Calling Muhammad Ali the greatest sportsman of the 20th century is no exaggeration.
King of English boxing at the time when the noble art was the most popular sport on the planet, the Greatest was the first heavyweight to be crowned three times world champion, and this, when there was only only one belt.
Having defended his title 19 times, he challenged and defeated absolutely all his rivals (Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Joe Frazier…) during dantesque clashes where the forecasts often gave him a big loser (the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974, the Thrilla in Manilla in 1975…).
If he is obviously not the only one to have excelled in his discipline, what distinguishes him from all the Pelé, Jordan, Bolt, Woods, Brady & Co., is not having never confined to his subject alone.
Mohamed Ali was more than boxing. Mohamed Ali was more than sport. Mohamed Ali was a personality and commitments that shook the world.
Hugely popular all around the globe yesterday as today, the legitimate admiration he arouses should not however be confused with idolatry. Ali was neither a prophet nor a saviorbut a man with his (huge) qualities and his (big) flaws.
Whatever the storytelling in force for thirty years which tends to obscure its gray areas, let’s return without complacency to certain passages of the biography of the one who “refused to be who we wanted him to be”.
Was Muhammad Ali really a Muslim?
The question may seem absurd at first sight.as Mohamed Ali has worked his entire life to promote Islam.
In reality, there are two Mohamed Ali here: the one who converted to Sunnism at the age of 33, and the one who previously was an activist for more than ten years within the highly controversial Nation of Islam (from February 1962, when he made his engagement public, to 1975).
Led from 1934 to 1975 by the equally controversial Elijah Muhammad, this small group exalted pure segregationismon the grounds that blacks and whites could not cohabit on the same territory.
Far from applying the Koranic precepts to the letter, the NOI allowed itself on the contrary to amend them very freely, to the point of being considered as heretical in the eyes of orthodox Muslims – and sectarian by the authorities.
Thus, the founder of the Nation of Islam, Wali Fard Muhammad (disappeared mysteriously in 1934 at the age of 41), was designated both as the “mahdi” (the last of the prophets sent by Allah, herald of the end of time), but also as “the reincarnation in flesh and blood of God on earth” (?!).
Another incongruity, besides the ravings about flying saucersthe Nation of Islam equates to the most basic degree the white race with “the race of devils” : fruit of the experiments of the wizard Yakub some 6,600 years earliershe would always work to enslave the original black man.
In his defense, after distancing himself from the organization, Ali admitted to having been the victim of the harmful influence of Elijah Muhammad and will confide even after his death that he “would have liked to leave the Nation sooner if he hadn’t fears getting shot like Malcolm X ».
Muhammad Ali, the ladies’ man
Within a Nation of Islam that advocated “the practice of high morality” in matters of male/female relations (rigorous separation of the sexes during its manifestations, prohibition of interracial marriages, strict monogamy, injunction made to “sisters” to wear “dresses that touch the ground” for the sake of discretion…), Mohamed Ali lived his life on this point as he saw fit
Married four times (and absolutely not with women members of the NOI as recommended), father of nine children, he multiplied extramarital affairs to no end.
In 2017, in his biography Ali: A lifethe American journalist Jonathan Eig devotes entire passages to this title in “phenomenal sexual appetite” of the Greatest.
“Black, white, young, mature, actresses, housekeepers… he did not discriminate. Everyone around him knew. It was a recurring joke among his friends. »
His second wife Khalilah, mother of four of his children, readily acknowledged “his dark and diabolical side”she to whom it happened to arrange hotel rooms for the mistresses of mister (!).
Supreme humiliation, when her husband went to fight Joe Frazier in the Philippines in 1975, President Ferdinand Marcos saw fit to compliment him in public on the beauty of his wife… while Ali was accompanied that day by the one of his conquests – his future third wife, 19-year-old Veronica Porche.
Ali nevertheless considered his infidelities completely normal.as explained in the New York Times.
” I have three or four girlfriends that I lodge, and so ? If they were white, I’d understand that’s a problem, but they’re not. Criticize me on Vietnam, criticize me on my religion or a whole bunch of other stuff, but not on that. »
Note that within the Nation of Islam there was no not the only Tartuffe in the bedroom, “the honourable” Elijah Muhammad being grilled for having seven children out of wedlock.
Muhammad Ali sometimes hit below the belt
king of trashtalkin each of his fights, the one who flew like a butterfly and stinged like a bee engaged in a merciless war of words, as much for the sake of ensuring maximum publicity for the event as for desire to psychologically destabilize opponents.
Not a fan of the fair play (he made fun of the physique enormously), although Ali was lighter in skin and often better born than his adversaries (he was a child of the middle class, not of the ghetto), he nevertheless did not hesitate to treat these last ones “from Uncle Tom” or of “white champions”.
