Magazine June 27, 2016, Issue

The Tragedy of Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali training in Miami Beach, 1970 (Chris Smith/Popperfoto/Getty)
Why didn’t he stop fighting in time?

‘History,” sportswriter Dave Kindred wrote of Muhammad Ali in 1978, “was his sideman.” If only Ali’s history — at least his boxing career — had ended before that year.

How many of us, reeling from the champ’s death earlier this month at age 74, would trade the “inspiring” Ali of the Olympic flame and beyond — the incapacitated Ali — for an Ali who walked and talked his whole life? Why should we accept the idea that with the negation of Ali’s trademark abilities, those that transfixed the world, he accomplished more as a global figure, carried greater meaning, than he would have if he had given up boxing at the right time and spent the second half of his life traveling and speaking freely?

Disabled individuals are of course not defined solely by their disability, but most of them suffer through no fault of their own, whereas the medical consensus is that Ali’s exercise of free moral agency brought about his incapacitation. Accordingly, in chronicling his life, what emphasis should we place on the dark end to his boxing career — the life-altering decisions that put The Greatest in a wheelchair? Isn’t Ali’s conduct at that crossroads, 1978–81, equal in significance to, more directly consequential than, his religious conversion or anti-war stand? Should the Bad Years have the same effect on Ali’s legend as they did on his body and quality of life?

Of all the contradictions surrounding the champ, the greatest — to borrow a phrase — was this conflict between the entrancing magic he conjured and the grim reality, the ultimate fate, of his actual life. In no other human being is the chasm between man and myth so large. His wife, Lonnie Ali, always beseeched us not to feel sorry for him, as Muhammad Ali himself did not; but to ask this of the world was as impossible as the world’s asking that the Ali show roll on forever. All sane adults felt sorry for Ali, wished for him an existence without Parkinson’s.

All those blows to the head were easily slipped, however, if one were not in the ring. Thus Ali’s story is chiefly a cautionary tale. Classifying him as a tragic figure is neither myopic nor an act of bad faith. To the contrary, this view properly treats Ali’s slow destruction of himself as a transgression against God’s vision, not the fulfillment of it; exalts man over myth, husband and dad over icon, real life over historical legacy.

Part of Ali’s greatness, as Elliott Gorn has written, was that he “refused to accept old athletic stereotypes” and “insisted by his actions on creating a new kind of sports hero.” And yet this singular revolutionary wound up broke and battered, just like so many other heavyweight champions — indeed, like just about all of them, save Rocky Marciano, who, uniquely, retired undefeated.

True, Ali avoided the supreme ignominy of his boyhood idol, Joe Louis, who was forced out of retirement at 36 by tax debts, then forcibly retired from boxing, in October 1951, in the ugliest way: knocked through the ropes by an ascendant Marciano. It is also true that Ali’s post-boxing life proved far more productive than that of Louis, whose infirmities included cocaine addiction and who eked out a living as a Las Vegas greeter.

Yet for all those who savored Ali, believed he was The Greatest, and wanted only the best for him, it was not terribly different from what had happened to Louis to see Ali, at 38, slumped on his stool in a parking lot outside Caesars Palace in October 1980, eyes black and blue, unable to continue against Larry Holmes, a former sparring partner. Now we know, as we couldn’t then, why Ali moved so stiffly, threw so few punches, evaded so few of Holmes’s. The Greatest was sick, his condition noticeably worsened by all the matches he should never have accepted after the Thrilla in Manila of October 1975, his third and climactic bout with Joe Frazier: the 15-round slugfests against hard-hitting Ken Norton and Jimmy Young (1976), Earnie Shavers (1977), and Leon Spinks (twice in 1978).

Inflicting the greatest damage to The Greatest, though, was the Holmes fight: the most painful of Ali’s matches to watch today, a corner of the ring biographers mostly avoid. At the time, the boxing press was split: Some argued that Ali, inactive for two years and having shed 40 pounds to resemble his lithe, younger self, could conjure the old magic once more. Many others, including Ali’s former corner physician Ferdie Pacheco, publicly begged him to retire, citing Ali’s slurred speech — commented on since 1978 — and the prospect of permanent brain damage.

