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On Muhammad Ali's Complicated Contradictions, And How He Changed Boxing

American boxer and world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali throws a long right to British challenger Henry Cooper's injured left eye in the sixth round of their world heavyweight championship fight.
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American boxer and world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali throws a long right to British challenger Henry Cooper's injured left eye in the sixth round of their world heavyweight championship fight.

The death of Muhammad Ali — one of the world's greatest boxers — has come with a wave of tributes and memorials. We've been taken back to his most triumphant fights and were reminded of just how handsome he was. (I mean, did we ever really forget?)

But being triumphant was complicated and eventually fatal for Ali, a complex man whose intersecting identities and defiant personality made him that much more fascinating.

Gene sat down with Gautham Nagesh, writer and founder of StiffJab, a boxing and mixed-martial-arts magazine based in Detroit, to talk about all this.

Ali was famously convicted of draft evasion for refusing to be inducted into the armed forces during the Vietnam war because of his religion. He was then banned from boxing for three years. Can you contextualize what people were expecting from Ali when he came back to regain his title in 1974?

The context is really important. When Ali was stripped of his title and banned from boxing when he refused to go to Vietnam, public sentiment was very strongly against him. A term like "draft dodger" was thrown around back then — there were a lot of people it was applied to. But he was the heavyweight champion of the world. And he was also a stark contrast to someone like Joe Louis, who was presented as really patriotic. That's what they were offering to Ali. They wanted him to be sort of a mascot for the army the same way Ted Williams and other celebrities have been in the past. But he wasn't willing to play that role. So he was really vilified. There weren't that many people thinking of his fighting style or whether or not he was gonna be back. There were a lot of people who were, quite frankly, thinking, "Good riddance."

How did Ali separate himself from different black fighters and the mainstream at the time?

Ali was a separatist for most of his career. He was not an integrationist, which put him directly at odds with both a lot of the Civil Rights leaders at the time and also the mainstream American public...who were falling in love with the idea of an integrated society. But Ali was allied with the Nation of Islam. He was definitely as he called it, trying to be a new kind of black man, not one that was confined by the stereotypes that black people had been held to previously, especially fighters.

Floyd Patterson was — it's an offensive term — but what they called the "good Negro." He was really a hard working, morally upright, conscientious, publically focused civil rights man. [He] tried to do everything right, really just trying to exemplify and be a model for people of his race. He lost the title to Sonny Liston who back then was sort of this "Bigger Thomas" figure, portrayed an ex-convict with ties to the Mafia, really portrayed as a sinister black man, which is an image that was very familiar with and embraced — especially by the white public.

Ali was trying to be something completely different than that, and his primary concern was how he appealed to people of his own race. And I think that's the big difference. Ali was a black man who was not concerned with what white America thought of him. He was worried about what he could do for his own people and that didn't make him popular at the time. But I think that's why today he is so important to everyone, but especially African-American people.

People often talk about Ali's beef with Joe Frazier. Was Ali's antagonism some kind of political statement?

One of the things that I think is fair to criticize about [Ali] is the way he treated Joe Frazier. Joe Frazier in many ways came from a much harder, more traditional African-American environment than Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali was a middle class kid from Louisville. He had it better off than most fighters in that era. Joe Frazier was from South Carolina. He was from crippling poverty, growing up in sharecropper country. He was very much emblematic of what the African-American experience was for Southern blacks in the early twentieth century and so he hadn't done anything to really merit that sort of criticism.

That was the psychological warfare that Ali used to engage in, and it wasn't always sort of with this grand political master plan. And Frazier was really bitter about it I think until he passed away because he felt that...he was a real black man, that Ali treated sort of treated him like a tool of the establishment, when nothing can be further from the truth.

What does Ali's career help us understand about black folks and sports in America?

There can only be one. Whether we're talking about TV, politics, sports, there can only be traditionally one black person who we as an American public can embrace. And whoever's up against them, we throw shade at them, we don't hold them in the same esteem for whatever reason. We have space in our minds and hearts for both John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. But we don't view black athletes the same way. That's one of the complicated realities of race and fandom in this country is that they are tied up in complicated ways.

How has Ali changed boxing?

Boxing suffers I think directly as a result of Ali. I think a generation of people saw Ali, they grew up with him as their hero, they saw him do these impossible things, and then they were unapologetically exposed to the consequences. It was just a culture suddenly having to accept that this is the cost of this violence as a spectacle that we consume. The thing that is staggering about Ali is that....he was out there, interacting with people, and also forcing them to deal with the reality of his condition.

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Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
Ericka Cruz Guevarra