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Growing up Ali

by Cliff Boutilier
Growing up Ali

If you were a teenager growing up in the '70s you're likely learning that mortality is fast catching up with all your teenage heroes and other curiosities.

Muhammad Ali was always something of  a curiosity.

He was the Champ, the clown, the conscientious objector,  the Louisville Lip, the Mouth That Roared.

Muhammad Ali toyed with us. He entertained us. He preached to us. He annoyed us. He mesmerized us.

He talked smack and launched swagger into interstellar space. He made P.T. Barnum look like an amateur, an introvert.

If God, or Allah, or whoever, made a more remarkable showman than Muhammad Ali, a more brash braggart than Muhammad Ali, then God, or Allah, or whoever, was keeping that news a secret.

Television didn't hurt either. Ali made good TV. Although at times it was difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate between the real and the rehearsed. But the job outside the gym was sales, as much as the job inside the gym was boxing.

Young Cassius Clay had one thing to sell and that was the thing he believed in most deeply - himself. Young Muhammad Ali had a few other gems rolled out on the front lawn for sale.

The day after he won the heavyweight title in February 1964, at the traditional day-after press conference, Ali denounced his "slave name" Cassius Clay. He alerted the world to news he had signed on with the segregationist Black Muslims, and was henceforth, heretofore, to be addressed by his new name - Muhammad Ali.

The moral equivalent of the Klu Klux Klan, the Black Muslim cult, a thriving financial enterprise, was run at the time by 66-year-old former Georgia sharecropper and jailbird, Elijah (Poole) Muhammad. The so-called "Messenger of Allah" who maintained an uncanny but unquestionably divine ability to impregnate many young lady staff members back at Cult HQ in Chicago.

No matter, Poole's latest recruit, mentored by another former jailbird and fellow cult member Malcolm (Little) X, was a big fish. A shining endorsement. A money maker, if ever the cult had their hands on one.

We probably shouldn't be surprised then that Ali, 22 at the time, would soon turn over the management of his career and his finances to Elijah Muhammad's son, Herbert Muhammad. I've read Herb's take was anywhere from 33 to 50 percent off the top.

Meantime, Ali's mentor Malcolm X, the public face of the cult, broke with the old man and threatened to take all the cult secrets to the press.

As a result of the schism Ali turned his back on his dear friend Malcolm X and continued singing the praises of the old man. Student and mentor never did reconcile before February 1965 when outcast Malcolm was gunned down by three members of the Black Muslims.

Ali would not leave the Black Muslims for another 10 years, curiously not until the old man died in 1975. Can't say I blame him.

Ali' s new found Muslim faith was central to his turning down Uncle Sam for the chance to dance in the Vietnam War. That steadfast refusal cost Champ his world title, millions of dollars and the prime years of an athlete's career, ages, 26, 27, and 28.

Of course, Southern-raised Kentucky-born Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali, didn't matter what name he put on himself, still couldn't sit at the front of the bus or at the same lunch counter as a white man. Not south of the ol' Jim Crow Mason-Dixon.

Like he said at the time, "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger..."

But that's okay, Mr. Ali, despite the fact you can't use the whites only water fountain you'll be pleased to know you're still good enough to go off and fight our dirty little war for us. How about that?

Yes, siree, just line-up over there, Mr. Ali, please, behind those other two nice negro gentlemen, Mr. Washington and Mr. Bojangles, whatever, and if you make it home from Khe Sanh alive, Mr. Ali, we'll give you a nice bronze star. And, if you don't make it home alive, which you probably won't, we'll give the bronze star to your black momma who also can't sit at the front of the bus. How's that deal sound?

I don't know about you but somehow this entire equation seems horribly out of balance. I have grave difficulty getting my head around it.

Funny thing is Ali had previously been rejected by the U.S. Army when he scored just 78 on their IQ test. However so many young Americans were coming home in body bags the army had to lower their standards for recruits, and the world heavyweight champion was reclassified in 1966.

An option might have been for Ali to cave into the U.S. Army and public pressure. Take a year or so, play the game. Fight a few exhibition rounds. Shine the brass on the ol' service uniform. Do a few speaking engagements, then kiss Uncle Sam goodnight, get the hell off the dance floor and back into the ring. Just have the whole damn thing done with. But Ali would have none of it.

Upon his return to the ring the '70s certainly didn't give us Ali in his prime. But his mouth was still in prime form. No problem there.

What Muhammad Ali didn't call Joe Frazier in the lead-up to their three bouts in 1971, '74 and '75 wasn't fit. (BTW, two of the three bouts were spectacular exhibitions of legalized violence; unfortunately not so much the middle match.)

Smokin' Joe, who unlike Ali actually grew up dirt poor, of a darker hue than Ali, was called everything under the sun by Ali. He was very publicly humiliated, called "stupid", "slow", "a gorilla", "an Uncle Tom", "ugly", "dumb" and on, and on, it went. Ali even had gorilla t-shirts made up.

None of it was exactly new shtick for Ali, who, by the way, finished in the bottom 10-percent of his Louisville graduating class of about 400 graduating students.

Nope. None of it was new by a long shot.

Ali had spent the '60s calling former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson an Uncle Tom, and Sonny Liston, who Cassius Clay took the title from, he was called ugly to the point of ad nauseam. But when Ali turned his motor-mouth on the soft-spoken, less articulate, Joe Frazier it sounded particulary cruel, going far, far beyond Muhammad Ali's usual high standards for cruelty.

Authors and armchair psychologists have long debated why Ali, the manchild, went on the way he did.

Outside of sales and showmanship some have argued two-fold:

One, Ali's antics helped to demoralize an opponent. Two, it was his way of facing his own fear and putting added pressure on himself to perform. Boldly spouting predictions on which round you're going to finish off your opponent by knocking him senseless may attest to this theory.

In any event, much can change over the course of a half-century. That Vietnam thingy, like other American adventures abroad, is now seen as a bit unnecessary.

Minds, including Ali's, changed over the course of time. They mellowed. Not all of them, but many of them.

The only constant we're left with is that 50-years ago boxing needed a saviour. It needed somebody to pull it out of the toilet, and that person was not going to be the ageless wonder heavyweight champion Sonny 'The Bear' Liston, who used to crack skulls for the mob in St. Louis.

No. Boxing needed a young charismatic. Well, we got that and more.

We got a bonafide heavyweight who could move like a featherweight. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Muhammad Ali was the great improviser.

Inside the ring, as opposed to outside the ring, he conducted his own symphony, choreographed his own ballet, making it up as he went along. Hands down at his waist, bouncing backwards on the balls of his feet, he turned boxing convention on its head.

What Ali lacked in power he made up for in hand and foot speed, spitting out combinations like a theatre style popcorn machine. Dancing like Nureyev.

And, as we've known for decades, much to his own detriment, Muhammad Ali could take a punch.

In Muhammad Ali we got a superbly instinctive fighter and one of the finest athletes of all-time. Certainly the greatest athlete of the 20th century.

Trouble was, we had to take the whole damn package.

That was maybe just a little easier to stomach knowing Muhammad Ali, for all his bluster, was on the right side of history.

cliff@frankmagazine.ca

 

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