I was a big fan of Cassius Clay. Whenever he fought, a classmate and I would tune in on an old radio and cheer him on. One evening, we were at a high school basketball game when it was time for a Clay fight to begin. We slipped out of the game, went to a car and enacted the fight, punching one another, as it was called on the radio.
My view of Muhammad Ali is mixed. Ali was a great fighter, but he is generally overrated by casual sports fans. He certainly was not the greatest boxer ever; among heavyweights Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano clearly outclass him. It is not even clear that Ali was the best heavyweight of his era, as Larry Holmes’s record was arguably better. Holmes demolished Ali late in Ali’s career, but that mostly shows that Ali kept fighting for too long. (Holmes did, too.)
If we broaden the field to all boxers, there are a number who outshine Ali: Ray Robinson, by any reckoning, Henry Armstrong, Willie Pep. I would rank Ray Leonard and Floyd Mayweather higher than Ali, along with Julio Cesar Chavez, Carlos Monzon, Pernell Whitaker, and probably others. So Ali was arguably one of the ten greatest boxers of all time, but in my opinion, clearly not one of the top five.
What accounts for the current canonization of Ali? He was the first athlete to be politicized, and became the darling of America’s liberal establishment. Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces because, as he said, he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong, whom he contrasted with whites in the U.S. who had oppressed blacks. This was catnip to the prevailing ethos of the time, and largely accounts for Ali’s celebrity.
That was, in my opinion, nothing to be proud of, but worse was Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam. This was seen as a “black power” move by the establishment, which applauded. But the Black Muslims, or Nation of Islam, were a racist cult that taught that white people were created in a laboratory as “devils” by a mad scientist. They should have been marginalized, to put it mildly, but Ali’s conversion mainstreamed the evil cult. It should be noted that Ali later left the Nation of Islam, quietly, but the damage was done. (Congressman Keith Ellison is one of many members of the Nation of Islam who–needless to say–has never been asked by any reporter what he thinks about the creation of white “devils” in a laboratory.)
Ali’s three fights with Joe Frazier were boxing classics. They also exemplified the cultural divide of the time. Frazier was pro-America, so rooting for him was counter-cultural. Frazier never understood why the rude, anti-American Ali was the fan favorite, while Frazier was deemed the heavy. Which goes to show that he didn’t understand the liberal American establishment.
As Steve noted earlier, there is an obvious resemblance between Ali and Donald Trump. Ali was often a jerk. He ridiculed and insulted his opponents in a manner that had always, previously, been considered unsportsmanlike. Sadly, many athletes now follow Ali’s example.
Ali had an undeniable charm. His worst moments were mitigated by a sense that he was only kidding. (Here, too, he resembles Trump.) My favorite Ali moment was when he returned from the Rumble in the Jungle, when he reclaimed the heavyweight championship from George Foreman. Ali arrived at an American airport, La Guardia, perhaps, and was besieged by reporters. One reporter called out, “Champ, how did you like Africa?” To which Ali replied something along the lines of, “All I can say is, I sure am glad my great-granddaddy caught that boat!” You probably won’t see that quote in any of today’s eulogies.
Muhammad Ali was a hugely talented and deeply flawed man. His legacy is mixed. Ali’s implicit bargain with the liberal establishment assured that he would be overrated and universally lionized. That shouldn’t blind us to the fact that he was a great athlete and an outstanding fighter, but as a cultural icon, his influence was mostly negative.