FROM BLOCK FIGHTING TO REV DR MARTIN LUTHER KING’S BELOVED BLACK COMMUNITY’S “BLACK MESSIAH” ..THE THE MASTER OF HIS FATE … THE CAPTAIN OF HIS SOUL … . UNTIL A RANDOM NATURAL HUMAN FRAILTY TOOK OVER AND REMAINED WITH HIM FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE
“JAWS THEY SAY INVENTED THE BLOCKBUSTER … BUT DAMN IF MUHAMMAD ALI DIDN’T GET THERE FIRST! … Muhammad Ali’s Words Stung Like a Bee, Too JUNE 4, 2016
The day after he upset Liston in 1964, he hooked up with the Nation of Islam and announced that he would no longer be going by his birth name, Cassius Clay. Sure, it was the name of a white abolitionist — from Ali’s own Kentucky, no less — but it felt like a slave name, too.
The news media took its sweet time coming around to “Muhammad Ali.” Many reporters kept calling him Cassius, in a childish, bear-poking style. So he had to fight for that, too. By 1977, when LeVar Burton’s Kunta Kinte chose in “Roots” to be whipped for refusing to repeat his new name, you can imagine a portion of the 30 million people who watched exhaling something like, “Oh. I get it!”
Take this moment from 1974 on “The Mike Douglas Show.” Douglas asks his guest co-host, Sly Stone, to introduce Ali. And Sly — cool, stoned, super-duper enthusiastic — brings Ali out like this: “I love Muhammad Ali.”
Out strolls Ali. He looks crisp in a great dark suit, white shirt and tie. They shake hands, and Sly, in a star-splotched, bell-bottom one-piece, goes in for a hug. Ali has barely taken his seat when Douglas’s joshing sarcasm sets the tone: “You’re happy again today. I can tell.”
Rise of Muhammad Ali
Milestones and career highlights of Ali, a showman in and outside of the boxing ring.
The audience laughs, and then Douglas completes his thought: “You never walk out with a nice smile. You always look troubled,” as if Ali — the world’s greatest athlete, least likely sufferer of fools, and most famous living civil right activist — was supposed to be Soupy Sales.
If Douglas was going there, Ali was going to follow. “I am troubled. We have so many problems in the world,” he says, reclining a bit in his chair, generating suspense with his terrific, meaty Louisville accent, as to whether he would respond with comedy or gloomy candor. With Sly staring at him, he succinctly dispels the suspense: “These shows are so phony. Everybody’s laughing. Everything is a laugh here in America. Ain’t nobody serious. People hungry, war, all kind of trouble.”
Ali questions the complicity of black entertainers in this circus, while Sly mockingly repeats what Ali says and tells him to lighten up: “We ain’t planning on going to church now.”
The more Sly leans toward him, the more Ali seems to lean away — it’s the physics of temperament but also of racial disposition. On this day, Ali has everyday black folks on his mind. Sly doesn’t not share the same concerns, but he makes a passable case for the values of peace and love. This isn’t a disagreement over philosophy but of presentation: Ali didn’t want to be seen smiling if he didn’t feel like it.
Much of America had probably seen Ali chop it up with Howard Cosell on “Wide World of Sports.” But tension between two black men on the subject of their own race wasn’t a regular spice in the daytime-television diet.
Ali with a student during a November 2002 visit to Karte Sei High School for Girls in Kabul, Afghanistan, as a guest of the United Nations. Credit Paula Bronstein/UNICEF, via Getty Images
Even in 2016, it’s arresting, especially with two men this outwardly different. Officially, black is a who. But with Ali, it was always a how. How do you use your blackness both for and against? How is it helping? How might it hurt? How is our own blackness being turned against us?
When he left boxing after his last fight in 1981, he took the majesty of the sport with him. He took the symbolism and grim spectatorial history, too. Boxing is a two-man contest. But if Ali was in the ring, so was the rest of the country.
After him, blackness as a point of public pride had also drifted away from American popular culture — or rather it had been absorbed by the gradual mainstreaming of hip-hop and the proliferation of a black middle class. It found shelter in such apolitical spaces as the Huxtables’ Brooklyn home and Will Smith’s adopted Bel Air mansion.
But in the last few years, something has changed. There’s been increased political awareness of the inequality of black life and outrage over unjust black death. Technology has given megaphones to previously voiceless people. At the same time, major black artists and stars have reconnected blackness, history and politics — from Kanye West and Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to LeBron James, who in 2012 put the Miami Heat in hoodies for an iconic photo after Trayvon Martin’s death. Even our black president has come further unfettered, not simply addressing race but almost luxuriating in his blackness. He told Howard University’s most recent graduating class to embrace its black identity — more or less, as he publicly has.
Some of what’s happened in this period has been rightly received as radical. These are hardly boring times we’re living in. But when the country is seen through the prism of Muhammad Ali, words like “radical,” “truth,” “fame,” and “risk” suddenly feel as if they should come with an asterisk.