Skip to content
The logo for Brooklyn Jewish Heritage Initiative whose mission is to Organize Public Events, Create Oral & Video Histories, Provide Resources to the Brooklyn Jewish Community

Brooklyn Jewish
Historical Initiative

by Joe Dorinson

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali

In song, Bob Dylan declared: “The times–they are [were] a-changing.” Joe Louis fell out of favor in the 1960s, a turbulent period of jangling discord and generational conflict. Images collided in this decade: love beads, miniskirts, Beatlemania, bombing in Birmingham, marching to Selma, setting sun in Alabama; rising sun in Japan. Out of these cultural collisions came a hero who was both black and beautiful: Cassius Clay. After President Kennedy’s death in Dallas, the nation desperately needed heroes. Cynicism ran rampant lending credibility to conspiracy theorists. A hero’s lot, like a policeman’s, was not a happy one. Popular culture expert Fishwick detected profound changes during the 1960s that featured an assault on poverty, virginity, power elitism, apple pie and even God.[1] Sports mavens Noverr and Ziewacz refer to this era as the “Super Sixties” featuring “the Superstar, the Super Salary, the Super Stadium, the Super Horse…” Responding to their charismatic president who had called for “super sacrifice,” youths reversed course with super rage against the establishment.[2]

As a youngster, growing up Jewish in Brooklyn, I had to confront bullies. My father, a former boxer, taught me the art of pugilism. Indeed, we often watched the Friday Night Fights on ABC television in black and white. One evening, we witnessed death unfurled from the fists of Emile Griffith against an opponent Benny “the Kid” Paret who had questioned his manhood with the a Spanish taunt: “Maricon!” Referee Ruby Goldstein failed to stop the blood bath that resulted in Paret’s demise. My love affair with the so-called manly art dissipated that awful night, April 3, 1962.

In boxing that year another potential killer entered center stage when Sonny Liston dispatched Floyd Patterson twice in the first round in 1962 (with my father and me in attendance at a movie telecast) and again in 1963. His reign was short-lived, however, with the advent of Cassius Clay. Born in Louisville Kentucky on January 13, 1942, Clay grew up in a nuclear family: parents and a brother. At age twelve, he discovered boxing. With the encouragement of an Irish policeman not yet demoted to swine status, Clay began to train seriously. In 1960, he copped the Olympic Light Heavyweight Crown. A syndicate of Louisville sluggers, i.e. smart investors propelled Clay into professional ranks. He rewarded their confidence: winning nineteen straight fights. Matched against “Big Bad” Sonny Liston he scored a stunning seventh round TKO on February 25, 1964. In his corner was his advisor cum court jester Drew Bundini Brown who, after marrying a Jewish woman in 1950, converted to our tribal faith imparting no doubt s much-needed yiddisher kop. In fact Bundini coined Ali’s mantra: “Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee!”

After this major upset (super?) Clay announced a conversion to Islam marked by a new name: Muhammad Ali. Sportswriters and broadcasters cracked–since many were indeed crackers–jokes and advised the young champ to “settle down and fly right.” Defiant, Ali KO’ed Liston in the first round of a return bout. In rapid succession, Ali felled many stiffs–Patterson who insisted on calling him Clay, Chuvalo, Cooper, London, Mildenberger, Williams, Terrell and Foley.[3]

Then, refusing to step forward into the Army and Viet Nam, Ali alienated patriotic organizations. The NYSA Commission and the WBA wrested his crown in 1967. Both Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey branded Ali as un-American.[4] Thus began Ali’s exile like Campbell’s mythical hero. Sports historian Wiggins illuminates Ali’s predicament. Ali went against the American heroic grain. Eschewing “Aw Shucks” humility, Muhammad was also flamboyant, immodest and defiantly confident.” Insisting on his negritude, he exposed American hypocrisy on race.[5] At this juncture, Ali opted for the avoidance model. Not a complete separatist, he believed in possibilities. Perhaps aware of his own inadequacies, he overcompensated. Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver touted Ali as a genuine revolutionary.[6] Perhaps he was. I think it more accurate to view Ali as a catalyst for the athletic revolt that followed culminating in the Olympic Boycott in 1968.

