The Ali myth

Posted: Dec 18, 2001 12:00 AM
Coming to a theater near you will be a movie based on the myth of Muhammad Ali - the swaggering champion who proclaimed himself "the greatest" and ascended in the popular consciousness as a perfect embodiment of brash American individualism. At a time when '60s counterculture was coming of age, Ali took sports to a new level. Inside the ring he dazzled. Outside the ring he hurled insults at opponents and swelled with self-love. In short, he was the first black trash talker at a time when that was precisely what young people desired. He steadfastly ascended as the material of myth. I can perfectly recall sitting in the living room with my father, watching saucer-eyed as Ali danced around the ring. He moved with a rare mix of natural fluidity and severe power, dispatching one rough, plodding opponent after another. He seemed the perfect embodiment of masculine striving. But it was not until after the match that our bodies leaned into the TV screen. That's when Ali would unleash one of his verbal rants, full of contagious braggadocio. In a booming baritone, Ali would proclaim to the world - I am not a bottom dweller. In an age of compulsive trash-talking athletes, this might not seem like such a noteworthy innovation. But at a time when blacks were considered inferior, Ali suggested an alternative. He did not twist his personality inward. He would not abide by those social customs that had conditioned black Americans to subvert their genuine thoughts. In no uncertain terms, he affixed value to his own unique experience. This was rather new, and rather inspiring. That is why there has been little talk over the years about how Ali was also a womanizer, an absentee parent and, in some instances, a puppet to his handlers. So reports Mark Kram, who covered Ali's 1975 bout wit Joe Frazier in Manila for Sports Illustrated. In Kram's new book, "Ghosts of Manila," he pares away the Ali myth to reveal the human lurking beneath the symbol. Among Kram's more interesting revelations is that most of Ali's quips were fed to him by various handlers, including the line that placed him at the center of the country's burgeoning antiwar movement: "I ain't got no quarrel against them Viet Cong." Kram also reveals that Ali's anti-war stance was motivated not by principle, but by fear of angering Muslim extremists. But don't expect Ali's human side to get much screen time in the upcoming movie version of his life. Will Smith plays the role of Ali with smiles and charm. An actor playing an actor served up for idolatrous consumption by a doting public. America likes it that way. We've been inhaling the Ali myth for so long that we don't care to regard him in anything other than purely symbolic terms. "For African Americans, Ali always will be a hero for a lot of us," said director Spike Lee on HBO's "On the Record with Bob Costas." "He was like our prince." That was true enough in my family. Crouched around the television in our living room, we projected our hopes onto Ali, we objectified him. "The intensity of hero worship out there is almost sick," Kram snarled in a previous interview. "Why do we need to be so intense about our heroes?" Perhaps because they transcend the physical or cultural laws that enmesh the rest of us. Certainly, this is what Ali accomplished when he perched himself atop the sporting world and then sang the sublime tune of self-worth. Along the way, he gave countless black Americans a model of achievement. Failure suddenly seems less customary. And the possibility of playing the part of a champion seems a little more possible. That a book has been dedicated to the fact that Ali was as flawed as any of us, does little to diminish the effect.