The Importance of Boxing in Understanding ‘The Greatest’, Muhammad Ali

As a role model, Ali exemplified the best and brightest that can emerge out of a sport often denigrated and dismissed by a conventional snobbery.

Muhammad Ali vs. Ernie Terrell, Houston Astrodome, 1967. Credit: Cliff/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Muhammad Ali vs. Ernie Terrell, Houston Astrodome, 1967. Credit: Cliff/Flickr CC BY 2.0

‘Ali is America, America is Ali’! Thus, with this refrain, did the historic magnitude of the memorial tribute to Muhammad Ali serve as a uniquely redefining moment in a collective re-imagining of American national identity. It commemorates not only the life and times of the US, but also the world’s most prominent and revered Muslim in a conflicted era of global civil war within the Islamic faith. Indeed, in many respects, the memorial tribute to Ali, which he had carefully scripted himself, might be captured as a statement of ecumenical unity between the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, even extending to other faiths in keeping with his evolved transcendent brotherhood with all of humanity.

Transformations in the US

What the outpouring of sentiment at the vast KFC Yum Center in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, Muhammad’s home, conveyed – not counting what was coming in from around the world – was a new identity point of reference in what it means to be an American. This at a point in the American journey when the US is undergoing a revolutionary demographic transition into a majority-minority nation, when the ‘white USA’ of a bygone era has faded into history with a black president at the helm in the White House.

‘Ali is America, America is Ali’ not only confirms this multicultural transition in the US’s identity; in the process, it underlines the extent to which the African-American presence, liberated out of the struggles of the 1960s and 70s, has emerged as one of the dominant forces in shaping the contemporary American experience of globalisation through the dynamism of black America’s most celebrated icons. Ali is serving as the exclamation point in underlining this impact. Without a doubt, it was the inadvertently ‘political Ali’ unveiled in his principled resistance to being drafted into a US army at war in Vietnam that began his journey beyond boxing, after being forcibly exiled for three and a half years that commenced his transformation into the iconic humanitarian he became. Ali was black America’s gift to the US and the world – and throughout his life, he was the ‘gift that kept on giving’.

The heritage of boxing

However, without boxing, Ali would never have been Ali. And his iconic status as a boxer who far transcended a sport that many have problems identifying with could never have unfolded as it did without boxing. Given how widely revered Ali is for having endured adversity and standing up for what he believed in, for which he was vindicated, it is the seminal boxing dimension of his life and how this fits within the ongoing racial drama defining the American historical and contemporary experience that needs focusing on. Ali the principled, worldly humanitarian is well known. Less well appreciated, except by the aficionados of the sport and boxing fanatics (like yours truly), is the boxing dimension of Ali as ‘The Greatest’ and the role that boxing played in his life, in the social history of American national integration and the implications this holds for much of the rest of the world.

The notion that boxing’s heritage is mainly reflected in how white southern slaveocrats entertained themselves by forcing groups of black slaves to fight each other for their pathological enjoyment thoroughly distorts the social history of boxing as the basal sport in the history of American sports competition – and the still elite status the heavyweight boxing championship holds compared to all other athletic accomplishments. And as one South African sports commentator enthused after seeing junior middleweight Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather spank Arturo Gotti into a 6th round, “Boxing is the only sport. Everything else is a game!”

Boxing in America started out as a ‘white man’s sport’ and, by the boundary between the 19th and 20th centuries, had elevated into becoming the supreme expression of white masculinity in a socio-racial culture. This culture was predicated on the emasculation of the black male and sexual exploitation of the black female while placing the white woman (‘Miss Anne’) on a pedestal – that is, until one of the graduates of the ‘battle royals’ Priyansh alludes to, Jack Johnson, rudely and artfully dismantled the edifice of white male supremacy in lifting the world heavyweight title from Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia on Boxing Day in 1908. After he also demolished a Jim J. Jefferies (forced out of retirement to restore the heavyweight title to ‘the white race’) on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada, this inspired a search for the ‘great white hope’. Johnson, the ‘Galveston Giant’, was such an insufferably arrogant racial rebel in flaunting his disdain for white male presumptions of superiority during the nadir of African-American oppression that no black contender for the heavyweight crown was allowed to contest the title until the 1930s when the ‘Brown Bomber’ Joe Louis was orchestrated to the title in 1937.

