Muhammad Ali, who passed away Friday evening, made violence beautiful. I’d seen the ugly side of violence in middle school, when a particularly bloody cafeteria brawl left me with little stomach for fistfights. But by high school, when a teacher popped in an Ali videotape as part of an African-American history class, my view of boxing began to evolve. There he was as young Cassius Clay, facing Sonny Liston, dancing around the ring like Fred Astaire, firing quicksilver jabs and straight rights.
Ali didn’t invent the sweet science of bruising. The smaller weight classes had long been home to artful movement, to sticking and moving, to the kind of grace Ali embodied. He had studied Sugar Ray Robinson, whose boxing style was especially dazzling, and in his more candid moments, Ali would occasionally acknowledge that Robinson was in fact the Greatest Of All Time. (He was right, although Ali’s name at least belongs in the conversation for GOAT.)
But Ali was among the first to bring that kind of speed and movement to the heayvweights. Jack Johnson, another of Ali’s idols, had delivered an earlier iteration to boxing’s biggest division, but watching what little footage one can of Johnson, he’s comparatively plodding and clumsy. And most heavyweights remained pretty plodding in the gap between the two men. There were more than a few reasons Ali flummoxed Liston so thoroughly in that bout, but “speed” and “footwork” were among the top. Liston would occasionally corner him and land his trademark battering ram blows, but too few. He quit the fight later, largely out of frustration.
To be sure, Ali wasn’t always so brilliant to watch in his younger days. There’s a fine line between expertly applied boxing technique and just running around in circles, and Ali was in his share of track meets. But when he mixed in some requisite aggression, there are few fighters before or since who can match how pretty he made it all look.
If those preternatural gifts of speed and ability were all Ali brought to the ring, we’d still be talking about him as one of the best ever. But he had something more: his brain. I’ve written about boxing for going on a decade, and I end up in a lot of conversations with people who don’t follow the sport anymore, since sadly most people don’t. There’s always been sentiment that prizefighting is barbaric, and that sentiment has probably trended even further in that direction; that the sport is little more than two mindless brutes pounding away on each other.
No one stands as a better counter-example to that than Ali. The other way Ali so flummoxed Liston came before they ever stepped between the ropes. Ali had always been a big talker – among his many nicknames was “the Louisville Lip” – but he took it to a new level with Liston, the heavyweight champion at the time, who thus gave him his biggest stage.
His antics got into Liston’s head. The consensus among the boxing press at the time was that Ali’s physically animated trash talk was a sign of nerves; he was scared. It was, in fact, Liston who was shaken. It’s been said that Liston, who did prison time for muggings in his youth, was hardened by the experience. He wasn’t scared of the biggest man around, although Liston would rarely have encountered many men bigger than him. The guy you have to be scared of in prison is the crazy guy, the guy who seems like he has nothing to lose, the guy who seems like he might do anything at any time. And Ali certainly seemed to be off his rocker.
Truth be told, though, Ali was afraid, too. “I won’t lie, I was scared,” he said in a biography by Thomas Hauser. “It frightened me, just knowing how hard he hit. But I didn’t have no choice but to go out and fight.” This was one of Ali’s subtle tricks of the mind, to end up using his own fear as a weapon. Norman Mailer once wrote about how Ali turned “the funk of terror” into “psychic bricks” before facing Foreman.
Upon his return to boxing after his protest against Vietnam left him sidelined by boxing authorities, Ali was heavier, slower. You could see it in his loss to Joe Frazier, his first loss ever, how time had eaten away at his gifts. He still had enough left to out-slick Frazier the second time around, but that win took some mental magic as well – Ali had figured out a grapple that would keep Frazier from deploying his inside attack so well.
To this day there’s a debate about whether the legendarily innovative tactics Ali sprung on Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” were planned all along, or improvised. The Ali camp had indeed loosened the ropes beforehand, they say for innocent reasons, but it allowed Ali to lean far back and absorb Foreman’s thunderous blows better in a “rope-a-dope” strategy that left Foreman tired and vulnerable. Either way, credit Ali’s mind for that victory, too: Whether it was the playbook or something he came up with on the spot, it did the trick.
As an older fighter, tragically, Ali learned that he had another weapon: He could take a helluva punch. It’s what made him bold enough to fight Foreman that way. It made him too bold at other times. By the third Frazier bout, he repeatedly was taunting his opponent in the ring, daring him to come in and fight on the inside. Here, his vaunted intelligence was outdone by his vaunted arrogance: He had underestimated how much the aging Frazier had left, how much Frazier had grown to hate him, and reports were that he hadn’t trained as hard. And he gained no mental edge on Frazier by waving him in; mainly, he gained punishment.
You can see the beginning of the end of Ali in that mythical fight, the “Thrilla in Manila,” one of the most grueling bouts ever staged. He should have quit after that one. He stubbornly persisted, even with members of his brain trust telling him over the years that it was time to go. He finally retired for good in 1981.
Now he has left the earth. Ali, the public figure, the human being deserves considerable credit for becoming one of the most important people of his time. But Ali doesn’t get to legendary status without what he brought to the ring: speed, style, intelligence. Ali the boxer made Ali the man.