Muhammad Ali was not only the greatest athlete of the 20th Century—he was also the best thing that ever happened to writers. TV and radio folks loved him, too, of course, as Ali possessed a genius for showmanship, not to mention an unquenchable desire to talk to the press. There is no shortage of wonderful writing about him—everyone from Norman Mailer to Murray Kempton to Peter Richmond weighed in—but Mark Kram deserves special mention, chiefly for his tremendous Sports Illustrated feature on Ali’s third fight against Joe Frazier, “Lawdy, Lawd, He’s Great.” Kram later wrote about Ali’s three classic bouts with Frazier in Ghosts of Manila. In this excerpt from that book, Kram gives us a sense of Ali’s technical brilliance, aesthetic grace, and how it took a nemesis like Frazier to elevate him to true greatness.
To his credit, the show was always secondary to his personal evolution as a fighter. Without being really tested, pushed to the brink, a champion could never be true or great. He was in the ring with history, measuring himself against Louis, Marciano, and Sugar Ray. What he wanted were masterpieces so effulgent that relativity could not exist. The heavyweight ranks had been barren of such offerings. A champion could consider himself lucky if he ever found one opponent who could make him soar to a new, dramatic level; up to Frazier, Ali had been sorely lacking in authentic challenge. Louis had had his Schmeling, Mariano had had Eddard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott, Jack Dempsey had had Gene Tunney, and even [Floyd] Patterson was taken to the edge several times by Ingemar Johansson, all dramatic successes that defined the champion.
Louis and Marciano had, too, an added appeal that reinforced their pedigrees. They were extremely vulnerable, risk was palpable. Louis’s weakness was an early-round proneness to a right hand by even journeymen punchers. The open-faced Rocky was always in jeopardy; next to seeing a knockdown, the fight crowd thrills at nothing more than seeing a man get up. Rocky’s face was also irresistible, it was cinematic, meaning it was usually a mess. In many fights, he had to contend with bad cuts. Against Charles, he took the worst cut in ring history, a deep excavation in the middle of his nose, the probable work of a chain saw.
Part of Ali’s problem, aside from his defaming rhetoric and scorn of other fighters, was the lack of appreciation for his style; it hadn’t been seen before. He insolently used his head with micrometer precision to confound and dissemble the other man’s poise and confidence. Getting to it was hard labor, for you had to wade through three kinds of jabs, and if you got to the head it wasn’t there. The three jabs, as quick as light, were the probe, the irritant and point-builder on scorecards, and the trip-hammer straight left, which, seen close up, snapped a head nearly off and sent waves of shock down through the spinal column. Zora Folley had it right: “That big jab goes right to your feet, makes ‘em just about cry.”
Legs seldom planted, his head in constant orbit, it was a wonder how he could produce such hand speed, such complex and never awkward punching designs. The most striking part of his game was his flawless sense of ring geometry, of time and space; for each space he knew the required move and tiny fractions of time needed to move in and out of a punching window. He reminded of what drummers call a “far-apart” roll that started on time, disintegrated, then would be there at the end. Or better yet, picture Jimi Hendrix working on his sound alone in a men’s room, as he often did, those notes bouncing off the tiles, the electric storm of echo; Ali in the ring was the sound of Jimi Hendrix.
In the gym once, the ballet master [George] Balanchine marveled at the use of his legs, his speed. Fans didn’t; he wasn't not what big men should be about. Legs nullified drama, hence vulnerability. He was not a dangerous fighter who portended a kind of higher malevolence that gives a rush to the standard voyeurs. His style was resisted. Art was for the lower weights, the classy little guys who never seemed to be delivering hurt on TV. Americans were a big people, they wanted considerable bang for their dollar or time. Ali at the time was too far ahead of ring consciousness—and available talent. Once, while doing a piece on the Roman Colosseum, I had occasion to talk to Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, and while commenting about theater the subject somehow landed on Ali.
Moravia said he knew nothing about boxing, but he did know a bit about theater. He looked upon Ali as he would a Picasso. “He forced you to see in a new way,” he said. “That is the one way how I see him. The other is the art of theater. Here, I have a problem. I see in him una falta de genio (fault of genius).” Which I took to mean a lack of temper, that was too easy for Ali. “A fight should have tension, no,” he continued. “He is an action writer in his own theater. But he clowns, he fools with your patience. I want to leave the theater. He won’t let you have tension, struggle. He makes the funny faces, lounges in the ring. He baffles. Perhaps, he is bored with his own text. Or his characters, the other fighters, bore him.” He needed a hard, serious man to put him in relief, to put him at risk; without it, a fight is pantomime, drama buckles.
Ali certainly understood the value of tension and suspense. His head was full of plot lines, from predictions to constant foreshadowing before a fight. He needed one to be a clear movie in his mind, the kind where people were taken to the edge, held there, and released by his immense command.