Ali’s rebellion 

Johnson, still considered the greatest defensive heavyweight to ever grace the ring, was one of Ali’s inspirations. Yet, Ali would prove to be a racial rebel of a very different type. His rebellion would not find expression in flaunting his way with white women as he exulted in the beauty of ‘blackness’ at a time when racial pride was redefining the activist politics of race during the civil rights-black power sixties. Indeed, Ali’s charisma would fuel this momentum.

Ali double-shocked the US by unveiling his membership in the black separatist Nation of Islam a day after lifting the heavyweight crown from the formidable Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston as Cassius Clay of ‘Louisville Lip’ fame. Thus began a controversial and remarkable journey: from separatist religio-racial nationalism to principled anti-Vietnam war dissent and rejection of being drafted into the US army. This was followed by a three and a half year exile from boxing just as he was about to reach his prime, to a come-back that would see him transcending separatism as he moved toward the non-racial Muslim mainstream and increasingly into a humanitarian vocation on a global scale.

In the process, Ali inspired a new generation of boxers across the world. The fact that he was such an inspiration in his chosen sport as well as more broadly beyond the world of boxing refocuses why ‘The Greatest’ was not just hype in boxing terms but credible to the point of seeing his charisma as the basis of his broader American and global appeal. Hence the need to really understand how Muhammad Ali rates as one of the dominant champions in heavyweight boxing history, especially against such greats as Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano. It should also be kept in mind that the pound-for-pound greatest boxer of all time, at any weight, remains to this day welterweight and middleweight champion Detroiter Sugar Ray Robinson (with the compelling real name, Walker Smith). Whereas Johnson’s ‘uppity nigger’ appealed to the uppity Ali, Ali really idolised Robinson and likened himself to a heavyweight Sugar Ray. And in many respects, superficially, he was a super-sized Robinson – but only superficially.

Wall stencil of Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston. Credit: gingerbeardman/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Wall stencil of Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston. Credit: gingerbeardman/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Unorthodox boxing style

Unlike Robinson, who was a ‘complete fighter’, Ali’s style was as unorthodox as he was, though it would influence any number of fighters coming after him like that rare south Asian king of the ring, former featherweight champion Nazeem Hamid of Britain. As Ali-to-be, the young Cassius was about to step into the ring with ‘that big ugly bear’, he never failed to compare flat-footed Liston to flat-footed Louis while he and the Sugar Man were ‘two pretty dancers’! Yet, Ali was not technically sound. Because of stylistic unorthodoxy, doing things in the ring a professional is not suppose to do like keeping your hands low, leaning away from punches and neglecting to punch to the body, some boxing aficionados are adverse to conferring ‘greatness’ on Ali, although, were he to be matched with any of the past heavyweight greats, he would probably beat them all.

Tom Donelson of Boxing Insider cites boxing historian Frank Lotierzo who surprisingly considers the great ‘Brown Bomber’ Joe Louis Barrow (an Alabama transplant in Detroit, my hometown – also that of Ray Robinson and Tommy Hearns) to have been the classical boxing opposite of Ali. According to Lotierzo, “If you ever wanted to learn the intricacies of boxing, just watch films of Joe Louis. Louis was the complete opposite of Ali for his boxing techniques were exquisite. Trained by Jack Blackburn, Louis learned techniques that helped gain Jack Johnson and Joseph Gans their title thirty years earlier. Louis was the classic boxer, Ali the innovator.”

Yet, stylistically, Louis (who did have fast hands and above average combination punching power) was a flatfooted plodding slugger susceptible to right hand leads and counters over the left jab as in his fateful upset by German ex-heavyweight champ, Max Schmeling on Joe’s seemingly unencumbered path to the title in 1936 – oopsies! Light heavyweight champ Billy Conn and former heavyweight titlist Jersey Joe Walcott (a.k.a Arthur Cream) would expose these weaknesses, in addition to his problem with ‘runners’ or ‘dancing masters’ (as Ali was) who could force him out of the ring. Against either the young Cassius who met Sonny Liston or Ali versions before and after ring exile, Louis’ deficits in height, reach, weight and speed of hand and foot would have seen him succumbing to an early knockout. Ali was a master of the right hand lead followed by the left hook.

