At the risk of suffering a sugar high, I’ve read and listened to much of the wall-to-wall fulsome praise heaped today on the preposterous Muhammad Ali, who went on to his reward late Friday night. About which reward, God being not nearly as gullible as those whooping up this humbug, there is some reason to be concerned.
Not my call of course. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Ali were admitted to Heaven only on the condition that he take a vow of silence, or at the very least promise to talk only to Howard Cosell, another humbug and longtime public annoyance who acted as pilot fish to Ali’s shark.
The Ali charm, so evident to so many others, has always eluded me. As a boxer, if he wasn’t the greatest he certainly was one of the greatest. But I found everything else about him repellent in the extreme. And found it impossible to take seriously anyone who took Ali seriously as anything other than a boxer. He was not the class seer. He was the class clown. He was a boastful, shallow, impulsive, and self-centered humbug whose mental development arrested at about age 12.
Ali was very good in the ring. (His only other skill was self-promotion.) He had the hand-speed of a good lightweight. To a lifetime fan of the sweet science, like my own self, his precise and lightning combinations were a thing of beauty. In his early years he absorbed very little punishment because he was the best I’ve ever seen at being just a millimeter or two out of the range of his opponents punches. He wasn’t a particularly hard hitter (for this see George Foreman, Rocky Marciano), but wore his opponents down with the cumulative effect of his punches.
As good as Ali the boxer was in the ring, he also offended there with his mugging, taunting, and generally acting the fool. These melancholy practices were rarely seen outside of professional wrestling before Ali. But they caught on across many sports thanks to him. (Could this be where the idea of those silly end zone dances came from?)
Outside the ring Ali used his seldom-still, industrial-strength lip to berate better men than himself (not least, the decent Joe Frazier). The doggerel verse he spouted, which some insist on calling poetry, was puerile and sub-junior high school grade.
Black Americans, not to mention poor whites, had their beefs against the America of the 1960s. Many justified. But few used these to refuse to take their turn on watch. And America showered few of these with the fame, praise, love, and millions of dollars it showered on Ali, who refused to do his duty. And he ducked his duty on the basis of his new religion, which over his life he showed no evidence that he ever understood, or took seriously unless it was convenient to him to do so. It’s hard not to conclude that he became a hero to folks in the smart set after and largely because he refused to be inducted.
I recall a conversation with a liberal friend at the gym some years back when I referred to Ali as a draft dodger. “At least he was one less person who had to go to that pointless war,” my friend said. “No,” I pointed out. “Not one less. Someone registered with Ali’s Louisville draft board had to go in his place because Ali couldn’t be bothered. Did this young man go to Southeast Asia? Did he come back alive? We’ll never know.”
Speaking of gym, I think I’d better get there before this over-the-top gushing causes me to lose my lunch. A certain round-the-clock sports network which shall remain nameless promises that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson will share their thoughts on The Great One. Two big-mouth cons enlisted to praise another. I think I’ll skip that.
RIP Muhammed Ali.