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|Writing about fighting
contesting the assumption that "boxing is only like boxing" through an analysis of selected writings on Muhammad Ali
|Forum||by Claire Horrocks, Edge Hill University College|
|Bibliographic citation data for this essay|
I wish to contest Joyce Carol Oatess assumption that "boxing is only like boxing" 1 by looking at the emotions and responses the sport stimulates in writers and critics of different race and creed, particularly when discussing Muhammad Alis contribution to the legend of boxing. To say "boxing is only like boxing" is to limit it within the confines of the fight itself, denying the sport any social significance outside the ring. Muhammad Alis career charts a turning point both in the history of boxing and within the civil rights movement of the 1960s and on into the 1970s. As a boxer Ali followed black boxing greats such as Jack Johnson and Joe Louis. These figures had themselves succeeded in stirring controversies within the sport through the polarised image of the Uncle Tom and the bad Nigger. Jack Johnson, with his characteristic grin, flaunted his wealth in the faces of the disgruntled white men whose women he loved to date. Not only had a black man transgressed the colour line in sport, but this had afforded him the opportunity to cross the social divide too. Johnson prompted the search for a white hope, as critics and fans desperately sought to dethrone the black champion, even resorting to drawing Jim Jeffries out of retirement in an attempt to strip Johnson of the title. Despite Johnsons physical prowess, his reputation damaged and inhibited the way for black boxers of the future, for, "Johnson confirmed the worst stereotypes of black behaviour and provided the perfect justification for segregation". 2 Despite this hostility, Joe Louis rose to fame in the 1930s, seizing the opportunity to represent the USA by fighting the Nazi champion, Max Schmeling. Louis manager and coach strove to construct a well-groomed and idealistic image, a direct contrast to the brash behaviour of Johnson which would make Louis acceptable to any audience, as a "symbol of his race to both black and whites". 3 Indeed, Chris Mead argues that Louis "had opened sports to blacks and made athletics a cutting edge of the civil rights movement", 4 in a vital turning point in the sport that facilitated future champions, like the formidable Louisville Lip.
The young boxer from Louisville Kentucky dislocated all commonly held assumptions about boxing, using a brash immodesty that writers found disconcertingly appealing to write about. His characteristic predictions of outcomes made people watch his fights, if not just to see if anyone could shut the Lip from Kentucky. In this way Alis personality began to attract an audience both within boxing and outside the ring, facilitating the means by which to express his concern for Black America by offering a role model, with racial pride and dignity, to many young black children:
It is not unusual for a champion to generate so large a public response; one only has to remember the hordes of Irish children that followed Barry McGuigans career. What was different about Ali, though, was that he was not afraid to "confront the nation with his principles", 6 whether it be his religious beliefs or his concerns about the Vietnam war. Ali is a definite example of how boxing, emerging at different cultural moments, alters the social significance and implications of the sport for both the boxer and the audience; clearly defying the assertion that "boxing is only like boxing". Alis declarations of "Im pretty" could be construed as the declarations of a braggart or as a social response, originating in a genuine pride of his race, that was advocated by black activists and orators like Malcolm X, encouraging black people to cast aside white ideologies.
Such stirring words from Malcolm X are clearly apparent in Alis logic when he declared to college students during his exile from boxing, that:
It was Alis religious beliefs combined with his ever-apparent principles that lent resonance to his declarations, which made people stop and reappraise the world champion in a different light.
Having established his professional prowess in the 1960s, Ali made the ultimate public declaration of his beliefs in 1967, when he refused to be drafted. His act overtly challenged the hypocrisy of fighting for causes overseas when so many battles remained unsettled in the USA.
This act and Alis membership to the Nation of Islam changed peoples perception of the Lip, now coming to accept him as a spokesperson for his race and for principles of self-belief and self-worth. It was a status that his outrageous personality had previously disguised, distracting people from seeing the real Ali. Yet Ali had always believed that:
Ali was threatened with imprisonment and was stripped of his title for vocalising his political position, claiming exemption from drafting as a minister for the Nation of Islam. Fellow sportsman Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a UCLA basketball player, articulated a general change of opinion amongst fellow athletes, when he said:
Muhammad Ali had acquired a new status outside of boxing, demanding recognition for his manipulation of the sport to provide a platform from which he could reach out to people. Alis first fight after his suspension was with Foreman in 1974, a focal point for many writers who were forced to reappraise Ali after his dramatic political exit from boxing. Whilst keeping him from the ring, his exile certainly did not keep him out of the public spotlight.
