Tuesday, July 18, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Boxing’s greatest mystery

Leader sports editor

This column originally appeared in the June 8, 2016 edition of The Leader. It recently won a first place award for best sports column at the Arkansas Press Association awards banquet.

Muhammad Ali is an American hero. Many heroes are loved almost as much for their flaws as for their greatness. Not so with Ali. He was a great, but flawed man whose tangled past has gone ignored.

America is uncomfortable with complexity, and Ali was nothing if not complex.

Ali, who died Friday at the age of 74, was a great boxer and a man of conviction. His dedication to his convictions made him an inspirational figure during the civil rights movement. He gave up three years of his athletic prime by having his boxing license revoked for refusing to enter the draft for the Vietnam War.

He once talked about how all the great leaders in the past, especially religiously motivated ones, suffered persecution and came out of it greater and stronger leaders, and then he showed that kind of resolve.

But when Muhammad Ali was at the height of his popularity and his voice on social injustice was strongest, he was wrong when he chose the violent and hate-mongering group, the Nation of Islam, as the platform for his stance.

Ali came under the influence of the then militant Malcolm X as a burgeoning 19-year talent, but didn’t publicly declare his allegiance to the NOI until the day after he beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship three years later. That was also the day he changed his name from Cassius Clay to the poetical and musical sounding name by which he’s forever remembered.

Famous fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s personal physician and cornerman, said the NOI’s influence on Ali was “the most complete manipulation of a person I’ve ever seen.”

That Muhammad Ali was member of the Nation of Islam is a well-documented fact, but people seem to avoid telling the plain truth about that organization, at least when it comes to “The Greatest.”

Ali did not promote equality. He promoted the superiority of the black race and racial purity. The Nation of Islam is on the list of hate groups provided and tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, itself a major figure in the civil rights movement.

Ali even spoke at a Ku Klux Klan meeting in 1975 to talk about their common ground with the NOI, that being that races should not mix in sex and marriage.

Ali also experience and exhibited a change of heart as profound as the one by Malcolm X, but he was given decades to do so without the proper demand for answers or apology.

When Malcolm X had his epiphany that the hate preached by the NOI was wrong, Ali turned his back on his once close friend. He has since said that was one of his biggest regrets.

Strangely, the same year he spoke at the KKK meeting, and revamped his years-long character assassination of ring rival Joe Frazier – one that far exceeded the boundaries of decency – he himself renounced his membership in the NOI. But renunciation is not the same as denunciation, and Ali didn’t do that until his autobiography came out in 2004, and even that failed to measure up to the word paintings Ali was so capable of creating with his oratory skills.

That denunciation also contained a confession that forever went unquestioned.

In that book, Ali wrote, “The Nation of Islam taught that white people were devils. I don’t believe that now; in fact, I never really believed that.”

If he never believed the main tenants of NOI teaching, why did he do all the things he did and give so much legitimacy to a hate group?

Ali remains a mystery.

He got to address his relationship with a hate group 30 years later on his own terms. He got to address the horrible way he treated Joe Frazier, the man without whom Ali would be no legend, 35 years later, and again on his own terms.

Frazier was the man who had gained the heavyweight championship while Ali was serving his three-year ban for refusing to enter the draft for the Vietnam War.

Tired of hearing that he wasn’t the legitimate champion, Frazier publicly lobbied on Ali’s behalf to have his license reinstated. When it was, Ali knocked out Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, (two extremely rugged and talented boxers in their own rights) and quickly re-establishing himself in the minds of American sports fans that he was the real heavyweight champion.

In the fashion he had developed early in his career, Ali began insulting Frazier during pre-fight press conferences and any other chance he got. But he went further with Frazier.

He turned black America against Frazier, even though Frazier’s life was much more exemplary of the struggles of black people than Ali’s.

Frazier was, literally, the son of a sharecropper in South Carolina. He was from the Deep South. He was darker skinned, and that meant something in those days. He moved, like many blacks in the Deep South, to the north. In his case, to Philadelphia, where he continued to live in abject poverty.

Ali was raised in a middle class neighborhood in Louisville, Ky.

Frazier should have been seen as inspirational in his own way. He wasn’t political, but he displayed a determination to succeed that was inspirational to a 10-year old boy who was turned on to old boxing films by his grandfather.

