Who was Muhammad Ali

Biography of Muhammad Ali : The weaknesses of the greatest of all

When Muhammad Ali died last December, the many extraordinary moments in his fighting life were remembered. It was always more interesting what you couldn't remember about Ali. The fact that Jonathan Eig now devotes himself to these facets in his Ali biography is initially the only good reason that justifies another Ali book. Eig is a wonderful American storyteller. With a light hand he shifts time levels into one another, builds bridges that connect Ali's life path with social developments, depicts every struggle as a drama and works his way into the darkest corners of Ali's being. Because Ali still casts a spell on you today, half a century after his greatest success as a world heavyweight champion.

You still want to know: How could he be like that? So big So independent? How did he know he was going to live up to his megalomania? His undoubted triumph was that he actually put his boasting into action. He kept his word and became "The Greatest".

The fact that Muhammad Ali was a man of superlatives also distracted from his weaknesses. Eig works them out with the same meticulousness with which he analyzes Ali's boxing style. Without his flaws he would probably not have become the fighter who knew how to defeat even stronger opponents, but who then found no way to protect himself from the damage caused by a long wrestling career. Because Ali almost always knew how to convert his weaknesses into strengths. For example the fear that befell him of approaching fights. He compensated for it by being overly aggressive and telling the other that he was dealing with a madman.

Ali knew how to cover up his weaknesses - with anger

We know this erratic behavior today as the government style of autocrats and the current US president. Shattering old rules with grand gestures simply works too well in the symbolic space of medial reflexes for someone like Donald Trump not to use it for himself. This is what reading “Ali. A life “even more interesting. Here the patterns of the ego show are reduced to a neuralgic point: You can cover up weakness if, like Ali in the legendary scene before his first world championship match against Sonny Liston, you insult your opponent during the weigh-in and get such a high, hysterical pulse that everyone present is seriously concerned about his or her health. Eig devotes himself to this scene before the Liston Fight with pleasure, but does not offer a new perspective. Overall, it brings little that is unknown to light. But Ali doesn't need to be disenchanted either.

One of the initial puzzles of this boxing career is why the boy Cassius Clay turned to boxing in the first place, a sport that only promised something to those who had nothing to lose. Cassius Clay came from a modest, but not poor, background. He grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, a city with the kind of racism everyone seemed to be used to. Although Cassius was a bright boy, he didn't keep up with school. A pronounced weakness in reading and writing (dyslexia) made learning difficult for him. Besides, he was lazy. But even then, his wit, his love of self-expression and his wide-awake mind won over many people. Teachers and classmates liked him.

His trainer and patrons were white

The first person he was afraid of, as Eig describes it, was his father. A sign painter and drinker who pretended to be a lot of himself and often became violent against his wife and children. Once, when Cassius intervened in a marriage argument, his dad cut him with a knife. He didn't find boxing to fight off this family demon, but by chance. His bicycle had been stolen from him, a nice bike that the twelve-year-old had received from his parents. “I was angry,” he said later, “and I was afraid of my father.” He threatened the policeman at the station that he would beat up the thief, whereupon the man asked if he even knew how to box.

Joe Martin, the cop, was supposed to be Clay's first trainer. A white man. As the Louisville businessmen who initially directed Clay's career were all white. They had no idea about the boxing business. As entrepreneurs, lawyers and patrons, they simply wanted to prove that you don't have to be a criminal to get to the top in boxing. After he entered the professional business, they gave Clay a regular employment contract, managed part of his income and at the end of the day got out with a small dividend. It was not because of them that the boxer became aware of racism in the US at the same time. He believed that blacks would be better off if they kept to themselves. In Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, Clay found the whisperer who encouraged him to do so. The cult leader taught him that Clay was a slave name and baptized him with the name Muhammad Ali.

Ali never really got away from the head of the Muslim Brotherhood

Much has been written about this reinvention; David Remnick dedicated an excellent book of his own to it with “King of the World”. The renaming resulted in everything else, as Jonathan Eig's biography does not hide. It fell in 1965 at a time of widespread rebellion. When Ali refused to accept his military service two years later, the civil rights movement was reaching its peak, with students across the country taking to the streets against the Vietnam War.

The first consequence was that the world championship title was stripped from him and any opportunity to earn money was denied for years to come. The courts did not believe that a pugilist, for reasons of conscience, did not want to fight with gun in hand. Although Ali often saw himself as a “clergyman”, it was actually more his reluctance to allow himself to be sent by whites into one of their wars as a black that made him insist on his attitude.

Nevertheless, at some point he must also have realized who he had gotten involved with in the form of the "messenger" Elijah Muhammad, he, whom everyone revered for his independence, never really got away from the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although Eig attaches great importance to this aspect, he cannot explain Ali's loyalty either.

The boxing world champion took more hits than he landed

In return, Eig clears up another myth, namely that Ali danced his opponents to pieces and remained practically inaccessible for their blows in the ring. When Ali returned to the boxing arena from exile in 1970, he was different. It no longer stung like a bee, no longer flew like a butterfly. His coach immediately realized that his protégé had slowed down. He no longer avoided the blows of the others. But Eig can fall back on scientific analyzes that express the dramatic change in sober numbers. Ali only had a hit rate of minus 1.7 percent in his career, which means that he landed fewer hits than he had to take. Joe Frazier still got 18.9 percent. How could you describe Ali as the greatest boxer of all time?

Because numbers "reveal nothing about a boxer's style," as Eig writes. Ali just looked shiny, even when he was under heavy fire and, as in the epic battles against Frazier, was buffeted by Frazier's left hook. The ring doctor Ferdie Pacheco puts it in the words: “Ali came back from exile and his legs were no longer what they used to be. And when he lost his legs, he lost his main defense. It was then that he discovered something that was both very good and very bad ... He discovered that he could take a beating. And when he started getting lazy in training, which happened before his greatest fame, that was the beginning of the end. "

An ambivalent hero

It was to be a long ending. Ali took back the world title twice and defended it against Frazier twice. His head had to take so many severe hits that Parkinson's later disease can mainly be traced back to the battles with Frazier. One can say that the whole world was complicit in this end, because nothing was as popular back then as an Ali fight and record sums were earned every time. The shattering of Ali's brain took place in front of everyone's eyes. On the other hand, the man himself wanted to prove to the world again and again that he couldn't be crushed. "Ali held out," Barack Obama was to say in his funeral speech in Ali, "his victory helped us to get used to the America we know today."

But Ali also dealt shabbily with people who didn't deserve it. There is his second wife, Belinda, who was 17 when he married her. He cheated on her with so many women that she felt like the manager of a brothel. There is Malcolm X, the friend he denied before his death so as not to provoke a falling out with Elijah Muhammad. And there's Joe Frazier, who he actually liked. Nevertheless, he did not renounce the childish gimmicks and caustic insults before fights with him. Ali knew about the value of this man, also for himself, because in a trial of strength with such a strong and completely different type of fighter he could find his own class. When asked on the Dick Cavett Show why he doesn't stop demeaning his opponents, Ali once said, "Madison Square Garden is sold out, that's why."

Jonathan Eig: Ali. One life. From the American English by Werner Roller. DVA, Munich 2018. 704 pages, 32 €.

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