18 days ago Ago, Muhammad Ali turned 70. So it seemed apt to comment on this most singular of professional athletes. Of course, unlike this man, I’ve never interviewed Ali, or like this guy, never fought with him either. So, instead, I’m going to relay 6 great Ali facts gleaned from Thomas Hauser’s excellent biography: Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. Drawing primarily on interviews with those who encountered the boxer in his professional or personal life, the book relates well the era-defining phenomenon that was Ali.
Of course, everyone knows the story of Zaire, the defeat of Sonny Liston, the refusal to go to Vietnam and Ali’s library of famous taunts, but here are a few things you might not have heard yet. As a warm up, here‘s the best Ali youtube video I’ve seen to date, followed by this video where Ali stops a suicidal man from killing himself.
1) Underwater Combat
Such a wonderful self-promoter was Ali in his early days that, when confronted with Flip Schulke, a photographer who did freelance underwater photography for Life, he had to think on his feet. Ali immediately burst into a frenzied discussion of his ‘secret’ training method heretofore unknown: underwater boxing.
Transfixed, the photographer took dozens of photographs of Ali up to his neck in a swimming pool, throwing punches and performing defence. The technique, Ali proudly claimed, forced him to compete with the added traction and weight of moving underwater, making his land-speed all the higher when Angelo finally handed him a towel. The result? A five page spread in America’s biggest magazine at that time.
2) Ali Inspired Rocky
Well, that’s perhaps a bit misleading. Seeing Ali fight Chuck Wepner, a journerman boxer who knocked Ali down (but ultimately lost the fight) inspired Stallone to write Rocky. Ali became the not so subtle basis basis for Apollo Creed, the mouthy, show-off that Balboa finally defeats in Rocky II. Stallone says of Ali:
“…as fate would have it, I saw the fight between Ali and Chuck Wepner. And the fight was really undistinguished until the man who was considered an sbolute pushover knowkced the unbeatable champion down. I saw how the crowd reacted, and I said to myself, ‘This is what it’s all about.’ Everybody wants a slice of immortality, wheter it’s for fifteen rounds in a fight or two minutes in their own life. They want that sensation that they have a shot at the impossible dream, and that solidified the whole thing for me…Rocky came out of that fight between Wepner and Ali…And of course, Apollo Creed was a thinly disguised impersonation of Ali.”
What’s also entertaining is that many of the more bizarre aspects of Rocky: the fight with the wrestler in Rocky III, and the computer simulation that started off Rocky Balboa both happened to Ali. The fight with the wrestler we’ll get to in a minute, but as for the computer simulation story, the bizarre tale goes like this, according to Burt Sugar:
It began with an old concept. While Ali was in exile, an advertizing executive named Murray Woroner put data on sixteen heavyweight champtions into a computer and created a fictitious tournament which was broadcast on radio.” (196)
The Rocky Marciano-Ali fight, which Marciano won, was then turned into a televised bout using filmed rounds with different endings, which ere broadcast for closed circuit viewing.
3) Ali: the Wrestling Connection
Naturally, there is something in Ali’s showmanship that likens him to a professional wrestler, albeit far classier and charismatic than anyone on the WWE rosters. That is, apart from the Rock, who shamelessly emulates “The Greatest” in his persona. Personally, I would pay most of all my prospective future earnings to see Ali in his Prime versus the Rock. What’s more, Don King has probably considered this possibility, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t.
The Rock’s term ‘The People’s Champion’ has a strange connection to Ali’s mythology as well. Elvis himself had Ali fitted for a jacket bearing the inscription ‘The People’s Champ’. Still, the strangest crossover with professional wrestling came via a strange exhibition match with a Japanese wrestler called Inoki. This bizarre match, which was supposed to generate millions of dollars and drew in millions of viewers worldwide (including, as wrestling fans will be happy to her, one screening organized by Vince McMahon) turned out to be farcical for two many reasons to mention. As Hauser writes:
“Ali-Inoki was insufferably boring. For fifteen rounds, Inoki crab-walked around the ring, horizontal to the canvas, kicking at Ali’s legs. That was the fight.” (337)
What’s worse is that this bizarre disaster of a fight caused Ali serious leg injuries, described by Freddie Pacheco
“Because of the kicks, Ali suffered ruptured blood vessels and his left leg filled uip with about a quart of blood.” (337)
According to many, this hampered his mobility from then on.
