“My only fault is, I don’t realize how great I really am!”
My preferred way of understanding Muhammad Ali is that he made his career one great big game of chicken. For a while, he was derided by sportswriters as a flamboyant nobody with no sense of shame; dutifully bound to follow his shenanigans, they were stung by him time and again, like a repeated lame joke. Then, at 22, he became the youngest boxer to win the Heavyweight Championship, taking it from the much-older Sonny Liston in Miami in less than seven rounds.
Even when he was Cassius Clay, his unflinching refusal to debase himself, to back down, to drop the act – and there were several – predated the current generation’s gawky obsession with fashioning and highlighting a unique “brand” or “identity” without selling yourself short, or your soul. There would be plenty of tie-ins, but ultimately he managed to avoid both; instead, he sold himself to Americans as personally friendly and broadly furious, about moral failures ranging from deep (racism) to petty (underestimating him.)
The defiance was often for its own sake. He could be viciously cruel to his opponents, always claiming it was mere preparation for a fight…. and for a while, he took orders (and some of his most beloved quotes) straight from the Nation of Islam. He was a chronic womanizer; one member of his entourage called him a “pelvic missionary”. But although the sum total of his resistance doesn’t amount to a single linear political philosophy, you can’t say he was cowardly – or ineffectual. His candor and innovation in the sphere of public speaking (as theatre, really) dovetailed perfectly with his stubborn refusal to call it quits as a boxer – which, in the ultimate Pyhrric victory, is why he can barely talk anymore.
Was he a hero? I can’t say – but concurrent with his dexterity in the ring, which will hopefully be getting plenty of attention this week, he was made for cinema. If Ali were a mere private citizen, any number of shortcomings would hurt his image. But that image is so tremendous, so crisp, so well refracted, that the fact that he turns 70 today only reinforces the sacrifice of his performance – which is to say, his life. When it comes to videos on YouTube, these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but since I’m not a sportswriter, I thought I’d share a couple of my favorite performances / renditions:
I showed this clip from William Klein’s classic doc Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (also known as Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee) to friends and the reaction was unanimous disgust – one volunteered that the champ sounded like he’d been brainwashed. That’s not too far from the truth; Klein’s documentary concerns itself specifically with his transition from Cassius Clay, a “franchise” owned by a group of Kentucky businessmen, to Muhammad Ali – the world’s most famous Muslim, the Heavyweight Champion of the World at 22. Here you can see him mid-stream.
This type of scat-talk, political or not, was his other specialty, drawing on stream-of-consciousness memory retrieval techniques he picked up from preachers and musicians growing up in Louisville, Kentucky. Klein correctly isolates Ali’s monologue as an act of spontaneity that goes just as naturally as it comes – enough said.
There’s an indefatigable likeness between the pep talks of Buford (Wayne Mahan) in John Huston’s Fat City – something of a comeback in and of itself – and those of Ali. It’s unclear whether the scene is a kind of patriarchal tut-tutting on the part of Huston and writer Leonard Gardner, or a testament to Ali’s influence on young black men of the era. Since Huston was a boxing aficionado, and since Buford gets his ass handed to him, my money is on the latter. The film was shot in 1971, when it was accepted wisdom that Ali would never regain the Heavyweight title.
Michael Mann’s 2001 biopic is less an act of fealty than moviegoers seem to have presumed: as this dizzying intro demonstrates, Mann and producer Will Smith wanted to wrap an authentic portrait of the 1960s zeitgeist – you could call it “An African-American Experience” – around Ali, situating him moreso as a product of his cultural environment than as an idiosyncratic lightning rod. Put plainly, that’s the wrong argument, well made – and same goes for Smith’s performance, which never deviates too far from the solemn moon-face you can see above. The filmmakers are awful, actually, with the big emotional turning points, mandated by a studio prestige picture – so why do I find myself reexamining it at least once a year?
