NOTE: R.I.P., Muhammad Ali (Jan. 017-1942- June 4-2016)
The cruelest fate to have befallen Muhammad Ali is not the Parkinson’s that has reduced him to a state of sorrowful immobility, nor the age and infirmity that have rendered him mute before a world that, more than ever, demands his fearless commentary. No, the saddest of all ironies is that, four decades beyond many of the events that constitute the new documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali, the self-proclaimed Greatest of All Time has become respectable. From White House ceremonies to Olympic spectacles, Ali, once one of the most polarizing figures in American sport, if not the entire culture, now sits before us a pathetic caricature of cuddly revisionism. The fault lies not with Ali himself, of course, but the very nation he so artfully skewered during a career defined as much by its controversy as the unparalleled poeticism of his pugilistic talents. From the comfort of our collective hindsight, what we currently respect is not the Ali of legend the brash, confident egomaniac of charged sexuality and fearless abandon but rather its polar opposite, the safely neutered saint. The Ali of today, not the actual man, but instead our distorted image of him, seems to exist independent of history itself, as if the radicalism, bravery, and racial rhetoric of yesteryear have been re-imagined as the soft shoe of a harmless entertainer.
Much more than the contemporary erosion of the rough edges that defined Alis life for much of the 1960s, however, is the retroactive assassination of his very character. Sure, Ali was young, impressionable, and astonishingly nave in the early days of his conversion to the Nation of Islam, but he was in fact a true believer. The black Muslims, especially Elijah Muhammad himself, almost certainly used Ali in their quest for respectability, but Ali was no fool. Any man so singularly devoted to his craft could just as easily become enraptured by a calling that offered solutions to, as well as explanations for, the racial injustice that permeated every avenue of national life. The obsessively dedicated, after all, rarely employ half measures. As this film explains, and today’s America so conveniently ignores, the Ali of those glory years, having dispatched Sonny Liston for the title, spoke as much about his politically-charged faith as his profession. The public Ali, between landing the punches that made him rich and famous, castigated white America again and again for its failures, hypocrisies, and unending brutalities. His words, though sometimes simplistic and painted with the broadest of brushes, were always earnest, and, in light of past atrocities, never less than warranted. And with charisma to burn, more and more people were listening.
Thankfully, one can simultaneously embrace the courageous Ali for his unflinching attacks while despising the movement that helped give them life. I rarely disagreed with anything Ali had to say about white America at the time, but shame on the champ for not being similarly skeptical of the snakes in his own grass. The very group Ali so revered unquestionably ordered the murder of its most visible former member (Malcolm X), and Elijah Muhammad himself, truth be told, was simply a street hustler in religious garb. Predictably, the money and the sex meant as much to his Honor as any of the words he peddled as gospel. But Ali was a good soldier, and he toed the company line as well as anyone ever could. What one cannot do, however, is pretend this chapter of Alis life was never written. He spoke openly and often of his full support for racial segregation (in direct opposition to the wider Civil Rights Movement), and he never backed down from the white devil rhetoric that littered the groups literature. His racial beliefs were, then and now, on the fringe of the debate, attracting an element more desirous of revenge than a seat at the lunch counter. Martin Luther King and his foot soldiers were a threat, sure, but they simply wanted in. Ali and the Nation of Islam, in contrast, wanted out. By a method of their own choosing.
Had Alis journey ended there, as a dedicated, perhaps slightly incoherent black Muslim, it stands to reason that boxing would have once again become the central thrust of his life. White America would have gladly returned to its cocoon of distraction, with Alis life, uninterrupted by anything approaching controversy, becoming a quieter, more focused reality. Thankfully, the Vietnam War presented Ali with his most appreciable challenge yet how to remain true to his beliefs while surviving the torrent of abuse to follow. It is in his refusal to be drafted that Ali shed the skin of a mere rabble-rouser and became the conscience of a generation. Sure, his argument relied on the so-called protected status of the conscientious objector (and his role as religious minister) a legally sound, but far less powerful stance than as moral/political opponent of a particular war but his unflinching stance laid bare a fundamental rift in the American psyche that remains to this day. By refusing to kill his fellow man simply because the government provided legal cover for doing so, Ali became the most visible symbol of the still-radical notion that patriotism has nothing whatsoever to do with military service. Fighting for ones country, then, takes on many forms, with a display of arms often the least defensible. And because his livelihood depended on physical courage and skill, accusations of cowardice were the least plausible explanation for his viewpoint. Perhaps, just perhaps, its the war itself, not its opponent,that is wrong.
As Ali’s legal journey wound its way through the system, eventually being favorably decided by the Supreme Court in 1971, his inability to earn a living in the ring forced him to the lecture circuit. Initially raw and unprepared, Ali eventually settled in as the expected foil to a host of predictable challengers. College campuses were often the venue of choice, though wherever he went, Ali faced as much hostility as loving support. Like Ali himself, the Vietnam War has been distorted by historical amnesia, with far more in opposition today from the safety of their living rooms. As the conflict escalated, and the body count rose ever-higher, anti-war sentiment became more pronounced, but at the time of Alis blunt refusal (1967), challenging the governments foreign policy remained the minority position. It is this truth that makes Alis singular protest that much braver in retrospect, especially in light of how much he stood to lose. Prison time beckoned, yes, but consider the core of the matter: an American citizen, assumed to reside under the cloak of Constitutional protection, was legally prevented from earning a living because of an opinion. He put it all on the line, heedless of the end game. No life, no liberty, and much of the country against you. By avoiding war, he reaped the true whirlwind.
There was, of course, a third act to Alis life; much of it safely ringside, from the epic trilogy involving Joe Frazier, to the unforgettable Rumble in the Jungle. If anything, its what we choose to remember most about him, if only because they best remind us of his ultimate brilliance as a heavyweight fighter. But while a man like Ali backed up his braggadocio with genuine ability, the legacy endures because, at bottom, it all meant something. More was at stake. Larger issues loomed. Boxing as metaphor, with repercussions beyond the final bell. Compare, for example, a man like Muhammad Ali to the contemporary athlete of your choosing. We have assorted eccentrics and loudmouths who appear to be chasing Alis ghost, but while they’ve mastered the champs self-regard, they lack his overall vision and sense of daring. Their mouths fall open at every opportunity, but nothing worth a damn ever spills out. Where the only noble cause is ignoble self-promotion. Its that absence of professional courage that best defines today’s sportsman, and its utterly impossible to imagine a single one of them risking a dime for anything of merit. Causes kill careers, and politics wont help move jersey sales.
In the end, The Trials of Muhammad Ali is not the whole story, nor is it necessarily a fair one. Ali emerges from the film relatively unscathed, even if its clear that his Islamic faith was no barrier to taking off his pants time and time again. What the hell, the man loved women. Like so much that surrounded him, they were there to serve, not be served, but in the one arena that truly mattered, he stood tall. He defended an indefensible criminal syndicate in the Nation of Islam, but there’s no reason to suspect his personal faith, nor his ultimate political stance. As with so many, his complexities and contradictions beat back the temptation to simplify, even if what were left with is less demi-god than flawed hero. And even if we’ve forgotten what he did, and more importantly, why he did it, the final verdict remains fairly unambiguous. Muhammad Ali will always be an important man, a vital voice, and one of the 20th century’s indisputable icons. There may not be a more famous man now alive. But were not allowed to change him. Accept him whole, or not at all. When spit upon, he spit back. He confronted the most sacred institution of them all, Americas one true church, and emerged redeemed. When we honor him further, if we choose to do so, let that be his most cherished legacy.