Let’s all be more like The Greatest
We should celebrate Ali’s 70th birthday by ditching trendy self-pity and aiming to be as brash as he was.
The 2008 HBO documentary, Thriller in Manila (see a review here), tells the story of the epic rivalry between heavyweight boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. In the battle for our sympathies, it was Frazier who won that particular fight. The film shows how Ali taunted Frazier, portrayed him as an establishment figure, an ‘Uncle Tom’. He labelled Frazier a brute and called him a gorilla. Ali’s savage caricature helped to turn the public against Frazier at the time and diminish his reputation. Though he was widely regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all time, ‘Smokin’ Joe’ died last year, in relative poverty and obscurity.
Ironically, Frazier’s hard-luck story is closer to the experiences of most average folk than the extraordinary life and career of Muhammad Ali. And yet it is Ali, not Frazier, who is the hero. Why? The reason is that despite his well-publicised flaws, Ali has exemplified qualities to which so many of us traditionally aspire. Unfortunately, these are the qualities that over the past 20 years have come to be regarded as unhealthy, undesirable and dangerous.
In the early 1960s, Ali – then still called Cassius Clay – defied the expectations and sympathies of the boxing establishment by defeating Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion, aged just 22. The boxing world hadn’t given him a chance. He was disliked and dismissed: ‘The only thing at which Clay can beat Liston is reading the dictionary’, said the Los Angeles Times. The New York World-Telegram predicted that the fight would ‘last almost the entire first round’. Out of the 46 ringside reporters, 43 predicted Liston to win by a knockout.
The primary reason he was so disliked by the boxing world was because he was outspoken, boastful, arrogant and black. Black fighters had long dominated the boxing ring, but they weren’t supposed to have opinions, let alone hold themselves in such high regard as Ali did. His cockiness and showmanship drew contempt from the establishment, but they were qualities that would soon endear him to ordinary people around the world.
In the ring, he fought with unusual style and grace. Boxing, especially the heavyweight variety, was seen as animalistic and, in the eyes of many, hardly a sport at all. The young Clay danced around the ring, weaving and jabbing at his opponents. He employed skill and speed rather than brute force. All sport fans want to win, but like all humans, they too appreciate beauty and elegance.
Ali’s career was thrilling and inspiring because he so often bucked the odds. He came back when he was widely written off. He remained on his feet when others would have gone down. And he got back up when others would have literally thrown in the towel. His other great rival, George Foreman, says of him: ‘A hero is a guy that you get into a corner and you beat him and you beat him and you beat him and, rather than going down, he says to himself: “If I go down, all the people that believe in me will go down with me. I must stand.”’
Perhaps most inspiring for many of us was Ali’s willingness to speak out, express unpopular and controversial ideas, and to stand by them, regardless of the consequences. His tenacity and bravery were often breathtaking. As a black Southerner, he knew very well the ruthlessness US authorities could show towards their adversaries, especially black ones. Yet he never shirked from voicing his understandably militant views on race and other issues, which often brought him into conflict with the state, the media and public opinion.
Ali’s controversial views and his infamous refusal to fight in Vietnam led to vilification, the loss of his world title, a four-year ban from boxing and the threat of jail. In a similar position, with so much to lose, most other people would surely have succumbed to conformity. That other black American hero at the time, James Brown, is credited with keeping the peace in Boston on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Brown appealed for calm, told protesters to return to their homes and even appeared on stage with the city’s mayor. It’s difficult to imagine Ali taking a similar stance at the time.
Muhammad Ali is not only one of the greatest boxers of all time; he also displayed so many qualities we consider ‘heroic’, to which so many of us aspire. Unfortunately, they are qualities and values that in our contemporary culture are being counted out.
For example, we are told today that we should worry that our words and ideas might offend others, causing cultural discord or psychological harm. The flipside to this is that many people rush to take offence and show their anguish. The recent example of young black professional footballer Tom Adeyemi, who reportedly broke down in tears in front of 45,000 fans after a single individual shouted an offensive remark, shows how far behind we have left Muhammad Ali’s heroics.
The conformist behavioural codes we are encouraged to follow today – ‘be meek’, ‘look the other way’, ‘don’t take risks’, ‘don’t speak out’, ‘don’t stand out’, ‘don’t be controversial’ – are a universe away from the values espoused by The Greatest. Sadly, most of us do keep our heads down. We let the ‘experts’ and the authorities take away our control and let them act (usually incompetently) on our behalf. In short, we surrender our authority. Yet we feel bad about doing so because we are intuitively drawn towards values like decisiveness, bravery and autonomy that we used to celebrate in our heroes, like Muhammad Ali.
If we really want to celebrate Muhammad Ali’s birthday, it’s time to revive the values he so brilliantly embodied. Let’s be more outspoken about what we really think and worry less about giving offence. Let’s learn again to be thick-skinned, not be so easily offended, and to give back as good as we get.
Let’s trust our own instincts more, too. Bringing up our children, dealing with problem neighbours, or demanding unruly kids at the back of the bus behave themselves are amongst the many problems we fret about unnecessarily. They’re all problems with which our parents and grandparents had to deal, and they succeeded without consulting ‘experts’ or running to the council or a community safety officer for help. In short, let’s be big, let’s be brave and let’s stop being afraid of our own shadows.
Happy seventieth birthday Muhammad Ali. Thanks for being a great entertainer, sportsman, an inspiration and a hero.
Niall Crowley blogs about music at On the Real Side.