The quest for an affordable ticket had landed me with a far longer journey than necessary—a predicament that all budget travellers of the world know too well. With final destination Abuja, I had first to fly for over three hours from Austin, Texas, to New York, then nearly 6,000 kilometres overnight to Paris, before finally embarking on the six-hour trip home. I scanned the in-flight movie menu. Ali, the 2001 biopic directed by Michael Mann, starring Will Smith, was available. At a running time of nearly three hours, I would spend half of the flying time from Paris to Abuja in delightful diversion.
When news of Ali’s transition to join the ancestors broke, I was, like the rest of the world, saddened but grateful for the extraordinarily achieved life he lived: as a prize-fighter, poet and moral conscience of America during one of its most troubled and shameful epochs, and as a shining example of self-sacrifice and beacon of hope to the oppressed of the world. In the instant before I pressed play, I recalled the two Ali posters that graced the walls of my office in the English department at Texas State University until May 2014 when I left academia and returned home. He alone had the honour of two spots on walls that paid homage to Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Miles Davis and Che Guevara. There was the iconic one from the second Liston fight where he looms menacingly over the fearsome but fallen champion (supposed to kill the young braggart this time, having astonishingly failed to do so in their first encounter), right hand bent across just under the twin-rock mounds of his chiselled chest, lethal left still clenched, ready to send the prone Liston whom he dared to rise and fight back down if he did. As a teacher of writing and literature, I couldn’t resist the playful humour and hyperbole of Ali claiming that he, and so his punch, was faster than the speed of light! And, hence, the second poster which memorialised the stupendous boast: “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.” It was a variation on the theme of his phenomenal quickness as a boxer rendered unforgettably thus: “Float like a butterfly/Sting like a bee/The hands can’t hit/What the eyes can’t see.” I recalled yet another inconceivable conceit: “I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail.” I pressed play.
Frist thing to strike you is the portrait of the poet-pugilist as a young man—that moment on the bus when Little Cassius is transfixed by the horrendously mutilated body of Emmet Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago, who, allegedly for talking to or looking at a white lady, was, in 1955, tortured, murdered and drowned in a river in Mississippi. The lynching took place in the aptly named town of Money—what was plantation slavery, after all, but the outcome of a lunatic pursuit of lucre?—where Till had been visiting his great uncle. Soon, Ali moves closer to the newspaper in the hands of a man sitting two or three rows ahead of him to memorise, it seems, every detail of that hideously disfigured body. Did he, perhaps, detect echoes of himself in Till, said to be a handsome and cocky “negro” boy? The rest of the biopic traces the well-known highlights of Ali’s life until the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle fight in Kinshasa where Ali regained his heavyweight championship by knocking out George Foreman, described as “the hardest-hitting heavyweight champion ever” and a “battleship in the ring.” During Ali’s ban, Foreman had conquered “Smoking” Joe Frazier, Ali’s deadliest opponent. Amidst the episodes of his love of music and friendship with Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam’s influence leading to his dropping the slave name Cassius Clay to his dalliances with women, two others stand out in the trajectory of Ali’s emergence as a towering moral figure in the world, named in 1999 by the British Broadcasting Corporation as the Sports Personality of the (20th) Century—and, also, by Sports Illustrated as the Athlete of the Century, having also won the World Sports Award's World Sportsman of the Century.
First was his refusal to be drafted into America’s purely ideological war against Vietnam. He would not kill or maim people he did not know, with whom he “ain’t got no quarrel,” who had never called him nigger. The result was the unleashed fury of America which, forced to confront its racism and hypocrisy, chose instead to further brutalise the victim by convicting then jailing Ali for five years, stripping him of his title, banning him from fighting for three of his peak years and extracting from him a fine of $10,000 (to buy more guns for the war?). Although America did not, in the early sixties, need any provocation to end the life of an “uppity negro,” never mind his career merely, it was plain to see that Ali had been specifically targeted to stop his emergence as a charismatic and fearless figure capable of transcending, through the innocuous medium of sports, barriers that the religious-cum-political leaders of the civil rights movement might not. Worse, Ali had formed a friendship with and allowed Malcolm X to be his mentor. The defiance, racial pride, self-belief and militant resistance preached by the Nation of Islam unnerved white America and so Ali who had been given a failing grade in his draft test was adjudged anew to be intelligent enough after all to be recruited into the army and sent to Vietnam.
