Muhammad Ali turned 65 today. The MSSM (mainstream sports media) has been in overdrive celebrating and extolling the life of the ex-champion. If you watch ESPN Classic for the next day or two, you can probably see nearly every punch (and taunt) he ever threw.
Ali is indisputably the best heavyweight boxer of the past 50 years, and may be the best heavyweight ever. That case is sustainable based on his record alone (considering the quality of his opponents), without giving him style points, and without taking into account the prime years he missed due to his refusal to serve in the military.
But the rapturous praise Ali is receiving this week is not just for his ability in the ring. We are told that Ali transcended boxing and that he transformed sports in general.
This is true, for Ali precipitated a shocking and apparently permanent decline in sportsmanship. The bragging and taunting that mars so many sports today can be traced directly to the antics of Ali. (Along the same lines, recently someone argued that we owe rap music to the infantile poetry Ali used to spout, barely with a straight face).
Ali’s admirers prefer not mention his true non-ring legacy, but when asked they don’t deny it. Today, the great college basketball coach turned sports talk host, John Thomspon, asked sports columnist Dave Kindred (author of a book on Ali and his clownish partner, Howard Cosell) whether Ali is to blame for the trash-talking that goes on in sports. Kindred said he is, but argued that it doesn’t detract from Ali’s legacy because, unlike today’s athletes, Ali did it good-naturedly and for fun.
Kindred has it exactly backwards. Today’s taunting — mostly celebratory in nature — is much better-natured than, for example, the kind of race-baiting through which Ali attacked Joe Frazier and others. And though today’s athletes may taunt each other non-stop during the game, they embrace and enjoy a laugh when the contest is over. Ali was not an embracer or a laugher. Often, he was as nasty and ungracious after the fight as before it. If you check out the almost unwatchable tape of Ali and Cosell reviewing the film of the Ali-Ernie Terell fight, you will hear a whiney, sulky, vindictive man-child who bears no relationship to the MSSM’s Ali.
I haven’t mentioned Ali’s politics, and it’s probably unfair to attack someone for the views he held at age 25. But Ali’s politics — his opposition to racial injustice and his refusal to serve his country during the Vietnam War — are at the heart of the plaudits he’s receiving these days from the MSSM and, indeed, the MSM. Thus, it’s fair to notice Ali’s embrace of Elijah Muhammad’s racist and criminal Black Muslim enterprise, and his willingness (assuming he had a choice) to be manipulated by it. Other high profile black athletes turned radical during the same era in an understandable response to the great injustices of the day. But to my knowledge, Ali was the only such athlete who threw in with the abominable Elijah Muhammad.
Many conservatives of my vintage are big Ali fans. That’s not surprising. Conservatives are suckers for virtuosos. And conservatives, especially those who endured the pre-Reagan days, tend to identify with Ali’s in-your-face approach to being the outsider. However, it was only during my radical phase that I had any use for Ali’s persona.
JOHN adds: Much of the good will toward Ali predates his Black Muslim conversion. Cassius Clay was the clean, intelligent, Olympian alternative to the mob-controlled and sinister Sonny Liston. His upset win over Liston was one of the seminal events, not unlike the advent of the Beatles, that suggested the dawning of a new and better world to the impressionable teenagers of the early 1960s. I’m sure I’m not the only one of our generation for whom Ali never lost that early luster. And, if I’m not mistaken, the later Ali backed off from the worst aspects of his Black Muslim past. It is the middle Ali, Ali in his prime, that is most problematic and is most celebrated in the MSM and MSSM.
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