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Divine Punches

Muhammad Ali made every big fight into a moment of moral and political crisis in the culture.


Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times

By Thomas Hauser (Simon and Schuster, 543 pp., $24.95)

For even the knowing coves, for whom the significance of Muhammad Ali as a boxer and a cultural figure is beyond question, his eminence may be best understood by means of a particular set of comparisons, of a set of historical triads, if you will. The first of these triads would be Jesse Owens-Jackie Robinson-Muhammad Ali: the epochal black athletes who turned certain racial and social conventions on their heads. But in fact Joe Louis belongs in place of Ali as the pioneer black in American popular culture. Then there is the triad of Martin Luther King-Malcolm X-Muhammad Ali: the black leaders of the 1960s. But Ali, who was certainly an influential figure in the era, partly because his youth and his physical beauty symbolized the type of energy that American culture always romanticizes, was not a leader, or a thinker, in the sense that King and Malcolm were. Here again his name should be replaced, perhaps by Stokely Carmichael or Huey Newton. Ali does belong with Dick Gregory and James Brown, as an especially significant and self-consciously political black entertainer of the ‘60s, and with Jim Brown and Curt Flood as one of the great politicized black athletes. But the most telling of all the groupings is surely that of Muhammad Ali with Joe Louis and Jack Johnson: unquestionably the most important and accomplished of all the heavyweight boxing champions, black or white, these three athletes also were among the most influential blacks of their eras.

Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, and won the title with little enough fanfare in 1908 against Tommy Burns, becoming the first black heavyweight champion. By 1910, however, he had become an infuriating figure to whites—partly because of his public penchant for white women (though other notable black men of the period, such as comedian George Walker and bantamweight champion George Dixon, had a harem of white girlfriends), and partly because he seemed neither grateful nor submissive in an era when Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist tactics were the thing. It was Johnson who sparked the quest for a great white hope, for a white man to reclaim the tide of titles in spoils. His fight on July 4, 1910, against the former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries was probably the most talked-about sporting event in American history. Johnson easily defeated Jeffries in fifteen rounds; Jeffries could not over-come a long layoff, and Johnson was clearly the better fighter.

Johnson’s subsequent conviction under the Mann Act for transporting a white woman across state lines with the purpose of sexual intercourse, his flight to Europe, his loss of the title in 1915 to Jess Willard in Cuba (a fight that Johnson claimed, unpersuasively, was fixed), his return to the United State to serve his prison term at Leavenworth, his last days as a dime museum raconteur and shameless sell-promoter: All these experiences have given his career a certain political resonance and the status of folklore—and a sort of absurd dimension of denigration. He was the most discussed, the most publicized, the most famous, and the most publicly hated black person of his generation.

Joe Louis, a native of Alabama, started his boxing career in Detroit, his family being one of the many that made the trek from the South to the industrial North and Middle West after the First World War and before the Depression. Unlike Johnson, Louis was able to learn his craft as an adolescent not in the brutal battle royals that pitied seven to nine black youths in a ring melee, but in the amateur Golden Gloves competition. This helped enormously when John Roxborough and Jilian Black, Louis’s two black managers, carefully crafted his public image. In the 1920s the change in the way that boxers learned their craft and the social elevation in the audience for major prizefights (thanks to the promoter Tex Rickard, and to Jack Dempsey and later Gene Tunney) made it possible to present Louis as something other than a denizen of the low-life sporting world. This was a radical shift for a sport that was (in its modern inception in eighteenth-century England) sponsored by, if not the outright creation of, gamblers and the preposterously predatory world of thieves and hustlers of the fancy.

Louis, in order to have a shot at the title, which the boxing powers had not permitted a black to have since Johnson lost the title in 1915, had to be the very antithesis of the first black champion. Johnson smiled a lot, Louis looked sullen. Johnson bragged about beating white men in the ring and was generally a glib fellow, Louis was taciturn and never belittled his opponents. Johnson consorted publicly with white women, Louis privately. (All of Louis’s wives were black.) Johnson ran afoul of the law, Louis became a model citizen, even enlisting in the Army during World War II and donating fight purses to the Armed Services. His civic sin of not paying his proper income tax, which haunted him in his later years, made him seem more a victim than a perpetrator.