It goes without saying that this is the single transformative moment that turned Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali from just a handsome and brashly charismatic prize fighter who had stunned and charmed the world in equal measure with his boxing genius and poetic eloquence into the most visible victim of America’s simmering bigotry and a global moral icon all at once. It was reminiscent of Mandela’s 1956-61 treason trial alongside his co-accused leaders of the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid groups. Like Mandela, what Ali lost at home he gained a million-fold in the veneration of the rest of the world.
Then there is the scene from the 1967 “What’s my name?” fight. Ernie Terrell, who had been awarded the title stripped from Ali, would, quite harmlessly as it were, refuse to call him by his Muslim name. Not many, Ali’s father included, had got used to the new name and even the venerable Martin Luther King would counsel that “Casssius should spend more time proving his boxing skill and do less talking.” And so Ali’s resolve to taunt Terrell by demanding that he say his name amidst a punishing fury of lethal jabs and hooks. I may be running with the allusions but I can’t help recalling the scene in Beloved, Toni Morrison’s classic novel of slave self-renaming, in which the eponymous character, murdered by her escaped mother rather than let her be recaptured into slavery, returns to compel a reckoning with the past and demands that Paul D, the character most resolved to “forget” the past, call her by her name and “touch her in the inside place.”
But the film hardly covers the legend’s life: Ali transcended boxing or sport. And so it was that one of the most powerful images in sports history was one taken outside a sporting arena, at a news conference in the wake of Ali’s objection to the draft. In it, Ali is flanked by some of the greatest American athletes of the time: Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor), Jim Brown and Willie Davis. All African-American sportsmen with everything to lose but choosing to stand up for a cause greater than their individual selves and bank accounts. That moment has not ever again been repeated in professional sports. Christ would have come again before Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods or Lionel Messi, or even Floyd “Money” Mayweather from the sport Ali gave glamour and infinitely larger purses, would speak so openly of the burning political injustices of the day. What was it that fuelled Ali’s supreme self-belief in the face of impossible odds? Behind, or rather, driving, Ali’s braggadocio was fear. The sort that leads to astonishing self-determination by forging an iron will to live a life fully worthy of human dignity. As Chinua Achebe memorably portrays through Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, though of course without the pathos of that character. As Ali would later confess when asked what he would have said to Liston had he had the chance of meeting him before his (Liston’s) death: “Man, you scared me.” That fear, sublimated into the poetry of gritty determination and bravery bordering on suicidal recklessness, was what made him rise to his feet the same instant he was decisively knocked down by Frazier, his fiercest rival, in their first bout billed the “Fight of the Century” and emerge the moral winner.
But what is that about Ali being a poet and an acknowledged legislator of the world? The first part, I believe, we can all agree upon: though he did not define himself essentially as such, he was nevertheless the quintessential oral poet, a griot who found the words, rhymes and reasons to express the playful and the profound almost at a moment’s notice. In any case, I accept the opinion of one of my favourite poets, Marianne Moore, on this. Moore, it was, who wrote the liner notes to I Am the Greatest, Ali’s spoken word poetry album recorded in 1963, six months before he would become the heavyweight champion of the world. Said the evidently enamoured Moore of Clay/Ali: “He fights and he writes. Is there something I have missed? He is a smiling pugilist.” And added, for good measure, that Clay/Ali is “neat, spruce; debonair with manicure,” just, we might say, as Moore who was master of the unconventional poetic line as a “delicately unimagined” feat exemplified by “the neatness of finish” (see the poem “An Octopus”). Indeed, Ali’s was performance, rap or spoken word poetry before that genre became a jaded fad. Ten years ago, George Lois—described by Time magazine as a “media renaissance man,” an “iconoclastic genius” and a “legendary advertising guru”—published Ali Rap, a collection of Ali’s verbal ephemera in which he proclaimed him “the first heavyweight champion of rap.” Two spoken word albums, other than the live performances in and outside the ring, buttress the claim, not to mention his forays into Rhythm and Blues culminating in his nomination for a Grammy Award; artistic achievements that Rolling Stone magazine cites in “Muhammad Ali: Four Ways He Changed America.”
