Fight the power

I'm a Little Special: A Muhammad Ali Reader

Gerald Early <em>Yellow Jersey Press, 299pp, £8</em>

The most striking document in Gerald Early's study is a Playboy interview given by Muhammad Ali in 1975. "Boxing will never die," he declares, but his sense of the sport's immortality stems from an intimation of his own, and he explains the necessity of "conditioning" the brain by taking blows to the head. As the quarter-century since that interview has shown, Ali's diet of bruises did for his cortex, and it did for the sport, too; the fighter's hubris - "I'm a little special" eventually mutated into "I'm the greatest" - was boxing's inimitable apogee, and the decline of the sport's most gifted exponent illustrates all too poignantly the human cost of pugilistic success.

Early's collection charts, through inclusions from perceptive commentators, the rise and fall of the champion. But there is nothing from before 1962, at which point Ali - or, as he then was, Cassius Clay - had already won his Olympic gold medal and begun flattening a succession of ranked heavyweights. True, it was not until 1964 that he became champion of the world, defeating Sonny Liston in a bout that confounded all punditry and popular expectation; but it was in the years immediately after his Olympic victory in Rome that he fell under the influence of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, and it was in those early years that his rapping self-publicity and magnetic arrogance evolved.

The chief interest of David Remnick's outstanding study is his revealing examination of the years that preceded Ali's stardom. He shows that Ali was not only a magnificent athlete but also a shocking antidote to his immediate predecessors: Floyd Patterson, a complex, diffident integrationist, and Sonny Liston, a brutal ex-convict with Mafia connections. Ali disdained both of them; he spurned the sport's traditional Mob connections, yet was just as quick to sneer at Patterson, the deferential "Good Negro".

Remnick identifies Ali as an individual who defied the usual stereotypes of the boxer and refused to be the property of the white businessmen who ran the sport. He reminds the reader, too, that the champion boxer is invariably a man whose emotional vulnerability is greater than average, not less so.

Ali's machismo was no more an injury to others than it could be to himself; each angry release met with its own private contradiction. Lest we forget his wounding rhetoric, we are treated to volleys of pre-fight doggerel, in-fight baiting and ringside braggadocio. Yet he had an ironic self-knowledge which belied such sour behaviour. Speaking to Alex Haley of the tension between his black Muslim religion and the sexual appetite that earned him the sobriquet "The pelvic missionary", he confessed: "I'm ashamed of myself, but sometimes I've caught myself wishing I had found Islam about five years from now."

It is this often objectionable but always determined individuality, deftly depicted by Remnick, that made Ali so remarkable. There are still sporting heroes in America, but today they are the property of corporations who decide not only their schedules but also their opinions. Michael Jordan's identity can barely be separated from the basketball boot that bears his signature; his name is first and foremost a tag or an epithet, and much less the name of a person. So Ali is one of the few remnants of an age that created heroes who were heroes first and market forces second. The others, from Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy to Elvis Presley, are gone, but Ali remains. His frailty - so visible to the world when he lit the Olympic flame three years ago - betokens the enfeebling of the very concept of the hero, the demise of a culture that desires icons who cannot be casually shrugged aside.

Perhaps it is more than coincidence that Ali's Playboy interview of 1975 is such a compelling document. Playboy was once more than a skin mag; you could always read an interview with, say, Orson Welles or Bertrand Russell, or something by Norman Mailer or John Updike, amid the pages of boys' toys, advice on making Martinis and pictures of Hef's naked babes. Ali's presence in those pages reminds us of a more brazenly aspirational time when heroism, virility and plutocracy were safer, less ambiguous options than they have since become.

As both books show, Ali was a hero but also a separatist. He chose to be an inspiration on his own terms rather than having them defined for him. Excluded from the ring because he refused to fight in Vietnam for a government he didn't believe in, he was obliged to become an activist. Never afraid to assert his egregiousness, he claimed as recently as 1989 that "the difference between fighters of today and in my day is that they all look the same". And that was Ali's mission; he had to be different, and was given every reason to be so. America has never again denied its heroes quite so much, nor by denying them afforded them such power and opportunity.

This article first appeared in the 01 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - David Ramsbotham