin his knuckles.) The bag is swiveled to one spot, and even a slow fighter like Joe Frazier can make it stutter out patterns of imagined punishment to the head (the thing makes the kind of sound you would expect from a Claes Oldenburg “soft” pneumatic drill). But the head on a moving fighter is far more elusive—and it must be hit through a guard held high up.


The modern fighter no longer stands like the bare-knuckle fighter, ready to knock blows down with a backhand swipe of the forearm. That would expose the face to the gloves now able to attack it. Instead, the fighter guards his trunk with his elbows, so his hands will stay before his face. He catches straight jabs with his hand, or slips them by head movement; he blocks hooks with the back of his wrists. The effect is of fencing “in the ring.” The modern fighter lurks behind a fluctuating cage of his own arms and gloves, and it is the job of the opponent to dart blows in through that fretwork of defensive battlements. Precisely because the head can be hit with gloves, it is carefully guarded. The smallest target has the most careful outworks. The skill needed to hit that head, and hit it solidly, is what the Marquis added to the sport. He forced the boxer to throw away his pummeling blunderbuss and take up a rifle. The boxer’s left jab arises within a constructed frame of artifice, like a dancer’s tour jeté or a soprano’s trill.

Muhammad Ali is the supreme marksman. Time after time he touches the target, so fast it is hard to count the blows. He washes his opponent’s face in leather, raising a fleshy foam and red general swelling. Though he is very large, even for a heavyweight, his punch has been clocked, frame-by-frame, and found swifter than that of Sugar Ray Robinson, the fastest middleweight in anyone’s memory. Ali does not, like many fighters, do speed bag drills to show off in his camp—his punch is faster than the bag can show. There is an irreducible minimum of bounce-back time required between punches at the bag. But not in punches to the head. Ali disdains the dull but often necessary work of slowing men down with fatiguing blows to the ribs, midsection, and arms. Those fighting him know that almost every punch will go to the head, and guard accordingly—it is the equivalent of passing on every play in football, and never using the run. Certain fighters can take a tremendous amount of head punishment, so long as you leave their breathing apparatus alone. Ali does not adjust to this advantage. He just takes it as a greater challenge to his ability to hit even so impassive a head as Frazier’s often enough and hard enough to chop him down.

Speed is nothing without accuracy, of course—and accuracy is the thing that sets Ali apart. Even Joe Frazier has an irregular little bobbing motion to his head that makes him hard to hit. But you would never know it from the Manila fight. Ali’s accuracy is a technical accomplishment grounded in a moral one, in courage. The best rifle in the world is no good without the marksman’s eye. Ali carries his head high and partly exposed, so he can see everything all the time. Even the coolest fighter flinches, closes his eyes, ducks his head while being punched (or a split second before). But Ali more than any other heavyweight keeps both eyes open and on his man all the time. He whips his head back just enough to escape a punch without losing sight of his man. His head seems to float above the fight, looking down on it. Occasionally a barrage will reach up to him, and he swerves away, but with that wide-eyed whinnying expression, as much of measurement as of wonder. He has the best eyes in boxing.

And his eyes are his principal defensive tool. The conventional supposition is that a stand-up “classical” boxer must depend on his legs to protect him—must stay on the move, circling away from the other man’s strong hand, not letting him “set” for the big punch. That kind of mobility a Sugar Ray Robinson could retain through most of his career. And Cassius Clay had it as a light-heavyweight winning his gold medal in the 1960 Olympics. He even had it as a very young heavyweight (twenty-two when he won the professional championship). But no man his size, having reached his mid-thirties, can dance all night with Joe Frazier. Ali has accepted the extra weight of his later years, conditioned it to take any amount of body punches, and set about protecting his eyes. He does this just by slight moves of his head—and mainly moves backward or to the side, so his vision is not blocked. He almost never ducks. He does not pay the price most fighters have to, of evading this punch by losing sight of the next one, momentarily. Ali’s terrific speed and reflexes are not in his feet any more, but in his neck—guided by those undeflectable eyes. (Archie Moore, too, survived what seemed forever on his cool—by perpetual little defensive motions directed from a tranquil observation post.)

