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Friday, June 10, 2016

Why people loved Ali

It's become even more apparent over the past week how fond people were of Ali. Not just the media types, and the usual suspects trying to burnish their anti-racist credentials, but the vast majority of people.

One crucial point always overlooked in discussions of Ali is that when he converted to Islam after winning the title is that he was 22 years old at the time. College age. Think of what college students are protesting these days. (And would you want to be held responsible for all the things you said and did at 22?)

When Ali refused to be drafted in 1967, he was 25. At the time, and even now, people took his stances very seriously, as if he were some insightful statesman who had arrived at his decision after a lifetime of careful observation and study, and that his political views were of earth-shaking consequence.

(I was guilty of this myself two days ago when I wrote the previous post about his pronouncements about all whites being the devil, though that post was more about that idea than Ali himself.)

So, keep in mind that he was just a kid. Nobody ever saw him that way because he was the heavyweight champion of the world. But, he was still just a kid.

Anyway, back to the point of this post. What made Ali so likable?

It was that while the world was taking him very seriously, he, for the most part, didn't seem to take himself all that seriously. If you had to choose one word to describe Ali, it would be playful.

Traditionally, the heavyweight champion has carried the mantle of baddest man on the planet. Sonny Liston, that glowering, menacing, humorless man seemed like the kind of guy you'd expect to hold the title. You got the sense that he was dangerous outside the ring as well as in it.

Then along came a crown prince who hammed it up and spouted doggerel and proclaimed that he was the greatest of all time. But when he did these things, it was always with a touch of self-mockery. And while everybody else was taking his pronouncements very seriously, if you looked closely, you could see that he was basically just playing a big joke on the world.

While looking at those videos of Ali proclaiming that all whites were the devil, I also stumbled across this one, and this one, both of Ali's funnier moments, as well. In some of them he's taunting his opponents; watch closely, and you'll see he's just play-acting.

And even when I was looking at those videos of Ali saying that the white man is the devil, somehow I couldn't quite bring myself to dislike him.

A sense of humor can allow you to get away with all sorts of things you might not otherwise. I'm not suggesting Ali should totally escape censure. But even when he was saying poisonous things, he didn't seem to have that much poison in his system.

When taking part in prefight publicity, he would often pretend to be angry at his opponents, but the "anger" was so obviously playacting that you almost got the sense he was incapable of real anger.

So he came across cute, in his uninhibited, boyish way.

The videos linked above show Ali with the rich and famous, but he never demonstrated any desire to social climb. He joked with everybody, and loved to mingle with people he met on the street. He could have been "friends" with anyone, but preferred to just hang with his entourage.

The closest equivalent today is Usain Bolt. Bolt jokes, dances, and plays to the crowd, just as Ali did. And you always get the sense he enjoys himself, just as Ali did.

You could say it's condescending to regard Bolt and Ali as embodiments of the old stereotype of the happy-go-lucky negro. You could say it's condescending not to hold Ali completely responsible for some of the things he said, the same way we would not hold a child responsible. And, maybe it is.

But, at the same time, it's an admission that these guys were charismatic in a way that most of us couldn't possibly hope to be, and enjoyed life more than we ever could.


Steven said...

I just came across this story and its one of many. I think somebody is chopping onions around here.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Chopping onions? Is that a British expression?

Mark Caplan said...

Sonny Liston, that glowering, menacing, humorless man

I'm not saying Sonny Liston rivaled Richard Pryor, but he did have one good comeback that I heard in his ESPN-produced TV biography. In the '60s, a reporter asked him why he wasn't down South helping his fellow blacks in the civil rights struggle. He said, "I ain't got a dog-proof ass."

John Craig said...

Mark --
Ha, that's actually pretty funny, though I doubt Liston was saying it for humorous effect. Black people have a way of just cutting to the truth sometimes, especially when white people are being silly.

Anonymous said...

My spidey sense has always given me the Heebee Jeebees about Michael Parkinson.

Michael Parkinson was a Saturday night tradition for us Anglo's.


John Craig said...

Andrew --
I honestly didn't get that from watching him, but I only saw him in that brief clip. And I'm not arguing with you; a lot of people who make it to the top of the show business ladder, like a lot of the people who climb to the top of corporations, do so by being nefarious.

Shaun F said...

John - The temperament/play acting of Ali you're describing reminds me of what I saw with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron. I don't know if you've seen it as a reference point of comparison.

John Craig said...

Shaun --
That's a great comparison. I never thought of that, but it's really true: both were showmen, both had sly senses of humor, both knew how to use their physiques to comic advantage, and both were affable guys who loved mingling with the crowds. Both were womanizers, both were supremely confident, and both enjoyed themselves tremendously. I think Schwarzenegger was more ambitious, in a broader sort of way, but they had similar natures.

Steven said...

Its more of an internet meme. Its an excuse for getting teary eyed.

I agree btw. Ali was defiant and could get himself worked up and he might have even believed that NoI rhetoric but he was never hateful to individual white people- quite the opposite. He had white friends and colleagues all through those years. He especially liked playing with kids and performing magic tricks for them. There are so many good stories about him like the one above.

The most bitter I saw him was during his exile (on the Dick Cavett show) and he had reason to feel sour as he was unable to box in the prime of his life. And he did outgrow the NoI racism and move into orthodox Islam as Malcolm X did too.

Besides, I'm not a liberal. I don't completely dismiss or ostracise somebody because of some views they hold at one point in time. I think about what kind of person they are overall and maybe like them anyway. I understand that people are imperfect.

Millions of people are fond of Ali because he was a joker, a natural entertainer and the kind of person he was shone through. And because he was courageous and he made a brutal sport look graceful.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Ah, okay, understood.

Yes, Ali was basically a good-natured guy. And yes, he should be given some leeway for the NoI stuff he soured at age 24. At the same time, people should be aware that no white person who ever said that all black people were the devil would ever have a chance of being rehabilitated, ever. And Ali never even really had to be rehabilitated, he was always popular with most of the American public. But the hypocrisy of our society in that regard is no reason to dislike Ali himself, who was mostly just a good-natured jokester.

Anonymous said...

I always respected him for refusing to enlist in the Army. He would have been given as easy assignment in the armed forces, fighting exhibition matches, traveling to promote the army etc...he may have even been able to defend his title while on leave. It took courage to refuse, he risked prison and it did hurt his income.