Jack Hanson on Muhammad Ali
“FLOAT LIKE A butterfly, sting like a bee.” Everyone knows the phrase, even if they don’t know where it’s from. Cassius Clay got it, the story goes, from the barbershops of Louisville and Miami, where the talk was quick and sharp, like he was. The grace with which he floated, the fury with which he stung. He idolized Sugar Ray Robinson, modeled himself on the older fighter, and, fighting as a heavyweight, brought a bomb where Sugar Ray had brought a pistol. He shook up the world.
“I can’t be beat.” It must have seemed so true, as he tore through the amateur ranks, as he stood on the podium in Rome, as he threw the gold medal into the Ohio River, refused a seat at the lunch counter yet again, despite his triumph on behalf of his country. When he careened across the ring, dragging the acolytes who hung on, demanding the sports writers eat their words. He was champion, and he would reign for a thousand years.
“I am ready to die.” It was Islam that compelled him to refuse the draft, but it was the country that drew him to Islam, to Malcom X, and to Elijah Muhammad. The country told him he was nothing, at best a clown who made money for white people. The Nation of Islam told him he was beautiful, powerful, affirmed everything he had told himself and the world. He was given a new name that meant “lofty, sublime,” “the most praised one.” He received it while Malcom was still X, and disavowed his friend when he crossed the Nation. But he had his own battle ahead. The country that had spat on him would demand his service in Viet Nam. He refused—and also refused the label “coward,” turning it instead on the supposedly lawful white liberals who chose to send their sons to Canada. It was an act of strength, a signal moment in which it became a matter of principle to refuse to fight. He spent three years in exile, risking jail, incurring fines, speaking to students across the country.
Then he returned.
He reigned over the greatest era in heavyweight history—he became human, and in doing so proved his greatness. He lost to Joe Frazier, a fighter of profound intensity, who became his defining rival. And yet, in that first loss, when he was knocked down by a rocketing left hook, he was up in 2. How was that possible? He taunted Frazier, said unforgivable things. In the midst of their trilogy, he flew to Zaire and in a feat of tactical genius (as well as superhuman endurance), knocked out George Foreman, perhaps the most terrifying fighter ever, to win back the title.
He should have stopped then. He couldn’t.
He fought Frazier again, in the greatest fight of all time, the Thrilla in Manilla. In brutal heat and under immense international pressure, the two men brought each other to the brink of death. At the end of the 14th round, he instructed Angelo Dundee, his life-long trainer, to cut off his gloves and throw in the towel. At the opposite corner, Eddie Futch, Frazier’s legendary trainer, observed his own fighter: eyes swollen shut, breathing ragged breaths through an open mouth, and stopped the fight, handing the victory over. Both men were immediately brought to the hospital, where they stayed for weeks. “If God ever calls me to a holy war,” he said, “I want Joe Frazier by my side.” But for all he said and did—which he later tried to brush aside with the claim ‘just trying to sell the fight’—Frazier never forgave him.
He should have stopped. He couldn’t.
He fought Earnie Shavers, perhaps the hardest puncher ever, and beat him. Then he lost to Leon Spinks, a kid. He avenged that loss, becoming the first three-time heavyweight champion. He should have stopped. He couldn’t. He faced Larry Holmes, a former sparring partner and future Hall of Famer, and was brutalized. Already he showed signs of the future. He shook. He was slow. His eyes were distant.
Eventually, he stopped speaking altogether. But he had said so much already, done so much. So much I have left out—with him, we can’t help but leave things out.
“I am the greatest.” He said it, again and again. It reverberates today. Especially today. Well, strictly speaking, most ‘in the know’ put Sugar Ray and Henry Armstrong, perhaps a few others, ahead of him. But how could that matter? It seems not only trite; it seems untrue, even if others had superior skills, just as he still seems unbeaten, despite his losses to Frazier, Norton, Spinks, Holmes, and Berbick. Being ‘in the know,’ doesn’t matter with him. He made all of us know something else, something more. That’s what those headlines mean when they say he transcended the sport that made him famous.
He was the greatest, and is. He told us so. So what can we do but quote him?
Muhammad Ali. 1942-2016.
JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan. He has written for Bookslut, Carte Blanche, Full Stop, The Hopkins Review, Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and The Quarterly Conversation. He received his BA (Hons.) from Suffolk University and is now a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Born and raised in Massachusetts, he lives in Chicago.