Exiled involuntarily, Ali returned to the ring. Beaten by Frazier and Norton, he was given little chance to dethrone the then svelte gladiator, George Foreman. Ten years after Sonny Liston  and seven years after yielding the title, he went to Zaire in search of  redemption. Using a brilliant if high risk strategy–the fabled “rope-a-dope”–Ali conserved his energy while Foreman wasted his. Duped into exhaustion, Foreman yielded to barrage of blows. As Ali hovered over the fallen champ, an ebullient, enraptured Howard Cosell boomed out Bob Dylan’s lyric, “Forever Young.”

Ali became legend. Children chanted his name and pundits proclaimed his fame. Sports writer Maury Allen hoisted him onto the mountain top flanking Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams and Bill Russell.[7] Indeed, the greatest, he moved freely. I remember greeting him on Seventh Avenue in 1973 after a class. Clad in a white Gatsby suit, he glided up the street with entourage in tow. Smiling, shaking hands, exuding charisma, he illuminated the dark, mean streets. Jimmy Cannon identified him with the decade that transformed America. Writer, would-be athlete George Plimpton hailed this electrifying bronzed god who generated such wonderful powers. Extremely photogenic, he loved people and the camera loved him.[8] He drew strength from people–all people from mightiest lords to the lowliest autograph seeker.

Ali’s checkered relations with the Nation of Islam are the subject of a fascinating article by David K. Wiggins, “Victory for Allah.”[9] The author traces Ali’s adherence to and alienation from Elijah Muhammad’s movement. In 1975 the founder died, replaced by son Wallace. Ali began to take a more independent track. Once the most powerful symbol of Black Islam, the prolonged career both tarnished his image and endangered his health. Wallace Muhammad urged him to retire. Intoxicating by the ring, “The Greatest” refused to comply. He also underwent a second spiritual conversion comparable to that, which cost Malcolm X his life. He opted for a more ecumenical Muslim faith with an explicit rejection of reverse racism. He spurned the doctrines of Louis Farrakhan in favor of a more inclusive faith: one that embraced the brotherhood of man under the dominion of God. Professor Wiggins captures the pivotal point in Ali’s odyssey:[10]

Ali had helped to liberate African Americans psychologically, He now involved himself in the uplifting of all people through the promotion of Islam. For Ali, separatism had given way to integration, devils and saints were now members of both racism and Christians were no longer responsible for all the evils in the world.

How does one pin him down? Journalist Jack Newfield saw him as man-child, con man, entertainer, poet, draft-dodger, rebel, evangelist, and champion. He had exquisite timing. In 1974, Nixon resigned in disgrace. In that same year, Ali returned to grace.[11] Resilient, a veritable phoenix, he came back in triumph to avenge prior losses to Frazier, Norton, Spinks. Immodestly but not inaccurately, he rated the greatest champions. He ranked himself #1, Jack Johnson 2nd, Joe Louis 3rd.[12]

Ali, contends David Remnick in his Pulitzer Prize winning study, is a symbol of faith, conviction, defiance, beauty, skill, courage, racial pride, wit, and love. He also mirrors our aging process with the unpredictability of life. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates contextualizes Ali in history. He achieved greatness in the 1970: a decade of Vietnam, Watergate, disco, decadence and malaise. A master of media, a spinner of hype, he had style. His shuffle bore imprints on music, comedy, and basketball. A quarter of a century after the first Frazier fight, Ali overcame his equation with discord. A romantic figure, he vaulted back into Olympic glory. “A sainted symbol  of healing,” he carried the torch. His hands trembled. He had stayed in the ring too long. Still a Muslim, he ascended to a heavenly perch in Atlanta, not Mecca. Ironically, the idol smasher had become an American icon.[13]