Everyone knew that Louis was not a hustler or a scoundrel. He won the title in 1937 and fought his most important fight in June 1938 against the German (and rumored Nazi) Max Schmeling, who had knocked Louis out in 1936, Louis’s only defeat at that stage in his career. Louis won the battle in a single round in which both (public) national and (private) racial pride were at stake. He subsequently became a great American hero, probably the most beloved of all boxing champions, and arguably the most beloved of all great American athletes. He held the title for over a dozen years and defended it twenty-five times, both records. At career’s end, he wound up as a greeter in a Las Vegas casino, becoming a marginal figure of the sporting world that he had transcended during his career.

There are two important similarities between Ali, Johnson, and Louis that paradoxically hold the key to an essential difference. All three men were born Southerners, but in very different areas of the South: Johnson in the southwest of Texas, Louis in the Deep South of Alabama, and Ali in the border state of Kentucky. This, as much as anything, may explain the temperamental differences between them. All of them experienced Jim Crow, but not in the same era, and certainly not in the same geographical locale; the South, like every mythical American region, is a variegated place. But they also wound up gravitating toward the Middle West at crucial times in their lives: Johnson and Ali to Chicago as young adults, for the latter a place that was the sacred center of his religion and for the former the profane center of his nightclub business; and Louis to Detroit, where he grew up becoming both a boxer and, for a time, an auto worker.

And so there are important differences between Ali and Louis and Johnson. Unlike Louis, Ali was a braggart (sometimes a tasteless braggart) and a draft dodger (which made him similar to “slacker” Jack Dempsey, who was intensely disliked during most of his championship reign in the 1920s because he avoided service during World War I). And unlike Louis, Ali was a stylish, quick-moving boxer rather than a devastating, relatively immobile puncher (although Ali’s most controversial victory, over Sonny Liston in their second fight, was a one-punch knockout during the stage in his career when he was not known for power). And unlike the patriotic and the quietistic Louis, Ali became openly political. He joined the Nation of Islam (the Black Muslims) in the early ‘60s, and he became a symbol for dissent when he refused military induction in 1967 on religious grounds, the first black person of note to challenge the view that blacks’ claim to full citizenship required conspicuous displays of national loyalty that superseded the group’s specialized claims for political and social justice. (Though Ali refused to be drafted on the grounds of being a Muslim, not on the grounds of being black, in the public mind his refusal was tantamount to a racial declaration.)

Despite the similarity between Johnson and Ali as politically persecuted black boxers, a similarity that many commentators have made much of, and which Ali’s cornerman Bundini Brown exploited in 1970 in Ali’s return-from-exile bout against Jerry Quarry by telling the champ that the ghost of Jack Johnson was in the house, there is much that distinguishes them. Most important is Ali’s insistence that he did not want white women, and his absurd suggestion that the movement for integration in America was simply a movement for intermarriage. (It was a position nearly identical to that of Southern racists, and certainly not the common view of most blacks, for whom intermarriage was a relatively minor issue.) Ali fell that his resistance to the sexual blandishments of white women was a source of strength and purity, for these blandishments were, as far as he was concerned, another form of co-optation, and represented weakness and impurity in Johnson. Ali may have been a rake (though he viewed his sensual adventures as lapses, and not as legitimate expressions of selfhood, in a world without morals), but Johnson was surely the king of the Corinthians, to use the famous eighteenth-century sporting term for the hustling swell and cockhound.

Ali did something that few boxing champions or athletes were ever able to do: He convinced most of the world for a considerable period of time that, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the natural flight of the champion was not from pleasure to pleasure but from hope to hope. His reign as America’s most famous athlete exemplified a sincere, if fantastic, aspiration to be “the greatest.” The showman-boxer made virtually every fight with any opponent who had a realistic chance of beating him into a moment of moral and political crisis in the culture. Ali was not altogether inaccurate when he compared himself to Elvis Presley. He lived in the margin between genius and mountebank, between the tawdry and the profound in American popular culture.

