Tipping point: Muhammad Ali could be all too human at times
The late boxer was renowned for his wisdom but it only came to him in later years
Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali: “I know all them insults are nonsense but he’s saying them and that means something”
It isn’t one of Muhammad Ali’s most famous quotes but it might be the wisest: “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
He said it to a Playboy interviewer in 1975. He was about halfway between 20 and 50 then, still young enough to be champion of the world but old enough to reflect on something he said a few years earlier when he shared some good ol’ boy racism with the same magazine.
“A black man should be killed if he’s messing with a white woman,” he said. And when the interviewer asked about a black woman crossing the racial divide, Ali said: “Then she dies. Kill her too.”
In an act of rare journalistic mettle considering who he was talking to, the same interviewer then did Ali the privilege of pointing out the obvious: “You’re beginning to sound like a carbon copy of a white racist.”
In the rush to consecrate the memory of perhaps the most singular figure in sporting history, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Ali could say and do some very stupid things.
In that he proved to be just as human as the rest of us.
He was “The Greatest” and only he could have come close to injecting that provocative self-appointment with enough charisma to burnish all that undoubted fighting ability and heart into legend.
Charisma isn’t supposed to be a “get out of jail free” card though and too often with Ali it could be. Even if he was widely suspected of being a Nation Of Islam stooge, a mouthpiece for loathsome propaganda, for a time Ali was still an enthusiastic disciple of the sort of racist filth that was, in itself, a response to racist filth but which was rooted in a similarly stupid monochrome view of humanity.
Ali didn’t always believe in turning the other cheek. Instead he came out with stuff such as “integration is wrong: we don’t want to live with the white man” or “I believe it’s human nature to be with your own kind”, the whole banal “blue birds fly with blue birds” bit.
Look back again at that famous 1971 Parkinson television interview and behind the funny, bright and articulate Ali beats some venomous fundamentalist hatred. “It’s a fact that white people hate black people,” he rages.
But it is disingenuous to dismiss it as simply one of those things, an unfortunate reflection of the time, just as it is too easy to forget the disgraceful way in which Ali treated his great rival, Joe Frazier.
Smokin’ Joe didn’t have a fraction of Ali’s charisma or style but if Ali’s refusal to go to Vietnam was an epic display of integrity, then Frazier’s financial help and encouragement for the dethroned champion was a kindness all too recognisable on a human level. And in return he was subjected to the sort of bullying and provocative taunting that blighted not only Frazier’s life, but also his family’s, for a very long time.
Ali dismissed it as simply selling a fight, just words. But Frazier’s response was on the money: “I know all them insults are nonsense but he’s saying them and that means something.”
And Ali must have known that too because a man so fluent couldn’t not know the power of the words he spoke.
He apologised later in life and the two men came to an uneasy detente that allowed many to conveniently consign the matter to history, a case of forgive and forget. Frazier’s commitment to forgiveness wavered sometimes. And he never forgot.
It was Ali’s ultimate tragedy that illness meant he was increasingly denied the power to use those words after youthful braggadocio had matured into greater wisdom.
Ali was too human to be saintly. Trying to pin it on him diminishes the scale of a complicated personality who behind all the chutzpah and cheek and the cod-doggerel had the courage of his convictions.
They weren’t always correct or comfortable but there was consistency in the courage, something hardly coincidental to the dignity with which he fought illness in his declining years and which will always underpin the memories and images of him at his finest.
He was just 24 when arguing against the Vietnam draft with the most perfectly potent Ali quote of all: “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”Amid all the big noise, bigger purses and even bigger egos involved in boxing now, not to mention fighting’s other grotesquely cynical variations, bemoaning the lack of a similarly big vision is as futile as looking for a comparison with the sun.
With Ali there aren’t any comparisons. He could seem bigger than boxing. And sometimes he was. And ultimately he was much bigger than some of the nasty ideas he once espoused.
There’s tragedy in his death. There’s tragedy too in having been denied for so long the words and thoughts of a man who was always brave and who didn’t ultimately the waste the chance for wisdom.