Tuesday 29 March 2011

Muhammad Ali: The Evolution of a Legend

Muhammad Ali, the ring legend and inspirer of a multitude of words, some intensely vitriolic, but most fulsome in praise and admiration continues to attract the attention of books, articles, films and documentaries.

This has happened with unceasing regularity since the denouement of his career in a Bahamanian ring over twenty years ago. During this time we have had various retellings, assessments and revisions of the man born Cassius Clay sixty years ago in Louisville Kentucky.

The facts of the Ali tale, so familiar even to the most casual observer needs little in the manner of detailed recounting to fans of boxing. For a figure like Ali who lived in the glare of media attention, many facts of his life are beyond dispute. But what does remain disputed and will continue to remain a focus of contention is the interpretation given to his true level stature.

Is he a bona fide hero-figure of the civil rights movement who should rank alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X? Or a dupe to a charlatan like leader for the cause of black American separatism? Is he the greatest heavyweight ever to have laced on a pair of gloves? Or simply the most hyped about boxer and sportsman in history?

The answers to these and other questions would presumably not be difficult to find since Ali, the most photographed, talked about and written about sportsman in the history of mankind is far from being the proverbial ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’

The overriding perception of Ali since he overcame the hurdle of being convicted for refusing to be drafted into the United States Armed Services during the Vietnam War and the other hurdle of regaining the heavyweight championship that was stripped from him is that of hero status. There have always been dissenters but this has always remained so.

‘Ali,’ the film by Michael Mann falls into this category. It is absorbing in its vivid recounting of its subjects most dramatic life and career episode’s. And as befitting of the director is undergirded with atmospheric music and colourful and detailed attention to the sights and sounds of the era. From the sweetish, gut wrenching hollering of Sam Cooke live on chitlin’ duty at the Harlem Club Square to the densely compacted electronic riffs which accompany Salif Keita’s ‘Tommorrow’ the film is stylishly evocative.

Many a review has often made mention of this or that "missing" incident or theme. But this merely confirms the futility inherent in any attempt to compact the Ali saga in two or three hours of movie making. The scope and sweep that is the life of Ali is simply not amenable to this.

The Michael Kram book ‘Ghosts in Manilla’ released last year attempts authors point to reassess Ali, forming at its fundamentals the argument that the significance of Ali has being grossly over exaggerated by a fawning coterie of American journalists who have somehow brainwashed the succeeding generation of writers and thence the public into a state of mind much too reverential.

Ali it would appear to Kram is an overblown personage who may have been but nevertheless has not been subjected to the appropriate degree of critical scrutiny. There is of course truth in several of Kram’s observations and interpretations.

The negative aspects of Ali, dealing with his womanising, his abominable treatment of Joe Frazier, his excursions into cruelty with Floyd Patterson and Ernie Tyrell, his lack of intellectual acumen and a propensity to be duped by certain people and causes, have all being accounted for in previous books and articles.

The difference of course is that while Kram makes little cause for diminishing his status of a fighter, his conclusion is that Ali’s reputation as a force for social change is considerably overblown; misplaced in point of fact.

The recent book and documentary, Muhammad Ali continues with the tradition of treating Ali as a figure whose importance transcended the ring. It is not uncritical but does purvey a general feel that Ali is a figure deserving of much of the praise and reverence that has come his way.

And so it should be.

Muhammad Ali is indisputably a great figure of boxing and indeed sports history. But he is also without doubt a substantive figure in the generality of history because even though he did not initiate events he nonetheless reflected the cataclysmic changes occurring during his times in race, sports and politics in bold and innovative ways.

There will doubtlessly continue to be revisions and reassessments, of the sort offered by Kram, but the trend will likely continue to follow a more balanced path as offered by the Mann film and the documentary entitled ‘Ali: Through the Eyes of the World.’

All simply prove one point: The eternal fame of the one known as Muhammad Ali.

(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2002)

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