Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Andre Wright | Muhammad Ali: the maverick

Published:Sunday | June 5, 2016 | 6:00 AMAndre Wright

Muhammad Ali so perfected sporting showmanship that he turned boxing matches into sideshows and himself into the main event.

Ali's entertainment value was comparable to none. Not Floyd Mayweather's narcissism at the altar of bling. Not cock-of-the-rock, Chris Gayle's, swing of his big bat at the crease of female cricket journalists. Not Maurice Green's Zeus-like swagger and 20-foot-long serpentine tongue. Nor even Usain Bolt's obsession with legendary greatness with his chest-thumping Olympic exclamation.

Yet the sum total of all these egomaniacal greats of sport doesn't come close to the paradoxical power of Muhammad Ali to enchant and bewitch, to tantalise and titillate, to challenge and defy, to insult and humiliate. He was as iconic as he was iconoclastic.

Ali, Cassius Clay, 'The Greatest', 'King of the World', the floating, stinging pugilist upset the globe by his affirmation of a larger-than-life persona. He defined himself and his generation by his unapologetic glorification of blackness and race pride amid the intensity of Black Power. His loud mouth and irrepressible personality held gazes and twisted knives into the stoniest of hearts. Literally and metaphorically, he was a study in prose and poetry.

 

IMPOLITE, IMPOLITIC

 

The tongues of most modern athletes, even the superstars, are generally tethered to the tree of political correctness, with brand, image, and commercial deals driving sportsmen and women to be quiet and count the dough. But Ali was often not only politically incorrect, he was impolite and impolitic - characteristics that grated the sensitivities and sensibilities of a white, racist class that expected blacks to be more deferential and passive.

Not Muhammad Ali.

This nigger just couldn't be shut up. This nigger revelled in the notion that he was "pretty" in his African-American skin (bleaching cream be damned!). This nigger railed at the powerful white superstructure, its norms and philosophies. He made racist and even some non-racist whites (as well as many Uncle Toms wanting a peaceful life) uncomfortable, his rhetoric and brashness threatening perceptions of superiority and irreproachability.

Over the next few days, reams of column inches will be churned out about whether Muhammad Ali was really the greatest boxer of all time. Nostalgics will likely exclaim, "Duh!" Others may criticise his boxing style and strategy, charging that he allowed himself to be hit too often, too savagely, to feed his ego of invincibility. Mayweather, unlike Ali, was more determined and adept at not getting hit, making him one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters ever. Some will blast Ali for not knowing when to quit, instead of ignoring medical advice and subjecting his body to extreme cruelty in his last three years in the ring. (Ali described his final epic rematch with Joe Frazier in 1975, which Ali won, as "next to death".).

But where Muhammad Ali diverged from the mega superstars of today was his willingness to declare strong political and social views that rankled elements of the US government and the public. His refusal to be conscripted in what he and many others viewed as an immoral war against the "poor Vietcong" exceeded his bravery in the ring. He took on the government and was banned from boxing for three and a half years, despite his appeal as a conscientious objector. This malicious attempt by the State to humble him in the prime of his career - the ruling was overturned in 1970 - was unmistakably his biggest fight. Ali won.

Yet we shouldn't sanitise Ali's legacy by eulogising him as a saint. Even while he asserted black pride and a lippy resistance to the status quo, he mocked Joe Frazier with monkey chants and teased him for being a "gorilla", which hurt Smokin' Joe and led to an embittered, poisonous relationship. Remember that this was the same Joe Frazier who lent Ali money when he was down on his luck during his boxing ban. Like Marcus Garvey, Ali, wittingly or unwittingly, backed segregation by denouncing the mixing of blacks and whites.

However flawed and fatalistic he might have been, Muhammad Ali was not a slave to possibilities. He said, "Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact; it's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration; it's a dare. ... Impossible is nothing."

This guy had goddamn chutzpah!

 

FAREWELL, 'SINCO'

 

The sight of the slumped figure of assignment chief Glenroy Sinclair at his desk, a few hours before he would have begun his weekly Sabbath observance, hit our newsroom with a thud to our hearts. He died Saturday morning in the hospital.

'Sinco', as we affectionately called him, was once a drinker's best buddy, a character full of mirth and girth, but had charted a different path in recent years since becoming an Adventist. He alerted us all to the importance of a proper diet, limiting rice and meat, while bringing natural juices, ital soups and vegetarian delights to co-workers.

Besides his journalistic legacy as a crime and motorsport reporter, let's all remember Sinco's last sermons about lifestyle and spirituality.

- Andre Wright is opinion editor of The Gleaner. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.