The look and feel of Ali’s experiences is more vivid and, well, boring – that is to say, “uncinematic”, which is to say, realistic – than biopics nearly ever allow. Sonny Liston actually looks and moves like Sonny Liston. There are intuitive, savorous performances from a giant cast (Jon Voight, Giancarlo Esposito, Nona Gaye, Bruce McGill, Mario Van Peebles), and tactile, razor-sharp details that simultaneously deserve better than, and work against, the screenplay’s flavorless rise-fall-rise structure. One wonders if Mann, standing as usual at the intersection of verité and impressionism, wouldn’t have done better to make a miniseries, or an eight-hour-long video art installation. (It’s a heck of a lot better than The Greatest, in which the mostly-retired Ali awkwardly plays his much younger self in a number of flimsy, frequently hilarious dramatic reenactments.)
One way of measuring Mann and Smith’s artistic self-confidence is checking how closely they decided to hew to the public record in their recreation of events. The thinnest portion of their story (which spans basically 10 years) is the gap between Ali’s 1967 censure from boxing and his triumphant return in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle”, promoted by Don King. The emotional crux of the film, wherein Ali (apparently) recognizes his intrinsic iconic value, comes in preparation for that fight, which he won in yet another significant upset. Leaving aside the Power of One moment, this stuff is covered well in Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings, some scenes from which Mann and his team copied nearly beat for beat.
But boy, do I wish someone would distribute the entire Waldorf-Astoria press conference announcing the match, from which the above clip is taken. (Some of it also turns up in Soul Power, the corollary live concert doc to the Zaire fight.) King seems like he wants to break a piece of Ali’s rhetorical style off for himself (see fist pump, repetitions), but his face also betrays a certain tiredness – maybe discomfort at the unpredictability of his latest prize pony. Ali is clearly having a great time taunting his opponent, the journalists, the betting pool, and King himself, vacillating between inane self-glorification and a sweet astonishment at the fact that he’s getting away with it. (The only person who escaped his ire was James Brown.)
After beating Foreman, Ali squared off against Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila, a nasty, horrendous match which left both participants debilitated well beyond its fourteen rounds. Ali was at his most verbally abusive in the weeks before the fight, and personal tensions were even higher than in Zaire; by most accounts, neither boxer was ever the same again afterwards. John Dower’s 2008 documentary is a sad corrective to the myth of Ali’s magnanimity, featuring extensive interviews with Frazier, who carried a certain bitterness towards Ali to the grave.
It’s an open question whether it’s more depressing for a boxer to die young – like Sonny Liston – or to age forever, as Ali appears to be doing; living the bulk of your life off of a fistful of choice accomplishments from your youth would be grating for anybody, let alone someone who needs help wiping their own mouth. If you’ve the inclination, it’s possible to track Ali’s Parkinson’s from its earliest signs, post-Manila, to the present via YouTube clips; in this one and countless others, you can see Ali’s determination to get on with it, and that has a kind of dignity of its own.
And finally, some actual boxing. There’s no better evidence of Ali’s jarringly new technique (disputed by some as illegitimate, given the prancing, parrying and multiple-punch accumulations) than the pivotal first match in Miami against Sonny Liston. You can see why commenters use terms like “monster puncher” to describe the then-champion’s old school style, but the fifth round of this fight is a master class in what would become Ali’s “rope-a-dope” technique: he had worn Liston down well before the sixth, final round.
It seems like Liston was genuinely uncertain in the interim between 6th and 7th whether he’d get up to fight again; the commentators figured it was a matter of rounds, not seconds. Speaking of, where does this toad-faced schmuck get off stepping on guest correspondent Joe Louis’ lines, dispatching him to interview Liston after the fight ends? Call it a morsel of insight into American race relations circa 1964, not to mention the general drudgery faced by retired boxers on the national level – which is still pretty much the norm.
The closest he gets to comeuppance is his pathetic attempt to engage a conversation the gloating, euphoric, hypnotizing post-victory-dance Ali, who proceeds to bark fire-and-brimstone pronouncements straight into the cameras without ever breaking gaze; he doesn’t care who’s listening. Within two weeks, he accepted the name given to him by Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam: “Muhammad Ali”. The name “Muhammad” means “worthy of all praises”; “Ali” means “most high.” Watching this, you gotta give the guy points for conviction.