It was poor Floyd Patterson who had the bad idea to confide that ” the Nation of Islam dishonored black people” and who was knocked out in two stages, three movements. It was the unfortunate Ernie Terrell who at a press conference had had the audacity to call him Cassius Clay and who took a twelve-round correction against an Ali who with each broadside of punches challenged him to repeat her name. It was George Foreman whom he openly hated for agreeing to carry the American flag during the opening ceremony of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
It is also and perhaps above all Joe Frazier who he harassed until he was thirsty – “It’s that other kind of black guy. I am not like him. One day he might be like me. There he works for the enemy. That’s why he’s an Uncle Tom. »
Not content to compare him at length in interviews to a gorilla (the favorite insult of racists), Ali pushed the affront to the point of wave a plastic monkey in front of him. Smokin’ Joe, who years earlier had lent him money when he was at his lowest, never forgave him.
Paradoxically, by drawing too systematically the map of race, wasn’t Ali rather helping to give a poor image of his people?
His rather troubled engagement against the Vietnam War
Very probably his highest feat of fame outside the ringswhen, on the afternoon of April 28, 1967 on Army Base 61 in Houston, he lay motionless as his name was called.
Meaning there his refusal to join the American troops sent to fight the communist offensive in South Vietnam, Mohamed Ali justifies his decision in the name of his religious convictions.
Immediately deprived of his boxing license and dispossessed of his world titles, he was then sentenced by the courts to a fine of 10,000 dollars and five years in prison.
A legal standoff then begins with the US government.
Inflexible, Ali opposes an end of non-receipt to all the compromises which are proposed to him (not to carry the weapons, to take part in fights exhibition to amuse the troops…). And too bad if at 25, he is jeopardizing his best years in sport.
Celebrated as a hero of freedom and counter-culture by protesting America, he thus embodies in the eyes of the world a David who in no way compromises his principles in front of Goliath.
Three and a half years later, the Supreme Court rules in his favor by quashing the initial court decision for formal reasons.
Canonized since, the sequence however deserves to be nuanced.
Anything but a hippie or a pacifist, Ali had indeed proudly declared in an interview taken up across the country “that as a Muslim, he only participated in the wars willed by Allah » and that he had no “personally no problem with the Vietnamese”.
[La punchline « Aucun Viêt-Cong ne m’a jamais traité de nègre » est en revanche une invention.]
Supporter of divine law against the law of the city in a country where Islam was an ultra-minority, Ali therefore not only committed sedition, but he swept away with the back of his hand the 46 American soldiers who lost their lives every day (16,899 killed in 1968).
Very far from creating unanimity, his position was strongly criticized by many African-Americans sent to the frontaccusing him of selfishness and cowardice.
The height of irony for a representative of individualism and free thought, the vast majority of testimonies agree today in asserting that Ali did not act out of moral righteousness at all, but by submission to Elijah Muhammad which prohibited any members of the NOI from taking part in this “white man’s war”.
[Lui-même avait fait de la prison lors de la Seconde guerre mondiale pour avoir refusé de servir.]
A dotted end of career
When in 1975 Mohamed Ali defeated against all odds George Foreman, the biggest puncher of his generation, it’s at a high price.
Previously accustomed to dancing around his opponents relying on his agility and speed of execution, here he opted for a diametrically opposite strategy : take the blows of Foreman huddled in the ropes, wait for him to run out, then strike him.
Convinced of having found the marginal, from this fight, Ali changed his style, which earned him multiply the blows received in the face. To make matters worse, in training, he encourages his sparring partners to hit him on the head as much as they can in order to “to win in resistance “.
Very quickly, the consequences are felt on his health
“His reflexes were 25 to 30 per cent slower. He didn’t notice it, he thought his brain was undamaged, so that he was beginning to stutter, to be hesitant… » observes her carer Ferdie Pachecho.
Two years later, in 1977, Pachecho strongly advised him to hang up the gloves before it was too late. Ali turns a deaf ear. Rather than having to condone the drama to come, Pachecho resigns.
This declining physical condition does not prevent Ali at thirty years old from continuing fourteen fights in seven years.
If his performances are less and less convincing, his status as a living legend allows him to benefit from more and more leniency on the part of judges – against Jimmy Young and Ken Norton in 1976, most experts believe he should have lost on points.
Subsequently, however, this indulgence is no longer sufficient. Ali has lost three of his last four fightsincluding the penultimate, at 38, facing his old sparring partner larry holmes who gave him such a beating that his trainer Angelo Dundee had to throw in the towel at the end of the tenth round.
Often put under the rug, this end of the course taskespecially since if Ali had been able to stop in time, perhaps he would have been spared Parkinson’s disease.
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