This is not about Muhammad Ali. This is about Ali and me

I watch him for his pride in standing up and taking a beating.

 |  10-minute read |   04-06-2016
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When I was a kid, my father’s newspaper office and home were the same. In his study there were bound volumes of Time magazine. I would go through them, the magazine on the floor, my face in my hands, and one day in 1971, I saw Muhammad Ali down on the mat, felled by Frazier’s left hook in the 15th round.

That was my first image of Ali. My hero on the floor, who picked himself up and fought—again and again.

I have gone through my worst with Ali. He fought for me when I was down. When he worked that left jab, “Chinese torture,” as a commentator described it, he was fighting my personal battles. When he danced away from blows that weighed a ton, I heaved sighs of relief.

jo-fraz_060416074228.jpg Muhammad Ali versus Sonny Liston.

When he was hurt, I told him to take care. Go easy, I told him, watch those kidneys.

In the last ten years or so I have watched Ali’s fights on the Net from his Olympics final in Rome in 1960, when he won the gold, to the rematch with Leon Spink in 1978, when he won back the heavyweight title, and I have watched those matches almost every night. And every night I watch him to see what brutal beauty a man can conjure with two gloves. How he makes torture an art form.

'I didn't take a bad beating'

Normally, when you wear a pair of eight-ounce gloves there is not much option but throw a punch or block it. You are helpless like a baby. Ali rewrote history with his gloved hands. He boxed the world into a better place. The papers and the wires today would be full of chronologies and dates. So I will skip that part, the part they all do so faithfully when a great man goes. You do the numbers when you have nothing to say or when you can’t feel much.

Ali said. Ali felt.

In 1967, when he   refused to fight for America in Vietnam, Ali was 25. His refusal to join the army meant he would be out of the ring for five years, though in the event it turned out to be three. But his art was taken from him; that was the only way he could have said he was a man. And he was all man.

The white America said he was a traitor.

Cassius Clay, in a secret act of revolt, had by now, already converted into Islam, and become Muhammad Ali, and he said neither his god nor his conscience would allow him to fight the imaginary enemy of the White House:

"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America, and shoot them for what?" Ali said in an interview. "They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me."

Ali was America’s conscience of the '60s. It took them a while before they realised it.

1936340_101540538743_060416080717.jpg In the ring, the civil rights were fully in play. 

Vietnam was not his war. Sometimes it takes a whole super power and a lie to bring out the best in you. Vietnam was a lie. In nailing it, Ali became bigger than his sport. It’s like a writer saying he would rather not write rather than lie. We have silences like that too among us, but that would be another obit altogether.

Ali turned boxing into high politics. Boxing, like jazz, is a black art. But unlike music, in the ring, nothing is left to the imagination. Your equality or the entire absence of it, is clear as air after the rain.

Blacks knew it. In the ring, the civil rights were fully in play. When Jack Jones knocked out the white Canadian Tommy Burns in 1908, the gloves had begun to come off the movement.

The great black heavy weights, Johnson, Joe Louis, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Tyson all come from impoverished, often criminal, humiliating circumstances. But not one of them had the Passion of Muhammad Ali.

floyd-patterson_060416075916.jpg The Champ gets Floyd Patterson.

In boxing, in love, in peace; Ali’s fists were forged in a different fire; the punishment he handed out was extreme, and its beauty and fairness somehow justified it. He knew what he was doing. You will not see Ali taking his eyes off the opponent’s for a moment. Others look at the face and the body. Ali looked into their eyes. All the time.

Ali went through what might have been his best boxing years 25-28 outside the ring. Instead of hands, he used his tongue, talking about the great white lie of American patriotism in campuses across the nation, leading almost single handedly his own brand of peace campaign — prodded on, no doubt, first by Nation of Islam’s Malcolm X (Malcolm X broke away from the Nation later on) and then by Elijah Muhammad — which a world as true as Ali should have recognised with a Nobel in peace.

But you will see that in 1967, when Ali began his bout for Vietnam, on behalf of the napalm-bombed children and their hardy parents, no Nobel for peace was given. 

That speaks something for the Nobel. For America, too. The next three years when Ali was standing up and taking the count, the Nobel went to "respectable" individual like Rene Cassin, of the European Court of Human Rights , the ILO, Norman Borlaug of the Wheat and Maize movement, and German chancellor, Willy Brandt.  All just recipients. All rather deferrable.

Because Ali was fighting America in America. Right then, Right there. And somehow in an irony as big as the White House itself, the history of the civil rights movement of the Blacks and the human rights of the Browns to breathe free had fused.  Ali had forged a rare union for human rights.

Released on appeal from prison, he went to campuses for lectures to pay his bills, and found that the young whites were not all for his desertion of the nation at the hour of its crisis—all its own making, of course.

muhammad-ali_060416080859.jpg When Ali began his bout for Vietnam, no Nobel was given.