The fact of the matter is that past heavyweight champion greats up to Rocky Marciano during the 1950s were much smaller than the heavyweights who would come to dominate the division from the 1960s on. Louis, Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Walcott, Ezzard Charles and Floyd Patterson as well as The Rock would all be classified as cruiserweights, ranging from about 180-200 pounds (lbs). Some like Charles and Patterson were little more than beefed-up light heavyweights. They would have all been decisively outmatched by Ali and his contemporaries who fought over 210 lbs and, in some cases, were fast for their size. When Ali won the title in 1964, he weighed in at 210 and a half pounds to Liston’s 218. In Ali’s first encounter with Joe Frazier, he weighed in at 214 lbs to Frazier’s 204. For the ‘Thrilla in Manila’: 224-215 lbs.

Apart from these weight comparisons, Ali was a freak of nature for a big man: large but not bulky or muscle-bound, but flat-muscled and lith. Yet, he had the hand and foot speed of a lightweight and, before ring exile, the endurance to box up on his toes for 15 rounds. In fact, his hand-speed was measured as above that of the pound-for-pound greatest of all time, his idol, Ray Robinson. Combine this with one who had one of the longer wing-spans in heavyweight history (82 inches) and his opponents more often than not faced an impossible challenge: hand speed plus reach equaling offensive impunity and untouchability. Only after ring exile did Ali encounter antidotes to his gifts in Joe Frazier’s nonstop-swarming, bobbing and weaving pressure and Ken Norton’s awkward cross-armed jab and over-hand right attack. Even then, I would rate Ali’s first losing encounter with Frazier – two great undefeated black heavyweights in was the first genuine ‘fight of the century’ – as the most compelling display of ring greatness.

Ali’s legacy and the importance of boxing

There is no sport as electric as championship boxing at its best, as arena lights shine down on a suspense-filled squared circle. This was a circumstance that was tailor made for Cassius-Ali’s unique gifts based on the apex status of the heavyweight title. Given Ali’s matinee idol good looks epitomising ‘black is beautiful’ (wherein pretty boys are rarely ever endowed with toughness to match and fall apart with the least tap) combined with his charismatic dominance in the boxing ring amplified by the infectious magnetism of his personality and humor, his legendary beyond-the-ring international resonance seemed an organically seamless fit, probably never again to be duplicated by any other sportsman anywhere. As a role model, Ali exemplified the best and the brightest that can emerge out of a sport often denigrated and dismissed by a conventional wisdom of class and culture-exposing snobbery, seeing only its ‘brutality’ while ignoring much good that has and can come from a sport that is perhaps the best equaliser in leveling the playing field for many a disadvantaged young kids in slums, shanty-towns, poor neighborhoods and generally humble backgrounds.

Boxing concentrates both mind and body, demanding a level of discipline that can channel the energies of boys and young men who, otherwise, are cannon-fodder for all manner of pathologies witnessed on a daily basis the world-over. It demands the essence of good sportsmanship. As a character in Harlem Nights (starring Richard Pryor, Red Foxx and Eddie Murphy) put it as a championship match was getting underway: ‘Don’t take ya ass whip’en personally!’ Louis, Schmeling, Patterson and Ingemar Johansson ended up the best of friends after knocking one another silly. George Forman spoke glowingly of Ali.

There is a wealth of athletic talent hidden away in the global South, where there is an urgent need to expand physical education and athletic outlets and options for idle youth. Boxing, within a context of massive social investment in human capital via national and regional sport academies throughout the global South, would serve as a lasting tribute to Muhammad Ali. After all, this is the path that channeled the potential of a humble kid whose bicycle had been stolen into a global icon transcending boxing. No telling how many Muhammad Ali’s await discovery among the burgeoning billions of boys and young men looking for that break that just might be their ticket to Ali’s ‘greatness’.

Francis A. Kornegay, Jr., a native of Detroit, Michigan is a permanent resident in South Africa. He is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Global Dialogue, University of South Africa. Kornegay has written extensively on BRICS, US foreign policy and India-Africa relations.