Saturday, June 4, 2016
When Ali was 12 he had his bicycle stolen from him. His initial reaction was to come home and cry to his mother. However, one of the police officers who Ali complained to about his stolen bike also taught some of the young boys in Louisville, KY how to box. Ali decided that he would learn, so that if he ever found out who had stolen his bike he could beat him up.
He learned - like many others who have ever taken up a sport where they have talent - that developing skill can be the best tonic for a world where none of us have control. We can't control how others see us or what they do to us - but we can become really good at something. That's where art and sports overlap for me. Both require countless hours of preparation - they cause us to gain control over our bodies and our minds - the only things that we really have any control over in this world.
Ali was a genius because he wasn't just a participant - he set the narrative. He told the world what each fight meant. As a black man in the second half of the 20th century he didn't allow others to define him - he defined himself. He said, "I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me."
The other way that people react to the lack of control that we have in the world is to be rule makers and/or protectors. They find that small little part of the world that they can control. They protect the status quo even if it doesn't benefit them or anybody else. To me, the greatest conflict is between these two different ways of reacting to the chaos of the world. We choose to create or we choose to stifle others. Ali chose to create. He chose to fight.
His fight with George Foreman in Zaire, documented in "When We Were Kings" is powerful because it parallels how the oppressed can beat a superior opponent. Foreman was younger and stronger - he should have won that fight. Sportswriters, even Ali's own people were afraid for Ali - afraid that his pride would push him to the edge of death in the ring. He came upon a solution. In the first round he baited Foreman - he led with his right hand - which you never are supposed to do as a right hander. It's actually a sign of disrespect - because he is saying that Foreman wasn't fast enough to take advantage of it.
For rounds 2-5 Ali played rope-a-dope. As the writer George Plimpton wrote "he looked like a man leaning out of his window to look at something on his roof." The above picture shows Foreman hitting the heavy bag. As you can see - he hit so hard that the bag became concave. Ali allowed Foreman to rain down body shots for three rounds until he saw his chance. He waited for Foreman to get tired punching and then he attacked. He won the only way he could win - by taking an incredible amount of punishment and striking at exactly the right time. What incredible strategy and determination it must have took to get through those three rounds.
Ali became a symbol - like any man who becomes a symbol - it's easy to tear him down. He had his faults. But he was like a primal scream from black America and every oppressed people around the world. He refused to play the role that others wanted for him. He found his own way - and in the process became eternal.