Muhammad Ali was an artist who performed for himself
Muhammad Ali was not only the greatest athlete of the 20e Century â he was also the best thing that ever happened to writers. People on TV and radio loved him too, of course, as Ali possessed a performing genius, not to mention an unquenchable desire to speak to the press. There is no shortage of wonderful writings about him – everyone from Norman Mailer to Murray Kempton to Peter Richmond has weighed in on him – but Mark Kram deserves a special mention, mainly for his formidable Illustrated sports on Ali’s third fight against Joe Frazier, “Lawdy, Lawd, he’s awesome. “ Kram later wrote about Ali’s three classic fights with Frazier in Ghosts of Manila. In this excerpt from that book, Kram gives us an idea of ââAli’s technical brilliance, aesthetic grace, and how it took an enemy like Frazier to elevate him to true greatness.
To his credit, the show has always been secondary to his personal development as a fighter. Without being truly tested, pushed to the brink, a champion could never be real or great. He was in the ring with the story, taking on Louis, Marciano and Sugar Ray. What he wanted were masterpieces so vivid that relativity couldn’t exist. The heavyweight ranks had been deprived of such offers. A champion might consider himself lucky if he found an opponent who could skyrocket him to a dramatic new level; until Frazier, Ali had sorely lacked genuine challenge. Louis had his Schmeling, Mariano had had Eddard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott, Jack Dempsey had had Gene Tunney, and even [Floyd] Patterson has been pushed to the limit on several occasions by Ingemar Johansson, all dramatic successes that have defined the champion.
Louis and Marciano also had an added appeal that bolstered their pedigrees. They were extremely vulnerable, the risk was palpable. Louis’s weakness was a propensity at the start of the turn to a right hand even by fellow punches. The open-faced Rocky was still in danger; Beside seeing a reversal, the fighting crowd feels nothing more than seeing a man stand up. Rocky’s face was also irresistible, it was cinematic, which meant it was generally a mess. In many fights he had to deal with bad cuts. Against Charles, he took the worst cut in ring history, a deep excavation in the middle of his nose, the likely work of a chainsaw.
Part of Ali’s problem, aside from his slanderous rhetoric and contempt for other fighters, was the lack of appreciation for his style; it hadn’t been seen before. He insolently used his head with micrometric precision to confuse and disguise the other man’s balance and confidence. Getting there was hard work, because you had to go through three kinds of jabs, and if you hit the head, it wasn’t there. The three jabs, as fast as light, were the probe, irritant, and point generator on the scorecards, and the straight-to-left trigger hammer, which when viewed up close almost smashed a head and sent shock waves through the spine. column. Zora Folley was right: “That big jab goes right to your feet, almost makes them cry.”
Legs rarely planted, head in constant orbit, it was a wonder how he could produce such hand speed, such intricate and never awkward punching designs. The most striking part of his playing was his unwavering sense of the geometry of rings, time and space; for each space, he knew the movement required and the minute fractions of time required to enter and exit a punching window. He recalled what drummers call a âdistantâ roll that started on time, disintegrated, and then would be there at the end. Or better yet, imagine Jimi Hendrix working alone on his sound in the men’s bathroom, as he often did, those notes bouncing off the tiles, the electric storm echoing; Ali in the ring was the sound of Jimi Hendrix.
In the gymnasium once, the ballet master [George] Balanchine marveled at the use of his legs, at his speed. The fans didn’t; he was not what great men should be. The legs canceled out the drama, hence the vulnerability. He wasn’t a dangerous fighter who portended some sort of superior malevolence that gives standard voyeurs a stampede. His style has been resisted. Art was for the lightweights, the chic little guys who never seemed to hurt on TV. Americans were a great people, they wanted value for their money or their time. Ali at the time was too far ahead of ring awareness and the talent available. Once, while doing a play about the Roman Colosseum, I had the opportunity to speak to Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, and while commenting on the theater, the subject sort of landed on Ali.
Moravia said he didn’t know anything about boxing, but did know a bit about the theater. He considered Ali to be a Picasso. âHe forced you to see in a new way,â he said. âIt’s the only way I see it. The other is the art of theater. There I have a problem. I see in him una falta de genio (lack of genius). What I understood as a lack of humor was too easy for Ali. âA fight should have tension, no,â he continued. âHe’s an action writer in his own theater. But he plays the clown, he cheats with your patience. I want to leave the theater. He won’t let you have tension, struggle. He makes faces, basks in the ring. It disconcerts. Maybe he is bored with his own text. Or his characters, the other fighters, annoy him. He needed a hard and serious man to relieve him, to put him in danger; without it, a fight is a pantomime, a drama comes to an end.
Ali certainly understood the value of tension and suspense. His head was full of intrigue, from predictions to constant foreshadowing before a fight. He needed a film clear in his mind, the kind where people were taken to the edge, held there and released by his immense command.