4) The Nation of Islam’s other beliefs.
The Nation of Islam were, among other things, sci-fi prophets. While this isn’t a Ali fact per se, the book also reveals some of the more bizarre details of the group’s belief system. These days, opening a talk by claiming the Jews control America via the Federal Reserve is enough to reduce and organization’s credibility to a sub-zero level, but added to the early mix was, alongside black separatism and racial supremacy, a belief a ‘Motherplan’ was en route to deliver America’s black population. Farrakhan, helpfully, explains the contemporary view:
“The Honorable Elijah Muhammad told us of a giant Motherplane that is made like the universe, spheres within spheres. White people call them unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Ezekiel, in the Old Testament, saw a wheel that looked like a cloud by day but a pillar of fire by night. The Hon. Elijah Muhammad said that that wheel was built on the island of Nippon, which is now called Japan, by some of the original scientists. It took 15 billion dollars in gold at that time to build it. It is made of the toughest steel. America does not yet know the composition of the steel used to make an instrument like it. It is a circular plane, and the Bible says that it never makes turns. Because of its circular nature it can stop and travel in all directions at speeds of thousands of miles per hour. He said there are 1,500 small wheels in this mother wheel which is a half mile by a half mile (800 by 800 m). This Mother Wheel is like a small human built planet. Each one of these small planes carry three bombs.”
What also struck me as unfortunate was Elijah Muhammad’s decision to prevent Ali from being an actor in Heaven CAn Wait, being developed by Warner Brothers and with a Frances Ford Coppella screenplay, thereby denying us all what would have doubtlessly been a career of family friendly summer blockbusters or culminating with Ali hosting some sort of unspeakably awesome reverse Jeremy Kyle talk show.
5) Ali: The Diplomatic Years
Such a popular global figure, Ali was at one point considered for a role as ambassador to Iran during the hostage crisis. As Hauser writes:
“Ali took his diplomatic skills seriously, on occasion referring to himself as “the black Henry Kissinger.”
And he wasn’t alone in that regard. Jimmy Carter ackonoledges that, soon after ht eIranian takeover of the United States embassy in Tehran, “We very seriously contemplated having Ali serve as an intermediary, perhaps in conjunction with Andy Young [United Staets ambassador to the United Nations] to find an avenue of communication to release the hostages.” (395-6)
While this unfortunately did not come to pass, Ali was recruited for another diplomatic mission, this time to Africa to push for the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, this was taken rather badly in Tanzania, Ali’s first port of call, where officials wondered aloud whether Chris Evans would be sent by the U.S. to negotiate with London. Despite the unseemly nature of the trip, Ali comes off rather well, albeit a little behind on world events. When questioned about the hypocricy of the US’s refusal to boycott the Montreal Olympics four years earlier due to South Africa’s involvement, Ali said in a press conference: “They didn’t tell me about that in America…Maybe I’m being used to do something that ain’t right. You’re going making me look at things different. If I find out I’m wrong , I’m going back to America and canel the whole trip…I’m not a traitor to black people. If you can show me something I don’t know, I want to be helped. You all have given me some questions which are good and are making me look at this thing different.” (397)
6) Ali and fan-mail
I don’t know whether this is still true, because the first edition of this book was published in 1991, and reissued in 2004. Whether this was edited, added in or changed in the more recent edition, I’m unsure. Even so, I like to imagine it’s still somewhat the case. Either way, Hauser writes that, at the time of writing:
“Around eleven, Ali returns home and shifts his attention to the daily mail. He gets more than a hundred letters week, and personally answers every one.” (464)
I’m heartened to hear this, and will be duly be writing one of my own. This statement comes towards the end of the book, which ends on an interesting note, finding optimism and ambition in Ali, then aged
“People said I had a full life, but I ain’t dead yet, I’m just getting started. All of my boxing, all of running around, all of my publicity, was just the start of my life. Now my life is really starting. Fighting injutice, fighting racism, fithgint crime, fighting illiteracy, fighting poverty. using this face the world knows so well, and going out and fighting for truth and different causes.” (514)
And since then he appears to have been doing just that. Receiving numerous awards, acting as a UN Messenger of Peace, opening a not for profit centre in Louisville Kentucky, performing numerous humanitarian acts, and so on. On second thoughts, that probably does mean he’s too busy to write back, but I’ll just have to let that one slide.