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Conferences and Events

Muhammad Ali Conference a great success

The Muhammad Ali Conference held on March 29th 1999 was hailed as a great success by those who attended to hear lectures by John C. Walter and Christopher Brookeman, and take part in a Video Link up with the USA. Ian Ralston and Clare Horrocks were there, and here are their impressions of the day.


John C.Walter: Muhammad Ali: The quintessential American: or, how did he do it?

John C.Walter is renowned for his charismatic public speaking and his paper was eagerly awaited. The paper looked at the myth of Ali and the way in which he has become a legend, amongst both black and white people. One particular feature John focused on was the endearing quality of ‘bragging’ in Ali; indeed, as he indicated, "Bragging is as American as apple pie." Certainly this image fits in with the articles from the 1960s in The Ring magazine, with numerous stories being run about the ‘Louisville Lip’. His ‘Lip’ has made him famous across generations and his ‘braggioso’ endears him as a black America using his gregarious personality for the collective good of fellow black people.

John went on to stress that honesty in a man is a vital characteristic, indeed it is the quintessential American trait. It was this quality that Ali embodied and which appealed to the American psyche. If this was indeed true, then it is tragically ironic that his honesty lost him the world heavyweight crown following his refusal to be drafted into the military. Ali declared that "I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong." Yet even in defeat, Ali demonstrated tremendous courage and grace under pressure. It is this, according to John’s analysis, that attracts American’s to Ali, regardless of race. Ali provided a distraction from the miasma of political corruption and showed the development of his political ideology. It could be argued that Ali’s entry into the field of boxing saw the abandonment of the search for a ‘white hope’, as Ali was everyone’s American; a point which John expanded upon in the plenary session.

It is hard to analyse the appeal of Ali to different audiences, for each comes to look at him with their own personal history and agenda, but John’s lecture provided food for thought and justification for further study in the field of race and sport.

Clare Horrocks, Liverpool John Moores University

Christopher Brookeman: Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer and the mythology of boxing

In American Studies in the UK Chris Brookeman is amongst the most highly respected and well known writers and lecturers. His work on all aspects of America, covering everything from Jackson Pollock, to the president and the American West, reflects his skill in examining the diverse elements of American society and culture.

Chris’s paper examined Ali’s performance both in and out of the ring and placed it into a framework of popular culture. Ali’s ability to draw on images, that had been developed by African Americans since the last century, brought together aspects of both Vaudeville and Hollywood. Ali then used this as a means of provoking those who attacked or criticised him. Chris then linked this to Norman Mailer’s writing on boxing and particularly his work on (his long time friend) Ali to highlight the central role Ali played. Consequently, his skill and ability to manipulate and re-structure these images made the world embrace him, and allow Ali to demonstrate his anti-imperialism. Chris’s paper was both provocative and illuminating and made the audience reconsider their own need to challenge racism in whatever form.

Ian Ralston, American Studies Centre.

Video Link up with the USA

The afternoon session involved a live video link between New York, Atlanta and London. It brought together Professor Jeffrey Sammons of New York University, Al Brown, a boxing promoter/trainer and Chairman of the Indiana Black Expo Invitational, with a panel in London consisting of John C.Walter, Johnella Butler (University of Washington), Chris Brookeman (University of Westminster) and Kasia Boddy (University College London.) .

The discussion covered a full range of issues that had been raised during the morning sessions, particularly regarding the question of the ‘responsibility’ of black athletes to comment on issues of race and exploitation, as well as a critical discussion of the representation of Ali and the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in the film ‘When we were kings’. On both issues the changes within American society since the 60s and the expectations of both white and black America were identified as a central factor for consideration. Although the session was prematurely cut short after one hour due to technical difficulties, it was agreed by all that the exchange of views had been constructive and added yet another dimension to the discussion of the ‘Greatest.’

Ian Ralston, American Studies Centre


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