“Everyone knew when I stepped in town,
I was the greatest fighter around.
A lot of people called me a clown,
But I am the one who called the round”
Recited in 1962. When Ali was Clay. When he was just another upstart from Louisville. When his big gloves hadn’t yet matched those big words. But there was arrogance. Or nonchalance. Or with the gift of our hindsight, sheer self-belief. Ali didn’t jot down those lines in tranquility. Or rehearsed and recited it in the solitude of his balcony. It sprung spontaneously—almost off-the-cuff. In that sense he was a pure romantic. His poetry was anything but.
It was just plain, harsh reality as he saw and felt it. It smacked of a visceral, realpolitik subtext of a black boy trying to make a big impression in a world that often conspired and colluded against the men of his colour. The perfect world-vs-me script, which was a pervading theme of his poetry. In his own struggles, he saw the struggles of his race, deprived and oppressed. In his own liberation, he saw the liberation of a subjugated race.
His boxing was a symbol of dissent. So was his poetry. He was articulating himself, and within it those of his brethren, much like the Afro-Caribbean poets and writers of his time, such as Aime Cesaire, James Baldwin or David Diop. What they expressed crudely—intentionally crude—Ali gave a springy, rolling rhythm to it, not very different from the reggae of Bob Marley.
‘‘Now Clay swings with a right, what a beautiful swing.
And the punch raises the Bear clear out of the ring.
Liston is still rising, and the ref wears a frown.
For he can’t start counting ‘til Sonny comes down.
Now Liston disappears from view.”
These line were lipped a few days before his legendary bout with Sonny Liston for the world title. His lines are wonderfully rhythmic– rhyme and metre in perfect synchronisation—catering to all the old-school tenets of poetry. But here he was merely spitting out those lines like the pre-match verbal routines. Or in plainspeak, just sledging, trying to rattle and unsettle his opponent before the fight. Only the fiery English fast bowler Frank Tyson must have sledged batsmen with more languorous lines. And those were borrowed from Wordsworth and Shakespeare.
The gloves of Louisville were as much as feared as the lips of Louisville. If trash-talking existed as early as mankind, Ali was its greatest exponent. He simply revelled in it. He transcended the banal, often crass (and definitely ungentlemanly) facet of the game to an art form with aural appeal and wit. He found almost a feral pressure in taunting, provoking and even instigating his rivals. It cut through them before his punches did. He was the sport’s greatest provocateur, trash-talker without parallel. He made it famous.
The prelude to the epochal fight with Liston is legendary. A year before the fight, Clay followed Liston to Las Vegas and after watching his fight with Floyd Patterson, he yelped at him. “Look at that big ugly bear, he can’t do anything right.” Hearing this, an angry Liston retorted: “Listen here you nigger faggot. If you don’t get out of here in 10 seconds I’m gonna pull that big tongue out of your mouth and stick it up your ass’.” Ali, then Clay, apologised, and in the evening a fight was signed.
“You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned?
Wait ‘til I whup George Foreman’s behind.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
His hand can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”
The lines that best defined his craft–float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, and boxing itself. Lipped a week before his title-reclaiming fight with George Foreman. But let’s not undermine the political context implied in those lines. It was just a month after the watergate scandal had scalped US president Richard Nixon, who was sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement activists. The world was shocked and many thought the US will crumble in the political uncertainty that had wrapped it. Clay, now Ali, was deeply sensitive to the politics of the US.
“While I’m still akin to youth
Better now than later on
Now that fear of death is gone
Never mind another dawn.”
The poetic poem as the great man himself described it. Recited for the victims of the Attica prison riot in 1971, where 43 inmates, mostly blacks, were killed after an uprising, this was the most political of Ali’s poems. It was also was the most touching and philosophical verse, and unlike most other poems it was first written and then read.
It was at that time Ali was most sensitive to American politics. In the 70s, he weaved this strain of politics into his pre-match press conferences, as when he once quipped: “I figure I’ll be champ for about ten years and then I’ll let my brother take over – like the Kennedys down in Washington.” There was both satire and parody in it.
Delivered upon an audience request during a lecture in Harvard in 1975, widely considered the shortest poem ever. It’s perhaps the most cryptic lines he had ever lipped. Candid and minimalistic. There were lot of interpretations. To go with the theme of the lecture, which was friendship, he must have alluded it to universal harmony. Or urging the audience to see the world in oneself and oneself in the world.
In his book Redemption Song—Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties—late Mike Marqusee connects the lives of Ali, Dylan and Marley. He contends that like both Dylan and Marley, he was defiant, non-conformist, a touch turbulent and eventually triumphant. Essentially, he stood for everything 60s. His life, career and poetry was a glowing tribute to that spirit. And at this hour of his departure, these two lines of him, echo between the ears:
“Everyone knew when I stepped in town, I was the greatest fighter around.” It was those lines that made him.