Norman Mailers text The Fight 12 is specifically about the 1974 World Heavyweight Boxing Championship in Kinshasa, Zaire, looking at both the build-up to the fight and the fight itself. Whilst Mailers description of the actual fight and his analysis of the aesthetics of boxing provides another valuable perspective, I wish to focus predominantly on the first section of the book. Here, Mailer is struggling to come to terms with his own prejudices of race and the reality of the racial inequalities that the sport, and particularly Ali, encapsulates. Oates herself actually criticises Mailers text and his insecurities, believing that, as "Mailer cannot establish a connection between himself and the boxers . . . he is forever excluded from what, unthinkingly, they represent: an ideal (because unthinking, unforced) masculinity." 13 Her repetition of the word unthinking denies recognition of the wider social purpose that fighters like Ali encapsulated and that Mailer comes to recognise. In this way Mailers text in writing about fighting, reveals as much about contemporary concerns with race, and particularly interracial sports, as it does about the sport itself, indeed:
Inherent in Mailers mental crisis is the need to accommodate his fascination with Ali within the confines of his own white heterosexual masculinity. There is an almost homoerotic fascination with watching "two men, near-naked, fight each other" 15 and Mailer in this text is clearly battling his way through understanding and legitimising the mixed rush of emotions he experiences when working with Ali.
John Hobermann explores the parallels of comparison that critics like Mailer was experiencing:
On reading this, one remembers the evening that Mailer went jogging with Ali. Whilst initially intended to be a journalistic trick to get to know the champion, this incident also reveals a great deal about Mailers own inhibitions and insecurities.
Indeed, the jog that night becomes as much about Mailer as it does about the champion, as he pits himself in opposition to not only the contender for the World Heavyweight Championship, but also a black contender, whose every sinew and muscle fascinates him. It is Mailers reflective experiences that situates the narrative outside of the ring, whilst still remaining so close to it, demonstrating the way in which boxing is not only like boxing. What disconcerts Mailer is the numerous social complexities that Ali embodies which causes him, as a secure white American male, to become so self-scrutinising.
Initially Mailer would appear to have misunderstood the social significance of boxing to the same extent as Oates, "Boxing is the exclusion of outside influence. A classic discipline". 18 For a brief critical moment Mailer and Oates deny boxing a wider social significance, Oates limiting its cultural moment to an ahistorical, apolitical anti-space.
However, Mailer is dissatisfied with this explanation, searching throughout his work for a nugget of truth which will reveal the mysteries of the other, the black boxer. Moving through emotions of disgust and abhorrence, to an almost nostalgic reading of Bantus Philosophy, Mailer comes to realise that "boxing had become another key to revelations of Black, one more key to black emotion, black psychology, black love" 20 and it is for this reason that Mailer remains in Zaire following the fight and not for any of the "sly lessons of masochism" that Oates accuses him of pursuing. 21
Mailers text is also vital for bringing out the art of the fight, the very choreography and skill that is manipulated in order to succeed; skills that Ali clearly embodies.
Mailer is on a journey of discovery, seeking to reconcile the myths surrounding the sport with its gritty reality; that boxing is both an art as well as a battle of skills and wits. His lengthy description of the fight itself captures the very aesthetic and artistic choreography of boxing that other writings, like Oatess, fails to convey.
There is evidently a pattern to every move the boxers make, yet it is less prescribed than any choreography of the theatre could be, for an equal attraction of the fight is its unpredictability. The language in which the fight itself is described is as rich as the syntax which rhythmically reflects the breathless pace of each round. There is a metaphoric quality to the language of Mailers work, which disguises the brutality and intensity of the punches.
In contrast, Oates concern is the physical and bodily experience of boxing, seemingly regardless of the sports social implications. Indeed, it is her opinion that "the aesthetics of boxing is in sharp contrast to its ethics". 25,26 Mailer, however, does eventually come to realise the full implication of Alis statement that:
Even at the close of the fight Ali has the breath to emphasise the social significance of regaining the championship:
In narrating this, Mailer acknowledges the dawning realisation that boxing is more than mere sport, "My God! All of it! He was going after all of it." 29 Recognising the wider social implication of the sport plays a vital part in understanding the appeal that writing about boxing, particularly the career of Ali, must hold for many writers and critics. Mailer becomes aware that one can disagree with Ali, but at the same time one must also respect him, for "Norman had the uneasy intuition that sooner or later his admiration for Ali could change to the respect one feels for a powerful and dedicated enemy". 30 Mailers text must surely advance ones understanding of why boxing is not only like boxing, quashing the limiting perspective of critics like Oates, whose essay on Ali, "The Cruelest Sport", concludes pessimistically by declaring that, "These somber and terrifying boxing matches make us weep for their very futility".31 Did Ali convey any sense of this futility in the weeks before the Foreman fight? Mailers text would suggest otherwise.
Yet, one must be cautious analysing so complex a black role model, like Ali, solely from the perspective of a white heterosexual male critic and writer, such as Mailer, for:
There is a vital difference of perspectives between the work of critics who are black and those who are white. Mailers text and self-scrutinisation is founded both in his work as a critic and in his own egotistical quest for truth and knowledge about black America; indeed a "titillation of choice". A comparative analysis of other contemporary works demonstrates a rich variety of texts that arise debating the social significance of boxing, a large number of these writers being black. Indeed, Hobermanns chapter entitled "Writing is Fighting" specifically looks at the black writers contribution to the vast number of articles now being written about race in sport.
