Muhammad Ali, Tool of Hucksters
I would have never thought to put Muhammad Ali (aka Cassius Clay) and Donald Trump in the same sentence, no less the same argument. Nonetheless, the other day, ABC did it for me. When Ali died, Donald Trump had some very gracious remarks about the boxer’s passing. Michael Falcone at ABC used the occasion to trot out some written remarks attributed to Ali that Falcone interpreted to be a defense of Islam against Trump. Trump, of course, is never mentioned in the Ali communiqué on Islam. Indeed, the suggestion that Muhammad Ali was writing about anything on his deathbed is an unlikely fantasy.
Ali was probably being used then as he has been used for most of his career; first by fight hucksters, then by anti-war activists, then by a Nation of Islam cult, and finally by any special pleader that could get him to sit and sell his persona or signature for a $100 dollars a pop.
Still the big networks never seem to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Alas, exploiting a palooka’s death to bash a political candidate already under fire is what you might expect from press partisans in an election year.
You read that correctly. I said “palooka,” archaic sports jargon used to describe a chump who has one too many fights and taken one too many shots to the head.
In another time and place, such a prizefighter would have had an industry diagnosis such as “punch drunk,” not Parkinson’s. This is not to blame Ali; he like many athletes probably wasn’t smart enough to anticipate the consequences of not knowing when to quit. Smart athletes don’t quit while they’re ahead; they quit while they still have a head. Rocky Marciano might be the best example among truly great modern heavyweights.
Marciano (49-0), 43 by KO
The idea that a professional fighter or a football player is a victim is only true to the extent that many are immature, uneducated, and thus exploitable by schools, coaches, promoters, managers, corner men, fight doctors, and arena entrepreneurs that could care less about a jock’s health, especially after the athlete ceases to be a cash cow.
Knowing when to quit required a maturity and wisdom that Mohammed Ali never achieved. His coterie of sycophants weren’t much help either.
Angelo Dundee and Ferdie Pacheco could take a bow here. Legend has it that Doctor Pacheco advised the heavyweight to retire as his health declined. Ali might have taken a new name and advice from Elijah Muhammad, but he rejected advice from his white medical team and lost three of his last four fights.
Ali was different to the extent that he gilded the sports plantation with politics, race, religion, and a mouth that spewed racist invective and a kind of doggerel that media shills like Howard Cosell couldn’t get enough of. Cosell was, no surprise, another ABC Sports jock sniffer. Calling professional boxing the “sweet science” is a little like confusing a massive stroke with a migraine.
Ali could have used his last years to illuminate the hazards of head trauma in sports like hockey, football, and especially boxing where “knockout” is literally the harbinger of senior years as a diminished soul, if not a vegetable. Ali might also have used his celebrity to condemn the “knockout game” (aka “polar bear hunting”), a popular punk pastime where gangs of black teens punch random white elders to render them unconscious. Ali did neither, but he did have time for magic tricks and overpriced autographs.
Muhammad Ali did not use his celebrity to condemn Islamic small wars or Islamic terror with the same energy or drama he used to condemn the Vietnam War. Ali’s anti-war indignation, like that of Barack Hussein Obama, was very selective. The president used the start of Ramadan this week to take a shot at Trump too. So much for the religion of peace.
Ali used his celebrity to legitimize the demagoguery of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam, and many specious notions of black supremacy/separatism.
Malcom X saw through Elijah Muhammad’s hustle and had the courage to say so. Ali literally turned his back on Malcom X, who then paid for apostasy with his life. In the Nation of Islam schism, Malcom X was the real fighter and Ali behaved like a gullible kid, if not a chump.
Muhammad Ali only became the kindly humanitarian saint after he lost his marbles and his voice. Few in the world of sports, politics, or media noted that unhappy coincidence.
Ali was not “great,” not any of this was or is great.
By his own assessment, Ali still claimed to be the “greatest” even as he visibly declined. Great was never true in his prime and it became less so over time. At best, Muhammad Ali was a media celebrity used by sport, politics, and religion. He died thinking he was off the plantation by giving up his slave name. In fact, Clay and Ali never appreciated American sport, liberal politics, or Muslim cults as the hustles or bondage that they represent for black Americans today.
Maybe it’s a fitting coda to a checkered career that, on Friday, Ali will be eulogized by Bill Clinton, hustler extraordinaire. Louis Farrakhan might have been as good a choice. Knowing that Ali chose Clinton for the eulogy says all that needs to be said about the life-long childish naiveté of a “champion.”
Clinton will surely use the occasion for his own purposes; shill for his wife, pander to Islam, and play the partisan political hack, in short, a political huckster will be giving a sports huckster a proper sendoff.
Ali was the indeed “the mouth from the South.” Speaking without thinking was probably the only thing he ever had in common with Donald Trump. Ali might have been famous and celebrated, but not “great” by any fair reading of his professional or personal behavior.
Muhammad Ali will be used this week yet again in death, used by an outsized media orgy before they put him in the ground, ignoring the positive role model he never became. Or as Whittier lamented “For all words from mouth or pen, the saddest are these: “It might have been.”
There will be no joy, poetry, justice, or truth in Louisville this week.
Ali (61-5), 37 by KO
“Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.” – Muhammad Ali