Thomas Hauser’s book is not really a biography, it is only a piece of a biography. The book is just an oral history, in which Ali is seen through a cloud of witnesses, some of whom (George Plimpton, Howard Cosell, Freddie Pacheco, Angelo Dundee, Eddie Futch, Teddy Brenner, Jose Torres, and numerous sports writers) repeat what they have already said in interviews, articles, or books. (Others, such as Ali’s oldest daughter Maryum, or Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz and daughter Attallah Shabazz, or Ali’s current wife Lonnie, have new and sometimes intriguing perspectives to offer.) Now, it is not always the case that an oral history is an inadequate way to deal with a rich and complex subject, especially in trying to tackle certain intersecting aspects of African-American and American popular cultures. The problem here is that Ali, for all his complexities, is neither as broad nor as diverse a subject as, say, jazz, or the civil rights movement, both of which have been well served in recent years by oral histories.

Mowing through the often laudatory, sometimes trite, and frequently self-serving comments in Hauser’s book is like suffering through an endless evening of testimonials. The book gives the overall impression of an author who has abdicated. For such a subject demands the interpretative prism that only a traditionally rendered, obsessively researched biography can provide. We do not need to be reminded that Ali was a great fighter, that he was (and is, presumably) a nice man with some religious convictions, that he was a courageous dissenter during the Vietnam War. What we need to be told is why Ali was all these things, and why these accomplishments or attributes were important to many people at a particular time in our history.

What we are given, instead, is something that resembles an anthology of back issues of Sports Illustrated. We are furnished, for example, with no picture of the Louisville of Ali’s childhood and youth. What was the black community like in Louisville? What was Ali’s family’s social standing within the black community? Who constituted the black elite, and what were their relationships with whites? What was the educational environment of Ali’s youth? How did the black community there respond to young Cassius Clay, amateur champion and Olympic hero? How did the black community respond to Ali’s membership in the Nation of Islam? Was there a difference in how the Nation of Islam was perceived in the North and in the South, by blacks and by whites?

About the Nation of Islam little is said concerning the historical ties between Elijah Muhammad’s group and other black cults like Father Divine, Daddy Grace, the Moorish Americans, and others. In truth, there is little in the Nation of Islam’s political theology that is original: its dietary laws and hygienic preoccupations are largely taken from the Christian Scientists, the Jews, the orthodox Muslims, and the Seventh-day Adventists; its nationalistic pretensions from Garvey and the proto-Pan Africanists before him, such as Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and Edward Blyden, as well as nineteenth-century black Utopians such as Isaiah Montgomery, Edward P. McCabe, and James E. Thompson; its mythological history from a mixture of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the “radical racial” amateur-historicism of people like Hubert H. Harrison, the author of the essay collection When Africa Awakes (1920), and J.A. Rodgers, who produced the influential three-volume work Sex and Race (1942-52).

Hauser’s book does not examine the essentially conservative nature of this insular and nationalistic African-American religion. Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Nation of Islam has little interest in those who are not within the group. In its way, it is very similar to Booker T. Washington in its call for black business enterprise. Indeed, the Nation’s moral conservatism differs little from any standard black Christian denomination. It was precisely the conservative, standoffish nature of the group that so frustrated Malcolm X, who could never quite formulate an agenda of engagement and action while he belonged to the group. (Ali’s refusal to be drafted, his own grand moment of heroism and relevance, was based rather paradoxically on the traditional Black Muslim stance of non-involvement.)

What the Muslims were most noted for is the apparent sense of “manhood” they gave their members. Robert Williams, in his notable 1962 book Negroes with Guns, gave the Muslims an unexpected endorsement for their militancy: “I learned in Atlanta that Mr. Muhammad had made quite an impression and that many Afro-Americans are learning, to the consternation and embarrassment of the black respectable leadership, that he has more to offer than weak prayers of deliverance.”

Yet all the Muslim talk of gun clubs, and of self-defense squads that were to go south, and of other such projects, never came to anything. It is true that they did present an image of virility, anger, and strength. But how was Malcolm preventing a Muslim uprising at the 123rd Street police station in Harlem in April 1957 by dispersing an ugly crowd different from Martin Luther King dispersing an equally ugly and murderous black crowd on the night his home was bombed during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott? Virility and militancy are not the stuff of politics or ideology, they are only the facade.