Eldridge Cleaver wrote his essay on boxing, entitled "Lazarus, Come Forth", whilst serving a prison sentence for rape. Whilst his essay provides an informative insight into the writing that emerges from contemporary black prisoners, providing interesting parallels with other black prison writings like Martin Luther Kings "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", it also strongly articulates the case that boxing is not only like boxing. Indeed:
Cleavers writing is strong and powerful, there is no rambling self-scrutiny. The style of his writing is far from uneducated and is as metaphoric as Mailers, yet in this essay his use of metaphor is much more graphic and immediate than the poetic way in which Mailer utilises it.
Indeed, the very title of the essay is a metaphoric example of the way in which Cleaver wants black Americans to rise up from their oppression, to pursue a mental and social liberation.
It is from within this culturally historical framework that Muhammad Ali can be seen to emerge.
What is different about Cleavers work is that there is a clear path plotted through the civil rights movement into which Ali emerged. The structure of the essay works through the contribution of Malcolm X, W. E. B. DuBois and Paul Robeson in articulating the struggles of the Negro, concluding that as a group they all:
The subtitle The Negro Celebrity clearly conveys where Cleaver perceives Ali to fit into this social structure, as he analyses the opiate nature that sport, within a power structure of struggle and social change, comes to play. Against so detailed an historical analysis of the cultural origins behind boxers like Ali it would be difficult to dismiss his contribution to vocalising Negro concerns as being mere boxing, for his role clearly extends beyond the confines of the ring. However, for Cleaver the turning point in Alis career comes earlier than the Foreman fight that Mailer focuses on. Cleaver focuses on the Ali and Patterson fight as the pivotal moment in which blackness and boxing become interrelated.
Boxing had gone full circle back to the earlier days of Johnson when the pursuit of the "white hope" was a primary concern. Utilising the powerful rhetoric employed by orators like Malcolm X, Cleaver goes on to look at the Uncle Toms that have distorted the reality of black America and contributed to a crisis of identity. His narrative, whilst situated within the ring, is at the same time so distant, that one feels a complete disinclination to believe that "boxing is only like boxing".
A vital extended metaphor that is utilised throughout the essay is that of the puppet, a familiar metaphor to those who have read works such as the autobiography of Malcolm X. It is an image which clearly reinforces the perceived manipulation of the Negro.
One cannot forget the staged façade of Joe Louis and sympathise with the craving for acceptance that led to the quashing of his own individuality. What was so refreshingly different, and so appealing to writers and critics, was Alis spontaneity, his effervescent personality both in and out of the ring, which demanded further analysis. Unlike Louis, Ali "was a black American sports hero who would not allow himself to be defined according to white racist categories. He was seizing back his persona". 40 Indeed, as Cleaver outlines, what was so disconcerting about Ali was that with his coming "the puppet-master was left with a handful of strings to which his dancing doll was no longer attached." 41 Ali had broken away from both the physical and ideological constraints of white America and through him hope was offered for other black Americans to rise up and join him. Previous fighters such as Sonny Liston had had the autonomy and potential for liberation but had aimlessly wandered like "the lone wolf who did not belong to his people or speak for them." 42 Ali, in contrast, was not afraid to express his opinion and confront those who challenged his beliefs.
What emerges from the beginnings I have made on analysing the practice of writing about fighting is that both boxing as a sport and boxers like Muhammad Ali defy categorisation, they are a subjective entity at the same time as contributing to a collective ideology. Boxing, as with many other sports, retains a cultural significance that fluctuates and alters at different cultural moments. In this way it is the sport that becomes the point of contestation, as much as the sports person themselves.
It is this vital recognition that Oatess work directly fails to acknowledge and that has encouraged me to readdress a number of different works on boxing and particularly about Ali. Had time allowed I would have gone on to look at other critics like Gerald Early, particularly his seminal text The Culture of Bruising. Early has most recently edited the Muhammad Ali reader and his introduction demands a further analysis of his other works, for the tone and language in which he discusses Ali is yet another contrasting perspective on his career. Whilst celebrating Alis life, it clearly attributes blame for his illness, due to his prolonged fighting, on those who had deprived him of boxing in the late 1960s, for "now the public, because of Alis illness, want to drown him a bathos of sainthood and atone for its guilt". 44 The tone is more personal than the self-scrutinising rambles of Mailer:
Yet, Early also offers an explanation for the appeal of writing about boxing in a similar way to Oates. Oates believes that boxings most "immediate appeal is that of the spectacle, in itself wordless, lacking a language, that requires others to define it, celebrate it, complete it". 46 Yet this is to deny the narrative any social cohesion, a process by which the author can work through his own prejudices or insecurities as Mailer does, for as Early explains:
What emerges from the selection of writings I have chosen is that Ali deployed social stereotypes to confuse and intrigue his critics, utilising them at the same time as manipulating them to create an effect which transformed the concept of the role model. The effect was a character who was both loved and hated, inspiring a mixture of emotions in his critics. In this way writing can be seen to be the method by which people came to explore the significance of both the sport and the career of Muhammad Ali. To declare "boxing is only like boxing" is to deny the cultural climate in which Ali fought and which is vital to an understanding of Alis spirit, both in and out if the ring.
The views expressed are those of the contributors, and not necessarily those of the Centre, the Liverpool John Moores University or the City of Liverpool College.
© 1999, Liverpool John Moores University, City of Liverpool College and the Contributors
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