There is a quality of sheer concentration in Ali that would tire him if he attempted to sustain it through a long fight—a laser beam burning backward into its own generator. The effort of sighting, of throwing those fast punches, of hitting the target, is too much for him. He rests against the ropes, covering up his head and letting the other fighter punch himself out against his sides. In the thirteenth round of the Manila fight, Ali’s quick flurry, that late in the evening, almost had Frazier out. But Ali could punch no more for a while. His foot slipped, and then he lounged around the ring, regathering resources. Rather than punch slower and slower through the night, Ali likes to deal out his lightnings in little packets, then save up for the next barrage. This loses him points on the scorecard, but he likes that too. He is in love with risk. He takes unnecessary chances.

He has everything—speed, size, strength, looks, charm, defiance. His very childishness takes the edge off the outrageous things he does—as was the case with Babe Ruth. Oddly enough, heavweight champions often look less than imposing. They tend to be spindly-legged like Dempsey or Jack Johnson; stump-legged like Marciano or Frazier; ape-armed like Liston; bony-framed like Patterson. But Ali looks as if Praxiteles had sculpted him from caramel. To get such balanced limbs one normally has to go to smaller men, like middleweight Randy Turpin. Ali’s body seems almost too symmetrical to be functional. He could earn an epi-nikion from Pindar any day. He is a superb athlete. I wonder why that is not enough.

It isn’t, of course. Modern Pindars sing the weirdest songs about Ali. They cluster around him, trying to probe nonexistent mysteries. There is Mailer, under the impression that he is interviewing the Heart of Darkness. (What did Heart have to say today? “Being a fighter enables me to attain certain ends.” Heavy.) Even Wilfrid Sheed asks Ali to recite the Muslim catechism. This buzzing of the literary gents around Ali calls to mind Nathanael West’s description of Faye Greener:

None of them really heard her. They were all too busy watching her smile, laugh, shiver, whisper, grow indignant, cross and uncross her legs, stick out her tongue, widen and narrow her eyes, toss her head so that her platinum hair splashed against the red plush of the chair back. The strange thing about her gestures and expressions was that they didn’t really illustrate what she was saying. They were almost pure. It was as though her body recognized how foolish her words were and tried to excite her hearers into being uncritical. It worked that night; no one even thought of laughing at her. The only move they made was to narrow their circle about her.

Sheer physical beauty, of unusual degree, seems to become different in kind, to call for complementary significances. That can be bewildering to the beauty’s possessor, who feels his or her power over others and recognizes that they want such power to include something more. More than mere animal glow. The magnetic “star” tries to supply this something extra—wit, say; getting primed with one-liners like Marilyn Monroe’s answer to “What do you sleep in?” “Channel Number Five.” Or Muhammad Ali’s “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” (I am surprised, with all these literary gents around, that no one has recalled James Whistler’s graphic “signature”—a butterfly with a bee’s sting added.) When the wit does not work, the star might try profundity—attend Actor’s Studio, marry Arthur Miller, read Dostoevsky.

Ali cannot read books—he is barely able to make out newspaper headlines; but he had his gingerly affair with various causes in the Sixties. His Russian novels became the emerging nations. The surest thing of all is to try religion—become a convert to one of Hollywood’s theological extravagances. The star feels destined anyway; holds special powers. It is in the star’s stars. Superstitions like astrology fill up any gaps in the stricter theology adopted. Ali, of course, had the best religion ever fashioned for a star—one that combined a high regard for money with black militance and Vietnam pacifism. For his draft-dodging he was punished by Spiro Agnew’s Washington, just as Ingrid Bergman had been by Louis B. Mayer’s Hollywood. It added a note of suffering to Ali’s brashness, and made him a Cause somewhere down the line from boycotting grapes. By the end of the Sixties, Ali was the opiate of the intelligentsia.

