Beat Muhammad Ali

Afterthoughts on Victor Bockris’ ”In Fighter’s Heaven”

By Tobe Damit

I was reading ”In Fighter’s Heaven’, one of a mutlivolumesque serie of biographies written by Victor Bockris, all very thorough, treating of everything that has to do with some specific thinkers and doers that were behind the 60’s counterculture social revolution. If you check out the author’s bibliography you will find some of the most iconic figures of that revolution: All of which can be related in one way or another to Beat Punks. I’ve already reviewed in-depth his remarkable biographies about Andy Warhol and Lou Reed . By the way, I intend to review them all in a near future here on LAN.

So, in the blue corner, you have all these writers, painters and musicians and then, in the red corner, there is a real boxer, an athlete so good that he left for sure a permanent mark in the boxing world. And you may ask yourselves ”How did he get there? How does Ali fit in with all these people who triggered a revolution in the 60’s?” Let me just say for starters that they all, in their own ways, shed some blood, sweat and tears. Muhammad Ali was much more than an athlete or an inspiring success story. Most people remember him from the early days of his celebrity for being a loud mouth. He sure was one. For each and every opponent he fought he would ”bust some rhymes”, taunting his opponents, predicting in how many they would go down, making fun of them any which way he could as well as giving names and meanings to his fights like Thrilla in Manila, (Ali-Frazier III in Manila, Philippines, October 1, 1975) and Rumble in the Jungle (Ali-Foreman in  Kinshasa, Zaire, October 30, 1974) that led to a documentary called ”When We Were Kings”.

Ali remembers the origins of his poetry: ”It was ’62, when I fought Archie Moore. Moore rhymed with four, so the publicity for that fight was:
Moore will
hit the floor
in round four

Then I fought Henry Cooper, I said:
This is no jive
Cooper will
leave in five

Doesn’t that sound like rap to you?? It sure does to me. The very roots of rap were precisely a verbal fight between 2 opponents and organized as such in official contests and in my mind, those verbal assaults were the very first rap rhymes ever made. Some might deny him that but he did write poems. Now Ali also was a success story and a very good story-teller, you can’t deny him that. The very first ”big book” I read was Muhammad Ali very own striking autobiography ”The Greatest” that was later put into a mediocre movie in which Ali played his own character (of course!). Doesn’t it sound a lot like ”8 Mile’ to you?? (except for the fact 8 Mile is a good movie and Eminem a good actor)

But first and foremost, Ali was an actor in his own life. He was an artist as a boxer, as a promoter, as a poet, as a spiritual figure, as a counterculture thinker, as a civil right champion, as a family man, as a life coach. Furthermore as you read Victor Bockris’ ”In Fighters Heaven” you are told that they were rocks painted by a guy named Harvey Moyer, huge rocks on the grounds of his training camp on which were painted the names of great adversaries, each of them representing a milestone in Ali’s life, installations that should be considered as conceptual art to be on the technical side of this but his skills were in every detail. What made Ali so inspiring is not so much what he did as how he did it and who he was, because who he was always transpired in the way he did things. Reading through ”In Fighter’s Heaven”,  you can very well imagine how everyone around him; his family, his supporters, trainers, organisers, doctors, lawyers, etc. were all devoted and loyal to him because they loved him as a person. He was running things with love and discipline, using one or the other along the way as required by the circumstances. Always true to himself and his beliefs, as a man, as a father, as a colored man and as a muslim.

One of the milestones on the training camp grounds. This one dedicated to Sonny Liston (obviously). This was taken during his training for the ”Rumble in the Jungle” fight.

Ali saw in his birth name Cassius Clay the mark of the slavery that was a burden to his colored brothers and that is the reason that he changed his name and his faith.

Muhammad Ali Remembered, by Those Who Knew Him as Cassius – The New York Times

On April 28, 1967, with the United States at war in Vietnam, Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” This guy did what many thousands people promoting peace never even dared to do. This ”Black Muslim guy”, who was mistreated for as long as he can remember in his own country precisely because of the fact that he was black, said to the face of his recruiting officer that he had no intentions whatsoever to go kill another human being at the other end of the world, whom he had never met and further more who had never caused him any harm. Now it may not seem such an act of bravery but don’t forget that this young fellow still officially and originally named Cassius Clay, born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, this Muslim Black Boxer who at age 18, won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and turned professional later that year, was arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges, and stripped of his boxing titles.

He successfully appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971, by which time he had not fought for nearly four years and thereby lost a period of peak performance as a boxing athlete. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war had made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation but he definitely paid a very steep price. Those years were lost forever for him and for all of the world to see him boxing at his best even if he is still considered by many to be ”The Greatest”.

Andy Warhol-Muhammad Ali at Fighter’s Heaven, 1978©Photo by Victor Bockris

Of course the ultimate integration as a counterculture figure was Ali’s placid but unmovable resistance to go fight the Viet Nam war. And the unveiled interest Andy Warhol had towards him just confirmed the fact that Ali had become one of the greatest leading spirits of the 60’s and the 70’s.  A man who’s dazzling virtuosity within the prize ring was matched only by his articulate and outrageous showmanship and integrity outside it.

I can see no better ending than to leave you with a poem written by Ali himself. A poem about…

FREEDOM

Better far from all I see
To die fighting to be free
What more fitting end could be?

Better surely than in some bed
Where in broken health I’m led
Lingering until I’m dead

Better than with prayers and pleas
Or in the clutch of some disease
Wasting slowly by degrees
Better than of heart attack
Or some dose of drug I lack
Let me die by being Black

Better far that I should go
Standing here against the foe
Is the sweeter death to know
Better than the bloody stain
On some highway where I’m lain
Torn by flying glass and pain

Better calling death to come
Than to die another dumb
Muted victim in the slum

Better than of this prison rot
If there’s any choice I’ve got
Kill me here on the spot

Better far my fight to wage
Now while my blood boils with rage
Lest it cool with ancient age

Better vowing for us to die
Than to Uncle Tom and try
Making peace just to live a lie

Better now that I say my sooth
I’m gonna die demanding truth
While I’m still akin to youth

Better now than later on
Now that fear of death is gone
Never mind another dawn.

– by Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016)

Andy Warhol was far from the only artist to depict Ali in his art, though Ali himself said Warhol’s piece was “by far the best painting I have ever had of myself.” The painting, he felt, successfully conveyed his “many moods.” In preparation for these prints, Warhol traveled to Deer Lake Pennsylvania where Ali was training for a match with Ernie Shavers. It was at the training camp that Ali and Warhol met, and where Warhol took the photographs that would eventually become Ali’s portrait. Initially, Warhol seemed unafraid of the larger-than-life boxer. After being teased about the excessive price the pictures would be sold for, Warhol asked “Could we, uh, do some, uh, pictures where you’re not, uh, talking?” According to Brockis “Nobody had ever told the champ to shut his famous mouth in quite such a not-to-be-trifled with way.” By the end of the shoot, however, Ali managed to unnerve the artist. When Warhol was finished taking photos he reached to shake Ali’s hand and mumbled, “Thanks er, champ.” The boxer spun around and furiously demanded, “Did you say tramp?” Ali laughed, but not before Warhol lost his cool in a brief moment of panic.

This post is dedicated to Ali’s children: Laila Ali, Maryum Ali, Rasheda Ali, Asaad Amin, Hana Ali, Khaliah Ali, Jamillah Ali, Mya Ali, Muhammad Ali Jr. It is dedicated as well to all the children victims of crimes against humanity or civil rights violation. 

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