Foremost in this latter group was Holmes. Years earlier, when they had sparred, Holmes had nourished the heretical thought that he could whup his idol; now, the WBC champion viewed Ali’s frailty with compassion. “As a friend,” Holmes pleaded, via Sports Illustrated, that April, “if you’re broke, sell the houses and the cars. You can do other things. Don’t swallow your pride just to make some money. Don’t get into the ring. You can’t beat nobody. . . . Let your kids have their pride.”

Why didn’t Ali listen? Isn’t that the central question his biographers must hereafter grapple with? What was it that propelled this man across the Rubicon of self-preservation?

Was it, as Holmes suggested, simple economics — the underwriting of all the luxury cars and real estate, the four marriages and the large brood of children, the extravagant displays of charity, the misappropriations of the Nation of Islam, the care and feeding of The Entourage? Was Ali innately self-destructive? Or was he driven by simple boredom and vanity, an addiction to the game wedded to a sense of invincibility?

Ali was acutely aware of the physical torment he was inflicting on himself — and of all he was risking, in historical terms, if he persisted. Five years earlier, the morning after the Thrilla — the greatest of all heavyweight championship bouts, an event so punishing for both fighters that Ali called it the “closest thing to dyin’ I know” — he told Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated that late in the bout he had begun to think the same thoughts he had heard marathon runners entertain near the 26th mile: “You get so tired. It takes so much out of you mentally. It changes you. It makes you go a little insane. I was thinkin’ that at the end. Why am I doin’ this? What am I doin’ in here against this beast of a man? It’s so painful. I must be crazy.”

An overlooked factor in Ali’s decision to continue fighting, I believe, was an ancient antagonism — not against Holmes, whom Ali recognized as a good man, one he had trouble demonizing and demeaning like past opponents — but rather against an amorphous opponent Ali had battled his whole career: the boxing press.

Remember that Cassius Clay’s first order of business after dethroning Sonny Liston, with the Miami Convention Center in bedlam, was to scold the sportswriters at ringside, 93 percent of whom had picked Liston. Eat your words! Clay screamed. Minutes later, in his dressing room, he scornfully taunted his chroniclers. What are you gonna say now, huh? . . . Never talk about who’s gonna stop me! And across 1980, that strange season of belief and disbelief, Ali again bristled when the press spoke of his being stopped. I’m gonna make the boxing press look like fools! he declared. Peter King, editor of KO magazine, was nobody’s fool. Their interview is an essential document:

King: You once said you never wanted to wind up like Joe Louis . . .

Ali: I never said that. I wouldn’t say that about Joe, embarrass the man like that. [In fact, Ali told Sports Illustrated in April 1967 that his Nation of Islam managers would “see to it that I don’t wind up like Joe Louis.”] . . . I’m known for taking punches. I’ll never get knocked out.

King: . . . A lot of people say you have not had a real good fight, you have not looked good, since the third Frazier fight in 1975.

Ali: This just makes it more interesting. . . . People got to realize the extent of my greatness. . . . I’ve never really trained hard for a fight. . . . I still dance like I did ten years ago . . .

King: How is your hand speed? Is it as fast as it was?

Ali: No different than it was when I fought Spinks. Maybe a little faster. I’m tellin’ you, I ain’t no different.

If you lose to Holmes, King finally asked, won’t you be destroying the legend it took you 15 years to build?

“The legend would be destroyed,” Ali said. “People will say, ‘He’s so dumb, he made a dumb decision. He had it made: He had money, commercials, movies, good-lookin’, three times champ, came back and lost, wasn’t this terrible?’. . .  All my life it would bother me.”

It should bother us, too.

– Mr. Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent of Fox News and the author, most recently, of Cheney One on One.

James Rosen — Mr. Rosen is a reporter for Sinclair Broadcast Group and the editor of A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century (2016), an anthology of essays by William F. Buckley Jr.

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