For some reason, people don’t want fighters just to be fighters. They have to stand for an era, for the color of hope, for a metaphysics of the spirit. Virtue (Floyd Patterson) meets vice (Sonny Liston). Poor Jerry Quarry was, for a while, the voice of the new ethnics. Joe Louis, we were brought up to believe, dropped the first American bombs of World War II on Schmeling’s head. It is as if the art were not enough to redeem boxing’s violence, all that cruelty inflicted on the face—so we prefer to think the loser is being destroyed for some deeply ideological reason. Get the Nazi. Smash the traitor. Beat Whitey. This tendency, quite as degrading as it is silly, reached a new low in Manila, where people cheered for Frazier in the name of family life (Ali’s current “fox” was more conspicuous at this fight than at others). Ali had finally to take a rap not analogous to Ingrid Bergman’s, but identical with it. Our stars have to keep themselves pure. They are our own stars, and no one wants to read dirty jokes in his horoscope.

If all else fails, in our quest to have our heroes escape the confines of a merely physical luster, we can fall back on Hollywood’s ultimate con—the claim that a starlet is really bright because she has the brains to recognize how dumb she is. This ploy turns publicity agents into scholastic disputators; and the star goes readily along:

Had any other girl been so affected, he would have thought her intolerable. Faye’s affectations, however, were so completely artificial that he found them charming. Being with her was like being backstage during an amateurish, ridiculous play. From in front, the stupid lines and grotesque situations would have made him squirm with annoyance, but because he saw the perspiring stage-hands and the wires that held up the tawdry summerhouse with its tangle of paper flowers, he accepted everything and was anxious for it to succeed…. Faye did have some critical ability, almost enough to recognize the ridiculous. He had often seen her laugh at herself.

That is roughly the Wilfrid Sheed Thesis on Ali. The poor fellow may have a short attention span and low IQ; but he is on to his own hype, and graciously shares this awareness with us: “He grins a lot off camera, sheepishly, with an ‘ain’t I a devil? isn’t this just too much?’ quality. As if he wants us to be in on the joke on them: the basic principle of dramatic irony, whether he knows it or not.” Marilyn, too, was always committing Ironies, according to her press agent. “He is, though he says so himself, a humble man: it is one of the weird secrets of his success. Once you notice it, his wildest boasts never bother you again.” Sheed has gone backstage during Faye Greener’s act, and seen the grips at work; so the lines no longer mean what they say for him.

The other Sheed Thesis is that fame on Ali’s scale is a universal currency, convertible to any other kind of power or influence, good or bad. And he fears Ali’s influence will be bad in time, out of mere quest for novelty, when he has worn out whatever good influence he cares to exercise. It is a more sophisticated version of the Ingrid Bergman problem—what if the children find out what Joan of Arc is really doing with her time? Sheed forgets how far Ali had dropped from view by the third year of his “exile.” When he is not fighting, the magic drains from him. Then the doggerel is just doggerel. Ali will be a celebrity as long as he lives—like the Duke of Windsor. But he only rules from the ring.

Luckily, Sheed’s Theses are just used to tie this oversize package together. They are like the labored organizational scheme for the book, taken from Alice in Wonderland. Sheed coasts along like Ali between flurries, holding his head in his gloves. Then we get Deepthink on Ali’s seven souls, or his astrological sign—seeming to prove not only that Ali is a bullshit artist, but that bullshitting is contagious. But always, just when the crowd is getting restive, the Sheed wit leaps out: Muslims are “the street gang gone straight, or fairly straight.” In “the cumbrous dance of champions…fighters strain every nerve to avoid meeting each other.” “The boxing life itself consists largely of guys standing around muttering ‘Have you got the tape?’ ‘No, I thought you had the tape.’ ” Yet Sheed knows and likes boxing, and his description of the first Frazier fight is brilliant.

Norman Mailer has given us sports reportage as autobiography; and Robert Lipsyte practices that genre in a way that should give even its progenitor some second thoughts. True, Lipsyte has a better excuse than most—his time, so far as anyone cares about it publicly, was spent for a decade or so as a sports writer for The New York Times. Toward the end of that term he devoted his whole week to agonizing over three columns, and he tells us that his fine artist’s conscience did not let him do justice in that format to profound things like Dave Meggyesy’s or Jack Scott’s complaints about sports. Lipsyte needs a book to tell us what is wrong with the ethos and business of the big sports in America (what he calls, wearyingly, Sports-World). It is pretty standard stuff—blaming Vietnam on Vince Lombardi, noticing that colleges barter for flesh on two hooves.