Frazier did not have the size, footwork or athleticism of Ali, but he had toughness matched by few in sports history.

Instead, Ali labeled Frazier “a good negro” a condescendingly racist term often used by old white’s back then to describe black people they liked.

Frazier, vastly outmatched in a battle of words with an orator like Muhammad Ali, wasn’t able to stop the groundswell of hate that was developing towards him by his own people because of Ali’s antics.

He was, in the eyes of many black people, the “Uncle Tom” that Ali said he was. Ali even said, “Anybody black who thinks Frazier can whup me is an Uncle Tom.”

Bryant Gumble, now an HBO superstar but then a fledgling sportswriter, dubbed Frazier “The white champion in black skin.”

It’s called the “Fight of the Century.” It was the greatest fight of all time. The $5 million purse was the largest ever for a prizefight. Burt Lancaster was the color commentator and seemingly every celebrity in the world was ringside. Frazier beat Ali via unanimous decision in 15 grueling rounds, putting a stamp on the victory by decking the iron-chinned Kentuckian in the final round with his patented left hook.

He also put Ali down in round 11, but the referee didn’t rule it a knockdown, though he did, for reasons never explained, give Ali nine seconds to recover from the blow.

Two judges had it 9-6 for Frazier while one had it 11-4.

Ali had made promises of contrition if he lost. Instead, he was a no-show at the post fight press conference, and never publicly admitted defeat. He cried racism and said the white judges cheated him.

Frazier, himself roughed up and needing medical attention, did make a brief appearance at the press conference. With one eye closed, simply said he just wants Ali to “take back all those hurtful things he said about me.”

Ali did the opposite. For five more years he insulted Frazier at every opportunity. Throughout the buildup of their second fight, one which was legitimately controversial in which Ali got the decision, and ramped it up to an unprecedented level for the third and final meeting, the Thrilla in Manila.

There he redoubled both his hatred for white people and his character assault on Frazier. He told one stunned, white reporter, “He’s the other type of negro. He’s not like me….Joe Frazier’s worse than you to me. That’s what I mean when I say “Uncle Tom. I mean, he’s a brother. One day he may be like me, but for now he works for the enemy.”

Ali won that fight, another brutal affair that pushed both men to the physical and mental brink, when Frazier’s longtime friend and trainer Eddie Futch refused to let him answer the bell for the 15th round.

In a strange, and unjust twist of irony, Frazier fought his cornerman to let him continue while Ali, who wanted to quit, was forced by his cornerman to stand up and get out there. When Futch took the drastic step of cutting Frazier’s gloves and telling the referee it was over, Ali won the fight by TKO.

Ali apologized 30-plus years later for the way he treated Frazier, but never did face to face. He did, very soon after the third fight, give Frazier credit for being a valiant fighter.

“I was thinking at the end, why am I doing this? Ali would say. “What am I doing here against this beast of a man? It’s so painful. I must be crazy.”

Ali did finally say, decades later, that he was sorry he hurt Frazier.

“Joe Frazier is a good man, and I couldn’t’ have done what I did without him. He couldn’t have done what he did without me. And if God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me.”

But Ali’s previous ridicule and marginalization of Frazier had lasting effect. At the turn of the century, Ali topped ESPN’s list of the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century at No. 1. Frazier didn’t make the list at all. One would think if one man is the best athlete of an entire century, the man who beat him when they were in their prime and took him to death’s door two other times, would at least deserve a spot in the Top 100.

Ali’s own religious beliefs are a conundrum. When he renounced his membership in the NOI, he became a Sunni Muslim, a mainstream sect of Islam. In 2005, his daughter Hana Yasmeen told Beliefnet that her father had become “more spiritual than religious,” and had embraced the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, the founder of the Universal Sufi religion.

Most orders of Sufism are considered mystical Islamic sects, but Universal Sufism rejects any religion that adheres to a single book, which Islam does – the Koran.

Other friends say he worked to convert people to Islam until his death.

Ali remains a mystery.

What is certain is that Ali, for all his faults, was an inspiration in a time in American history when oppressed people needed inspiration, when prejudiced people needed shocked into a better world view and an unfair system needed change.

Muhammad Ali deserves the respect, admiration and honor he’s receiving in death, but we do our culture and our own souls a disservice when we ignore the sins of our heroes.