Ali’s poetry of pugilism
In the pantheon of boxing legends of the heavyweight category there is a short list: Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Henry Armstrong, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lenox Lewis. These are the men with the lion heart, the men who threw, in the roped square, the kind of bombs that could bring down a house. They brought more savagery to a sport that is already arranged to be savage. They bring the heaviest artillery imaginable to the office and their duty is to inflict pain, maximum pain on anybody that is put in front of them. They give and receive in equal measure the heaviest blows available in their armoury. Of all the contact sports, boxing is the ultimate test of masculinity, the ultimate deliverer of pain, the ultimate endurance test, the ultimate test of resilience and durability.
Muhammad Ali, who has just gone to meet his Maker describes in his book, The Greatest, My own story which he wrote with Richard Durham, what a heavy blow does to a boxer thus: “A heavy blow takes you to the door of this room. It opens and you see neon, orange and green lights blinking. You see bats blowing trumpets, alligators play trombones and snakes are screaming. Weird masks and actor’s clothes hang on the wall.”
That is the world that Muhammad Ali occupied for about 25 years. A few days ago, the bell rang for the last bout. He did not answer. He was simply counted out of the ring and out of life. But the world has risen to give him a standing ovation. Presidents, Prime Ministers, poets and paupers are all paying tribute to this man who brought glamour, panache, razzmatazz and a sense of decency to a sport that seemed, before his arrival, to encourage a disgusting display of barbarism, not fit to be watched by women and children and even by faint hearted men. This confirms his legendary status.
Ali’s claim to fame is not really in his 61 professional fights of which he won 56, 37 of them by technical knock out. It is in the comprehensive entertainment package that he brought to the job. In the early days of his career, he would name the round in which he would destroy his opponent and he would deliver. The bookmakers were on the way to becoming jobless because Ali, the ultimate bookmaker, was in town. And for most of the fights he would keep talking and taunting his opponent for the fight’s duration, sometimes to the discomfiture of the referee and the embarrassment of his opponent. This was not only a show of extreme confidence but also a means of mesmerizing his opponent. For the viewers, it was a novel form of entertainment by someone who needed to give full attention to the business at hand. When he gained more confidence as the rounds went by he would then introduce what came to be known as the “Ali’s shuffle,” a quick shuffling of his feet at one spot for a number of seconds.
In the ring, he showed that he had the quickest hands and feet in the business. This made it easy for him to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” In his toolkit, he had a full range of lethal hardware: a stiff jab, an upper cut, a hook and a round house. He mixed and matched them as the occasion demanded, bringing down 37 of his opponents with an adroit combination of two or three of the items in his tool kit.
Part of the entertainment was Ali’s famous trash talk. He used words ruthlessly to destabilize his opponents, to market the fights and even to entertain the public. When he fought Sonny Liston in Miami, Florida in 1964 he described Liston as “the big, ugly bear. After I beat him I am going to donate him to the zoo.” At other times his words had the ring of poetry, the poetry of pugilism. He called his third fight with Joe Frazier “the thriller in Manila” and he promised he would get the gorilla during that thriller, the gorilla being Frazier.
The two boxers had faced and defeated each other once in the past. This third fight was to determine who, really, was greater. The build-up was intense and the government of Phillipines pulled all the stops to make the fight a memorable showpiece. Both boxers tore into each other with devastating savagery and non-stop pummeling action. Ali won the fight and described it as the “closest thing to death.” Frazier had to be helped out of the ring. Event though Ali won, it was obvious that both of them were losers. By the way they went at each other it was obvious that whoever won was also a loser, none of them was truly the winner. The damage they had done to each other began to manifest in later years when both of them went through bouts of poor health.
Ali’s other memorable fight in which he exhibited an unparalleled sense of ingenuity was the one with George Foreman in Zaire. Foreman was a dreaded heavyweight champion with tons of power in both hands. Bookmakers never gave Ali any chance but Ali knew that his man was vulnerable. Zaireans were enamoured of Ali and cheered him every inch of the way. Ali called the fight “Rumble in the Jungle.” The Zairean crowd kept shouting “Ali bomaye” which means in Lingala language, “Ali knock him down, kill him dead.” This was the fight in which Ali introduced his famous rope a dope. In the first three rounds, the exchanges seemed even. Then in rounds four, five, six and seven Ali chose to stay on the ropes while Foreman was pounding him.
Ali’s corner kept telling him to leave the ropes and to dance but Ali ignored them. His strategy was to allow Foreman to exhaust himself. And he did. Then Ali decided to have his revenge. In the eighth round, he stepped out of the ropes and marched into the middle of the ring with the full credentials of a ring dinosaur. He pounded Foreman until he dropped like a sack of garri and was counted out. Perhaps the most important thing to note in this fight is that it took Foreman something like three seconds to hit the ground. While he was going down slowly Ali simply watched him. He didn’t hit him. Mike Tyson would have demolished him while he was on his way to the canvass. Ali demonstrated by this singular act that even though boxing is a savage sport he was a decent man. His decency gave boxing some fresh polish even though in later years the Tysons of this world tried to take the sport back to its original habitat: the gutter.
Ali can be described as a quintessential rebel. His refusal to fight in Vietnam during the Vietnam war angered the authorities who got him stripped of his boxing licence. For three years, he was unable to step into the ring until the court exonerated him. He put his opposition to the war very graphically: “Man, I aint got no quarrel with them Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me Nigger.”
At a time that America did not regard Islam as a religion that Americans should embrace Ali who used to be called Cassuis Clay changed his religion to Islam and his name to Muhammad Ali. Many Americans were angry with Ali but they tolerated his decision because they knew that religion is a personal matter. The gripe was actually in the fact that a major global brand like Ali needed to be free from the limitations that a religion was likely to impose on him. But Ali, not a man to be caged, kept his new religion until he died a few days ago.
Ali will be remembered not just for his excellent boxing skills but also for the manner he did the job. He tried to turn a savage sport into a sane one by bringing humour, humaneness, craftsmanship, panache and poetic cadences into the world of boxing. He gave a new face, a polished face to an art that had always existed in its raw, unvarnished, crude and cruel form. By rising above the dirt, he took it to a new and respectable height. It may not stay at that height because most people who practice it want to win at all costs especially now that the prize money is getting fatter and fatter.
Nigeria has produced some world beaters in boxing: Hogan Bassey, Dick Tiger, Samuel Peter and more recently, Anthony Joshua who is plying his trade in the heavyweight division. Those of them who are seeking for global honours should take to heart Ali’s immortal words: “I hated every minute of training but I said Don’t quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”
Those who want to be legendary champions like Ali must take his words to the gymnasium.