The organizing gimmick for this book is provided by Ali, since Lipsyte’s career as a sports writer roughly coincides with that of Ali so far. The implied comparison is more offensive than Mailer’s desire to “take on” each champion he covers. Mailer wants to beat the fighters at their own game, in the ring. Lipsyte wins the silent contest here, because he rigs it on his terms. He grows up, and walks away from SportsWorld, while Ali still lives in it, balling his foxes. Whenever I think there is nothing much to be said for sports after all, I read an attack on them and it has the same effect as Edmund Wilson on Roger Ackroyd—it makes me care again.

Lipsyte’s book reaches a preachy conclusion, saying we should all go out and play healthy games ourselves, not pay others to do it for us. Is that also an argument against letting others write books for us? Maybe. If you take Lipsyte’s advice and cease to care about professional sports, there is nothing much left to care about in his book except himself; and BobsWorld makes SportsWorld seem, by contrast, heaven.

Caring about Mailer is a national duty; as reading him is a joy. He makes up for his poor eyesight with a priceless imagination. His description of the fight in Zaire is a mad flurry of metaphors meant to daze and awe us. And succeeding. It moves in a whirlwind to this lovely coda: “Down came the Champion in sections and Ali revolved with him in a close circle, hand primed to hit him one more time, and never the need, a wholly intimate escort to the floor.”

But behind the metaphors, in Mailer, there is always the hunt for Monsters. Give him one book on Bantu, and Mailer is searching for the secret of Ali’s jungle n’golo. He even thinks he can pump Ali’s n’golo tank full by his own spiritual exercises. Mailer steps around the dividing wall between his hotel balcony and the next one, to give Ali some sympathetic courage. But he does it while drunk, which doesn’t count as much as doing it while sober—he pumped, say, only one gallon of n’golo into the tank. (Zaire’s mumbo-jumbo market was inflated.) He never quite brings himself to do the balcony act while sober, and goes off to the fight convinced he has not properly fueled Ali for the encounter. This is an improvement—only a fight depends on Mailer’s psychic forces this time. Seven years ago he convinced himself that Robert Kennedy’s death was caused by his (Mailer’s) sex life.

Mailer wants to be a moralist, but never quite makes it because he also insists on being a spiritualist. He wants power over the souls of others; and he wants a fist fight to settle great cosmic accounts. “Beat the un-n’goloed!” It sounds better than “Beat Whitey!” or “Kill the nigger!” But it is really worse. Gilbert Chesterton is needed, as exorcist: “The work of heaven alone was material; the making of the material world. The work of hell is entirely spiritual.” There is a good moral argument for “mere” athletic grace and energy.

Ali talks babytalk even when he’s talking dirty. Some of that comes across in the repetitive nagging of a tape made with Frazier on a private drive from Philadelphia to New York and included in The Greatest. But the rest of this “autobiography” is sorted into workaday (if outdated) English by Richard Durham. (He must be one of the few people alive who still write “arms akimbo.”) Since Durham is a former editor of Muhammad Speaks, we can presume the Muslims had some say in this effort, as in other Ali investments; which makes it surprising that Ali is presented as talking so much about the sex life of a fighter. But the Muslims seem to be holding their own Vatican II these days, with Wallace Muhammad playing Good Pope John in a call for dialogue with the “white devils” of yesteryear. Ali has toned down his anti-Christian gibes in this official version—they were only meant like his goadings of Liston or Foreman; he must think of himself and Jesus as colleagues or fellow celebrities.

The book confirms what Sheed and others have noticed—that Ali’s self-absorption is really only broken by discussion of his craft and the watching of great fighters from the past. He is just a studious boxer, despite all the other things men try to make of him. He is the world’s greatest athlete, and the world’s dumbest guru, our philosopher with the 78 IQ. He is bright as a child is bright, responding to things with infectious glee. He is cruel as a child is cruel, with the bored curiosity of long summer afternoons—shouldn’t we torture the cat? He is dull as a child is dull, if one excludes the single thing he does supremely well. His own book is the least interesting thing ever written about him. He has nothing, really, to say, except with his fists. Yet how eloquent they are.

This Issue

October 30, 1975