June 5, 2016
A Tribute to Muhammad Ali: Admired, Misunderstood but Generous to a Fault
Oakland, Calif. — MUHAMMAD ALI, who died Friday at the age of 74, was the greatest boxer of all time, but he was also deeply human, as full of frailty and foibles as anyone. He was physically vulnerable: Early on, doctors warned him and his camp followers that he was getting hit too much while training for his fights. He wouldn’t listen, and no one around him tried to persuade him otherwise.
Many would agree with the boxing trainer Emanuel Steward that Ali should have quit after his triumph over George Foreman in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), in 1974. Instead, he boxed for another seven years, and paid for it in the subsequent decades of physical and mental frailty. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, said that he was already suffering from brain damage when he fought his last two fights.
Reason for Refusal to serve in Vietnam in 1967
It seemed like the more people watched Ali, the less they understood him. Many of the writers who worshiped him — those I call the Ali Scribes — cast him as a member of the 1960s counterculture for his 1967 refusal to serve in Vietnam. In fact, he was simply following the nonviolence policy of the Nation of Islam, which he had joined a few years earlier.
The Wisdom of the Nation’s Elijah Muhammad
Ali’s relationship with the Nation was always more complicated than the Ali Scribes realized, or wanted to admit. They saw him as a victim, saying that the Nation stole money from him. Unlike them, who dismiss Ali’s mentor and the head of the Nation, Elijah Muhammad, as a “cult racketeer” or worse, I actually interviewed some of the Nation members. They said that it was the other way around: According to Khalilah Ali, whose father was a captain in the Nation and whom I interviewed on a cold winter day in Chicago, the organization — and her father personally — gave him much more money than he gave in return. Some members of the Nation are still bitter.
Even so, Ali was generous, more perhaps than was good for him. Howard Moore Jr., a lawyer and a frequent house guest, said that Ali’s phone would ring all day. Callers were asking him to pay their rent or loan them money, and more often than not he did, no questions asked. According to the documentary “The Don King Story,” after Ali was nearly killed in the ring by Larry Holmes in 1980, Mr. King, the promoter of the fight, cheated him out of all but $50,000 of an $8 million purse (Mr. King denies the charge).
Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali–Two of the Greatest
Ali eschewed the promoters and agents who spoke for other boxers, but he had his own traveling circus of parasites and hangers on who encouraged him to fight, no matter the damage to his body. He took such a beating from Earnie Shavers in 1977 that Teddy Brenner, the matchmaker at Madison Square Garden, refused to book him to fight there again. After another fight, Ferdie Pacheco, a fight doctor, warned those who were close to Ali that he was urinating blood; he got no response.
Ali sometimes fell in with the wrong crowd, including his friend Major Coxson, a politician and gangster in Cherry Hill, N.J., who was killed in a 1973 mob hit. One of his managers, Richard M. Hirschfeld, was a criminal who hanged himself in jail. Howard Smith, the one-time chairman of Muhammad Ali Professional Sports Inc., used the champion’s name to steal $21.3 million from Wells Fargo, one of the largest embezzlement cases in history.
Ali’s career will make you cry. Long after he retired, he remained a symbol of rock-solid strength, but even during his career he was in decline. Here was this young, self-described “pretty” boxer who could dazzle you with his raps, who was always bubbling over with confidence. But his three years away from the ring, from 1967 to 1970, were damaging. The boxer Ron Lyle said that before Ali’s absence, you couldn’t touch him — but after he returned to the ring it was easy enough.
Ali was a pugilist, but also a poet — literally. The first time I saw him was in 1963, when he came to read his poetry at a cafe in New York’s Greenwich Village called the Bitter End.
The last time I saw him was in 2005, when I attended the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky. He looked drawn and weary. The loud mouth that rattled the nation had been shut. The Louisville Lip had been stitched.
Was he in fact the greatest boxer of all time? Some say that Joe Louis was greater. Louis in turn called Sonny Liston the greatest heavyweight champion in history. And indeed, Liston busted a whole bunch of people on the way up, and a whole bunch on the way down.
But then I think of a story that one of Ali’s friends and former managers, Gene Kilroy, once told me. A child was dying of cancer. Ali visited the hospital and told the boy that he was going to defeat Sonny Liston and that he, the kid, was going to defeat cancer. “No,” the boy said. “I’m going to God, and I’m going to tell God that I know you.”