During one of these tours a white — we can’t ever escape the black and white nature of truth, can we? — student challenged his draft avoidance as an act of cowardice.

And Ali answered: "My enemy is the white people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese. You are my opposer when I want freedom. You are my opposer when I want justice. You are my opposer when I want equality. You won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won't even stand up for me here at home."

Ali won his battle eventually over Vietnam. Because America, as we might hazard an educated guess in retrospect, was drawing on one of its main talents: lie, start a war, lose it, make a movie out of it.

Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq. What ultimately comes out of these is a good movie or two. Hollywood is nothing without the political lies of Washington. Vietnam was a hollow war.

***

I watch the Ali fights on YouTube. Every night. Night after night. Everything he does in the ring is beautiful. Just the way he stands. Consider his victory stance over Sonny Liston in the second match in 1965. 

12901234_10154026243_060416081220.jpg I even watch Ali for holding his punch because it could not be executed with grace.

Midway through the first round Liston throws a left, and Ali evades it like a trick in time, and hands him a fast right. Liston goes down. He pretends to get up on one knee and rolls back again on the mat. Ali stands tall over him, feet together, hands raised into hooded serpentine fists over his head; standing over Sonny Liston: get up and fight sucker. He was art; he just happened to be breathing.

I watch Ali for many reasons. And all of it is joy — when he is in his good years. Ali’s hand speed, his foot movements, his expressions, his beautiful combinations; I even watch him for holding his punch because it could not be executed with grace.

Foreman once mentioned, long after their Rumble in the Jungle in 1974, when he went down in the eighth, Ali “held” his punch because Foreman was already on his way south.

But the fact also is that, in match after match in his prime, you would see Ali holding back his punches because they wouldn’t come out with the artistic grace he would associate with the sport. Or with himself. In the ring, you would never catch Ali swinging wide. There was no poetry in it.

I watch him. I watch him for his pride in standing up and taking a beating. Consider the third round of the Ali-Frazier match in their Thrilla in Manila in 1975.

joe-frazier_060416080553.jpg Awaiting a punch from Joe Frazier.

Ali leans to a corner and let Frazier have him. Frazier pours on, his head leaning against his taunting detractor’s face; his hammers of hands rolling at the shoulder and landing, “blows that would have brought the walls of a city down,” as he later said. Ali takes it all just to show he can absorb the best Frazier can offer.

Frazier steps back, tired. Ali waves him on to come back. Frazier gets back and resumes. And pauses for a moment to recover his breath, his head still leaning on Ali’s glove-guarded face. Then you see Ali’s right shoulder tensing, like a twitch, and he opens up in a flurry.

'Nobody gonna stop me'

The hands pump like pistons. Frazier finds himself in the corner, and Ali is throwing lightning combinations at him.  When the round ends, you see the shadow of a doubt fleeting over Frazier’s face. That fight goes on for 14 rounds before Frazier’s trainer Eddie Fuch throws in the towel. Ali will later say that was the closest he came to death.

Not really; the deaths followed and preceded. Each cruel in its own way.  When Ken Norton broke Ali’s jaw in their first match in March 1973, and Ali went through the rest of the fight with that agony. He lost the match, but avenged in September of the same year. Ali would narrowly (8-7) defeat Norton again in their third and final match in 1978. But by this time Ali had begun to die in real earnest.

And around the time of his career, I would stop watching Ali. I didn’t want to see him go down on the mat again as I did the first time round in my father’s study.

I would not for example watch the first Leon Spinks-Ali match, because I would think it is just not right for Ali lose against man like that. But I would watch the rematch because Ali would win it.

But the best of Ali, even I knew, was over. I refused to watch fully Larry Holmes, a former sparring partner of Ali, punishing him in 1978. I had tried, but I could not go beyond the first round. Ali was 38, and already a Parkinson’s patient. He just didn’t know it.

I would though read about the Holmes match furtively. During the whole match Ali was standing, covering up his face, in a corner, and getting beaten. In the ninth Holmes landed an upper cut and followed it with one into Ali’s kidney.

Ali turned his head to his corner and screamed. Lloyd Wells, a member of Ali's camp who was at the ringside later recalled. "I never will forget that as long as I live. Ali screamed."  Sylvester Stallone said after watching that match that it was like watching autopsy on a breathing man. That was in 1980.

More live autopsies followed, notably with Trevor Berbick, more a body builder than a boxer. These details no longer mattered really. My Ali had died long ago. Just as my father, who died of Alzheimer’s, ten years before dementia finally got him. Some men die long before they are defeated.

Writer

CP Surendran CP Surendran @cpsurendran

Senior Journalist

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