Ali was a poet not only verbally but also in the sublime aesthetics of his skill that turned pugilism from a brute sport plied by men seemingly all brawn and no brain—“Fighters,” as Ali himself put it, “are just brutes that come to entertain the rich white people. Beat up on each other and break each other’s noses, and bleed, and show off like two little monkeys for the crowd”—to a study in form and content demanding of the truly great the agile exercise of mind and body, and perhaps of mouth as well. Poetry in motion, to evoke that clichéd expression. Indeed, one can say that poetry was the portal to Ali’s transcendental greatness for the simple reason that its province is imagination, which by definition is illimitable. It is, in short, what Ali himself figures in his definition of “impossible,” a word, other than the odds he faced against Liston, Foreman and Frazier, that dogged his every aspiration to be human in Jim Crow America: that it is a mere opinion (of those who “who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given rather than to explore the power to change it”), that it is not a “fact” or “declaration,” but a “dare” and “potential”; in short, that impossible is “temporary,” “nothing.” By insisting on the impossible through the forced association of unlike things (recall his famous similes: “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”), mostly through metaphor or figurative speech—what the American poet Adrienne Rich describes as “the great muscle of metaphor, drawing strength from resemblance in difference”—poetry prescribes alternative realities. And makes of its devotees visionaries, purveyors of a future waiting to be born. Rich argues that “when poetry lays its hands on our shoulders, we are almost to a physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination’s road opens before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, ‘There is no alternative.’”
At any rate, it was words by his earliest champion and later estranged friend, Malcolm X, that saved Ali’s career. The US Supreme Court had initially decided to uphold Ali’s conviction and sentence. Then “a pair of clerks prevailed on one Justice to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” after which “he came to a different view.” The government’s argument “that Ali’s religion was racist was a misrepresentation of the fighter’s true beliefs,” the judge now thought and he in turn brought the other justices round to the unanimous view that “the draft board (read America) had erred.” As Mikal Gilmore rightfully notes in “How Muhammad Ali Conquered Fear and Changed the World,” in effect “Malcolm X’s words—which, I would add, were nothing but incandescent political poetry in their rhythm, cadences and the palpable urgency of their tremulous truth—“had saved him.”
In his 1821 “Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” This has often been taken literally by poets eager to seize for themselves the recognition too often grudged them by a philistine world. As Rich observes, however, for Shelley “there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy and active confrontation with illegitimate authority.” Shelley believed that art bore an integral relationship to “Revolution and Oppression,” with his own “Ode to the West Wind” as an enactment of this belief. In a sense, this is the (wishful) power of words to turn ideas into reality—to create the world out of nothing, as the Jewish account of beginnings has it. And it is what Gilmore says, regarding Ali, was “hope made flesh” and what, I think, poetry at its most sublime and meaningful really is. So if Ali was vilified and then valourised due to the poetry of his pugilistic craft and oratory, then Shelley was right. Only that in his vindication, first through the US Supreme Court’s quashing of his conviction, then his endearment to the heart of every conscientious human of his time, and then the awards by the self-same US government to him of the presidential citizens medal and the presidential medal of honour, then Ali may just have reversed Shelley by becoming an acknowledged moral legislator. Adieu the Greatest!