The nature of Ali’s conversion to Islam was political, and even intellectual, in that it gave him a dogma to expound and made being in the public spotlight more comfortable, since he had a “relevant” message and even “distancing” answers to the generally inane questions posed by the white reporters who surrounded him. But it was a spiritual conversion as well: Ali accepted the myth of Yacub, that is, the sacred Black Muslim story of black racial superiority, and its corollary of the need for racial separation from the impure and “beastly” whites. Ali’s spirituality was based on the sort of skepticism about white supremacy that turned to the fantastic for a foundation. Like all early believers, he did not believe in allegory, but in the actual propositions of his faith as valid explanations of the material world. This portion of the theology was discarded, however, after the death of Elijah Muhammad and the emergence of Wallace D. Muhammad as leader of the movement. Moreover, by that time Ali was beyond his need for father and brother figures, which both Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X (as well as Herbert Muhammad and others) had been for him when he was the boy wonder of sports.

Not only does Hauser ignore all these dimensions of the Muslims, he also does not look into the darker side of the movement. Not one word is mentioned, for example, about Major Coxson, Ali’s good friend and “unofficial financial adviser” (as Ali himself introduced him after the second AliNorton fight). Coxson sold Ali his Philadelphia home in the late 1960s and his Cherry Hill home in the early 1970s. (They lived on the same block in Cherry Hill.) They were good friends during Ali’s years of exile (1967-70) and during the early years of his return to boxing. Coxson, a flamboyant hustler/businessman who had served time, ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Camden, New Jersey, in 1973.

On the night of June 8, 1973, Coxson was murdered, execution-style, in his Cherry Hill home by four black men, and his lover and two of her three children were seriously wounded in the attack. (The third child fled the home undetected and escaped injury.) Coxson, who had ties with the Philadelphia underworld figures Angelo Bruno and Lilian Reis, had no visible means of support, despite his ostentatious affluence. Rumors floated around the black communities in Philadelphia and New York about the connection between local mosques and organized crime, the substance of the business being drug peddling and extortion. Local black businesses in Philadelphia during this time complained of a group called the Black Mafia, which many believed was connected with the local mosque, putting the bite on them for “protection” money. Ali almost frantically distanced himself from Coxson and virtually disavowed knowing him at the time the murder was committed. Surely no life of Ali is complete without a thorough investigation of the Philadelphia and Cherry Hill years, without a thorough investigation of the New York and Philadelphia mosques.

Also Hauser dismisses, in a rather self-serving way, Ali’s own autobiography, The Greatest. Whether that book is “true” or “authentic” is not the point. It was a major event in Ali’s career, and it deserves scrutiny. Both Johnson and Louis produced questionable or apocryphal autobiographies, but they are still of considerable importance for the study of their subjects. Why was Toni Morrison, the editor who worked on Ali’s hook for Random House, not interviewed by Mauser? (She would have had more absorbing things to say than Cheryl Tiegs.) Why was the widow of Richard Durham, the book’s ghostwriter, not interviewed? If it is true, as I have been told by reliable sources, that the book was really nothing more than a box of tapes (Durham seems to have taped virtually every conversation that Ali ever had), then it was really nothing more or less than Hauser’s own book, which is itself a polished collection of tape recordings. And Ali’s bio-pic The Greatest, in the tradition of Louis’s The Spirit of Youth and Henry Armstrong’s Keep Punching, should have been examined more closely as well.

It goes without saying (no, perhaps by now I should say) that Hauser’s book has moments of insight, and it does provide a peek into the workings of a complex man. Yet those moments are few. The disappointment is especially surprising since Hauser is the author of The Black Lights, a very fine book that looks at the career of a minor lighter of the early ‘80s named Billy Costello and the world of professional boxing at that lime.

And what about this world of boxing, this universe of taunting and challenge, this macho world where men soak their hands in pickle brine, rub their faces in olive oil, burn out the nerve endings in their noses, run miles through city streets and country roads, spar round after round in a gym, and go home to soak in Epsom salt for hours, sometimes paralyzed by pain, in preparation for a quaint sort of hand-to-hand battle that appeals because of its utter simplicity and its studied savagery? Is Muhammad Ali like Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Peter Jackson, Sam Langford, Joe Gans, and many other great black fighters who were ultimately reduced and finally destroyed by their years in the ring? And what is the meaning of our hero-worship of these men, of the cult of masculinity that boxing represents, of the achievement of the black male ego in American culture? Somewhere in the story of Muhammad Ali there are answers to these important questions. But Hauser’s book is not the one that will take us, in pursuit of those answers, where we need to go.