Muhammad Ali – mixed feelings on the coattails of greatness
Muhammad Ali deserves the global media coverage of his departure. Yet some of the words spoken and written over the past few days only serve to reinforce the mixed feelings I’ve always had about him.
His life was surrounded by hype, and so is his death. While there’s no denying that he was a man of exceptional strength of character, and a sublime talent in his chosen profession, one side of me sees a man who was exploited throughout his life, and continues to be exploited after death.
I followed his career from the sixties onwards, and I can’t help feeling that more than anything else, for his army of camp followers, for Elijah Muhammad, for Angelo Dundee, for Don King and, later in his career, for the multitude that sought to capitalise on his reputation by wheeling him out, unable to speak, at countless events around the world, he was a meal ticket – or at least the means to a variety of ends.
When I hear people saying that without him, Barack Obama would never have been President, and suggesting that his achievements were comparable with those of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Obama himself in combating social and political racism, I find it hard not to be sceptical. And when I learn that such luminaries as Bill Clinton and President Erdogan of Turkey are due to speak at his funeral I get the sense that he’s still being used, just as he was by Mobutu in Zaire and by all the other presidents, kings and emirs who feted him during and after his boxing career.
Then I ask myself who was the user and who was the used.
Was he a man with a mission who, as he claimed, was using his boxing talents and attendant fame to as a means to his end? For whom the dependent acolytes and admirers played an essential part in maintaining his gigantic ego, for giving him the strength to defeat Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and the white establishment that wanted to destroy him for refusing to serve in Vietnam? Who, in his declining years, needed all the endorsements and appearances to remind him that he was still a man to be reckoned with?
And is it unfair to give a boxer less credit than a preacher-turned-campaigner who led hundreds of thousands to march on Washington, or an activist who endured thirty years in jail, only to become his country’s president and reject revenge in favour of reconciliation? Or another activist who rode the wave of his own eloquence to become the leader of the most powerful nation on earth?
Perhaps the difference between Ali and the three leaders to whom I’m referring was that as a boxer he may never have succeeded without being able to channel the anger within him into the blows he landed on his opponents. Hatred and contempt for opponents as well as for the white establishment were his stock in trade. They were his most frequently-expressed emotions when he was at the height of his powers. The others needed a wider range of talents to make their mark.
As a white man, however sympathetic I was with the causes that he, King and Mandela espoused, I never felt immune from his anger, and probably was never intended to. Being the subject of anger and hatred, even if those emotions are not targeted directly at one’s self, is never a comfortable feeling.
So yes, I have mixed feelings about Muhammad Ali: both admiration and disquiet.
But he was never less than a compelling figure. I listened to his fights on the radio, watched them on TV. I remember the battles in Kinshasa and Manila as clearly as I remember the death of JFK, England’s World Cup win, the moon landings, the Tet Offensive, the breaching of the Berlin Wall and 9/11.
I might not feel in my heart the pride of those whom he called “his people” in his many achievements. But he was every bit as essential a part of my half of the twentieth century as the presidents and warriors, the musicians and dramatists, and all the other creators and destroyers with whom he competed for attention.
Now that he’s gone, I wonder whether the love for him frequently expressed during his declining years by those who were not “his people” stems from a kind of relief that he was no longer able to vent to his anger; that he had been thereby neutralised. Or were his new-found admirers responding to a perception that the anger had burnt out, and that the man who held up the Olympic torch in Atlanta was now an icon for all of us, not just for the oppressed minority to whom he claimed to have dedicated his life? Was the love born of sympathy rather than the respect he demanded?
As for whether he was the user or the used, that’s for others to say who knew him best. Probably both would be my judgement from afar.