In 1970, when Muhammad Ali made his return to boxing after more than three years in exile, his co-trainer and cheerleader, Drew “Bundini” Brown, exhorted him by conjuring the memory of Jack Johnson, the first black man to hold the heavyweight championship, whose career had striking parallels with Ali’s. “Ghost in the house, champ!” Bundini called out. “Jack Johnson’s here!”
By the time Ali died Friday night at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, he had become the ghost in the house of American sports, the prototype of the modern athlete: self-promoting, egotistical—“I am the Greatest,” he insisted—and as much savvy entertainer as heroic competitor. He did more than anyone else to merge sports with both entertainment and hard news. He was the first athlete to play to the crowd while he was competing, hip, years ahead of anyone else, to the irony of sports as a spectacle, and how mass media offered athletes the chance to shape their own version of events, even as they unfolded. His charisma was like a force field. A monumentally famous person in a pre-social media age, Ali’s global appeal didn’t need anything so desperate as Facebook; Twitter trails breadcrumbs in his wake.
He liked to say that other athletes appeared on the sports pages, but he, Ali, appeared on the front pages. And so he did, again and again, whether by winning the title that long stood at the forefront of American sports—the heavyweight championship—or battling the U.S. government over his refusal of military service in Vietnam and coming within a Supreme Court technicality of going to jail; or of coming back to reclaim his cherished title, waging battles followed around the world; or struggling in retirement with Parkinson’s, an affliction as contemporary as today’s headlines, resonating with debates over head trauma in other violent sports.
Along the way, Ali transformed himself from a figure who, in the 1960s, was as polarizing as anyone in American life to one who, on his deathbed, drew tributes from across the political spectrum. A generation has come of age seeing Ali as a moon-faced bear of a man, shaking with his illness, a symbol, some said, of love. Yet he built a career that blew apart a cultural consensus. Contrary to the consensus that now prevails, it’s not clear that the results, on balance, are an improvement. That we speak more openly about race today in sports surely owes to Ali’s influence. To the extent that these conversations are constructive, that’s a positive development, but what Ali often fostered, in his prime years, anyway, was racial divisiveness, and we have much more of that today than we need.
Likewise, it is now conventional to celebrate Ali’s liberation of the athletic ego, his breakaway from the dreaded repression of the self. In discrediting long-held standards of proper athletic deportment—especially the mandate that one respect one’s opponents—Ali had a corrosive effect on American sports just at the moment that sports were about to blast off into unparalleled prominence and profit. His influence can be seen in the baseball players who linger at the plate to watch homeruns, as if admiring themselves in the mirror; the football players who stage elaborate dances after making routine tackles; and the basketball players who pound their chests and point to nameless interlocutors. Athletes may be superior today to those in the past, but the sports themselves, drenched in analysis and hype, are mostly joyless. The same goes for pop culture more generally, which, overrun by the command to be “authentic,” has become broadly unwatchable, unlistenable, and irredeemable.
And yet, somehow it seems unfair to blame Ali too much. For one thing, he was never joyless, and his act was so fresh that, like most originals, he deserves indemnification from what others did with his inventions. For another, though he could be tiresome—he recycled the same lines for years—he also had manners, boundless charm, and his own version of decorum that, by today’s standards, was deeply conservative. At his best, Ali was a one-man carnival, constrained only by the occasional need for sleep. When a legion of skeptical white sportswriters saw enough of who he could be—the generous heart, the childlike interest in hijinks and magic, the almost limitless accessibility to the public, the love of life—they became Ali fans. The forbidding Fruit of Islam bodyguards that surrounded him, his continued spouting of Nation of Islam doctrine, the inveterate womanizing, and the ego-driven spite that led him to defame good men, could all be subsumed as part of the whole, not the whole itself.
“How can people consider Ali a historic figure from the 1960s?” asked the late Mark Kram, who covered him for Sports Illustrated. “He wasn’t for civil rights; he was for separation of the races. He wasn’t for women’s rights; he treated them like second-class call girls. He was never really against the war; he was told not to go by Elijah Muhammad because it would be a PR disaster for the Muslims. These were the hot issues of the sixties, and he was on the wrong side of history in all of them. . . . Why isn’t it enough for people that Ali was the greatest fighter ever?”
Kram is right on all counts; Ali’s status as a civil rights hero is a farce. Yet Kram fails to account for how Ali inspired blacks in difficult times. He was proud when others were sheepish, bold when others were timid. His politics, such as they were, pale beside the inspiration that millions found in his life and career, for good and bad reasons. Working the switches of the cultural-iconization machine, liberal media did the rest.
For many, it’s not enough to remember Ali as the great boxer that he was because boxing, so marginalized now in American life, seems a tawdry thing to hang one’s hat on. How could such a magnetic personality emerge from such a base activity? Ali himself, in his later years, said that boxing was just his first act, the staging ground from which he could do the real work of his life.
Don’t believe it. The Ali we’ll remember—the handsome, dashing, rapping, floating Adonis—loved boxing most of all, and loved holding “the richest prize in sports” as much or more than any of his predecessors. He was, after all, willing to trade his health for it. His bitterest rival, Joe Frazier, saw Ali’s affliction as divine retribution. Others might think, as George Plimpton did, that Ali’s fate reflected the inverse of Oscar Wilde’s famous line: we’re destroyed by what we love. Either way, this most condemned of sports produced the most loved athlete since Babe Ruth, and, for a time, the most famous person on the globe. Ali belonged to America and to the world, but he also belonged to boxing. When he was gone, he often warned, the game would die. Let it die, many say today; it’s barbaric. They might first ask themselves whether, in a modern, secular society, there is any permissible space, outside of the military, for a warrior culture. Ali’s jokes and joy always obscured the fact that he, too, was a warrior. Whether he was the “greatest” of these, as he always claimed, seems beside the point. By any measure, he was the one and only.
Paul Beston is managing editor of City Journal. His history of the heavyweight championship in America will be published next year.