Ali: American History Played Out in Sport

By Jason Kettinger | Posted at 7:43 PM

Muhammad Ali’s birthday was a few weeks ago. Most people who count themselves boxing fans are fans of Ali, in my experience. He was in possession of a rare set of boxing skills, especially his hand speed, unrivaled among heavyweights. Ali’s mobility and evasiveness set him apart as well. I find myself strangely drawn to his fights, even those I’ve seen several times before.

For Ali’s birthday, ESPN Classic did their duty, airing all Ali programming. I watched two fights: the title fight between Ali and the champion George Foreman from Kinshasa in 1974 – known colloquially as “The Rumble in the Jungle” – and the third fight between Ali and Joe Frazier from 1975, which took place in Manila, the Philippines, better known as “The Thrilla in Manila.” Both fights were Ali wins, but far more important is the context in which this story is told, and the symbolism this man’s life in boxing holds for American cultural life, both at the time, and today.

When we encounter Ali in 1974 on the eve of the fight with Foreman, he has fought nearly four years at a grueling pace to return to this stage, even losing twice. Ali’s need to return from exile was caused by the three plus year ban he faced for refusing induction into the Army during Vietnam. The brash young 22 year-old who took the title from Sonny Liston in 1964 was not nearly as fast or pretty in 1974, despite what he may have said at the time. And yet, that he would dismantle not only Foreman, but Joe Frazier and countless others until losing the title in 1978 (but regaining it later that year) speaks to exactly what talent the young Ali must have had. To decline so far, and yet still be the best is itself remarkable.

The young Ali embraced a separatist militant Islam at the conciliatory height of the civil rights movement, while representing a sport which still had considerable power to unite across religious, ethnic, and class lines. That old white men pine to see again the heights of a young black champion they must have feared at the time is the essence of contradiction. That a young white man like me enjoys reliving those heights is a testament to the power of sports.

What conflicts the man himself must have had! The desire to entertain, the poetry of the man, the need to be respected and beloved like most fighters before him coexisted uneasily with the anger he felt toward his country, and many of those who would be his audience.

It’s too easy to say that people mellowed as time passed. It seems more right to say that we all carried the contradictions around with us, and we learned to forgive each other. When history is taught, and civil rights are addressed, two men like signposts come up: Malcolm X, and MLK, Jr., whose birth we celebrated the very next day after Ali’s. Hate and love. Separation and unity.

Realize that they are not just different ways or approaches to dealing with injustice; they might be a little window into the internal turmoil of being black in America. Not that I would know. But it sure looks like Ali himself is a living picture of it. The images of him lighting the Olympic torch or receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom are images of a nation forgiving and being forgiven, and a man more than likely doing the same.

Jason Kettinger is a contributing editor to Open for Business.