Perceptions differ. The O.J. Simpson fiasco projected deeply divided judgments based on race. Ali denigrated Joe Frazier and other “uglies.” Early in his career, he alienated white boxing fans with his braggadocio and arrogance. He violated the rule of heroic behavior: taunting his opponents, flaunting his gifts. You either loved or reviled this upstart; balanced judgments did not apply. Because of Ali, Reggie Jackson swelled with race pride.[14] Unlike Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali preferred black companions: male as well as female. He gloried in his blackness. While Joe Louis reacted to history, Ali created history. As author Jeffry Sammon observes, he preferred mastery to drift. He changed his name. He converted, He opposed the war. Defiantly black, he stood up for his beliefs.[15] Historian Jaher insists that Ali forced Americans to confront our faults. He called us out. Clearly, he avoided the total isolation of Jack Johnson and the premature canonization of Joe Louis. Ali could not–did not break away. A true believer in American possibility, Ali embodied black heroism as he blazed his own path to glory. He ascended to myth heaven, albeit half-way.[16] Now, following Frank Sinatra, he traveled “all the way.”

Preeminent anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss argued that popular hero myths serve to resolve unwelcome contradictions in order to restore equilibrium. In this vital task, the hero functions as healer, savior, deliverer, scapegoat and questor. Heroes mediate among competing forces in society with which they must also synchronize.[17] In the Jim Crow era, black hero/leaders had to play role models that were both attractive and non-threatening. Hence, they experienced the constraints of accommodation and the temptations of avoidance. Such behavior was bound to alienate younger blacks as Washington had pricked DuBois. World War II erected a door of opportunity which Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson ran through Muhamad Ali broke wide open. Though his song is over, Ali lingers on as our iconic hero.

Essayist Roger Rosenblatt insisted that at the millennium only two athletes would tower above the rest: Robinson and Ali.[18] Indeed it was Muhammad Ali who synthesized the operative modes of “Triple A” behavior: combining–at different stages of his amazing career–acceptance, avoidance and aggression. In the last analysis, I respect Johnson. I admire Louis, Jordan and Owens. I revere Robinson and Ali. Not only was the “Louisville Slugger” a magnificent fighter; he also personified a mentsch for all seasons. When Ali learned from a telecast that a Jewish Center for handicapped seniors faced termination, he donated $100,000 on December 2, 1975.[19] After the “Thrilla’ in Manilla”, Ali–on course with Joseph Campbell’s 1000 faced hero–returned in triumph. He shared with Joe DiMaggio that special grace across a crowded room: enchantment that befits an icon, a hero for the best reasons. He spearheaded the revolt of black athletes. And in that surge for social justice and self-respect, he achieved apotheosis. Like his heroic predecessors, he was–in the felicitous phrase of Friedrich Nietzsche–“a fighter against his time.”[20]

[1]Fishwick, 5-7.
[2]Douglas A. Noverr & Larry E. Ziewacz, The Games They Played: Sports in American History (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1983), 243.
[3]Orr, 253, 259-261.
[4]Wiggins, 146.
[5]Ibid., 147.
[7]As cited in Thomas Hauser with Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), 280-281. Lipsyte’s judgments are cited in the same source, 328.
[8]Jaher, 180; Hauser, 282-283, 286-287.
[9]David K. Wiggins, Glory Bound: Black Athletes in a White America (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 174
[11]Hauser, 259-260.
[12]Hauser, 457-458.
[13]Joyce Carol Oates, “Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Second Act” in Michael MacCambridge, editor. ESPN Sports Century (New York: Hyperion, 1999), 207-208, 220; David Remnick, King of the World... (New York: Random House, 1998), 304.
 [14]Hauser, 314.
[15]As cited in Hauser, 206-207.
[16]Jaher, 182.
[17]Gary L. Harmon, “Tarzan & Columbo, Heroic Mediators” in Browne & Fishwick, 115.
 [18]Roger Rosenblatt, “Keynote Address” in Joseph Dorinson & Joram Warmund, editors, Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports and the American Dream (Armonk NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), 243.
[19]Howard Bingham describes Ali’s generosity; Hauser cites Bingham, 318.
[20]As quoted in Arthur Mann, LaGuardia: A Fighter Against His Times 1882-1933 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1959), 327.