The post-Parkinson Ali’s image has been understandable projection of goodness, light, and of a man who stood up against racial tyranny and war. There is enough evidence, however, that he was lot more than that. He polarised, outraged, was controversial, and was at times, even spiteful. To frame a man without warts is to place him as all bass and no treble – an unfortunate hero worship that does a disservice to his lived experiences.
Far from being the civil-rights campaigner as projected in his later years by the revisionists, his was a tricky divisive policy that promoted segregation of blacks and whites in America. He wasn’t in Martin Luther King’s camp of unification but was involved with Nation of Islam, an extremist, anti-white religious group.
It was NoI’s leadership though that led to Ali’s greatest political, and humane, statement – of not joining the US army for the Vietnam war. Although he wouldn’t have required to fight, Ali took the braver and higher moral decision to stay clear of it all. “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” he said famously, mouthing the line given to him by Ferdie Pacheco from the NoI. At his prime, he was banned and stripped of his titles, but later, as the war wound down, hypocrisy of white America was exposed, and civil rights movement grew in strength, Ali was rightfully praised for his stance on the war.
It was with the other disturbing causes of NoI that he supported that reflected badly on him. Their treatment of women and the assorted features of a cult that he was sucked into. The NoI believed they were the African descendants of a lost tribe known as the Tribe of Shabazz, led by a scientist named Shabazz 66 trillion years ago. Ali even believed NoI’s fanciful theory that a spaceship would land in United States to take the black man to a better place.
On the day Malcolm X was killed by suspected NoI activists after he had left the organisation and had started denouncing it publically, a fire broke out at Ali’s home. In some quarters, it was seen as an indirect threat to Ali, a violent reminder that he dare not break away from the cult. So in understanding, and castigating Ali’s relationship with the cult, it would be perhaps prudent to keep this underlying factor of threat in mind.
However, it was his apparent vindictiveness in demeaning fellow black fighters that left many disturbed. Floyd Patterson was an early victim. He was a heavyweight champion, who supported the civil rights movement and favoured the desegration of America. Ali was all for segregation then, and kept calling Patterson Uncle Tom, The Rabbit, White America before the fight. The name-calling was a shtick with willing participation from both camps to build up the gate and the TV audience.
In 1970, Ali shared what he felt about two black men boxing. “Half the crowd is white. We’re just like two slaves in that ring. The masters get two of us big old black slaves and let us fight it out while they bet: ‘My slave can whup your slave.’ That’s what I see when I see two black people fighting.”
But, for someone like him then to call other black men demeaning names, castigating them in racist terms, even if it was supposed to be a promotional shtick didn’t sit well with everybody.
Jimmy Cannon, a well-known boxing author, wrote about the Patterson fight: “It seemed right that Cassius Clay had a good time beating up another N***o. This was fun, like chasing them down with dogs and knocking them down with streams of water. What kind of clergyman is he? The heavyweight champion is a vicious propagandist for a spiteful mob that works the religious underworld.”
It was his duel with Joe Frazier, though, that was most intense. It was Frazier who had helped Ali during the ban years, fighting for his boxing licence to be restored, and by some accounts, the help even involved some monetary transactions. Frazier was shocked when Ali started to brand him with the same Uncle Tom, dumb, and White America routine. Frazier, who had grown up poor, saw this as a betrayal and he could never forget it till the end.
Even when Ali lit up the torch at the Atlanta Olympics, Frazier, his passion clearly unspent yet, remarked, “It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”
In his later years, Ali would often watch himself on YouTube – not just the fights but his interviews, and his fourth wife Lonnie once shared a lovely little moment. “I remember in Michigan one time, he was watching himself, and said: ‘I was crazy, wasn’t I?’ I said: ‘Yes!’”