Glowing, self-honoring statements continue to pour in after Muhammad Ali’s passing. Public figures and average folks from across the spectrum didn’t let his body cool before calling attention to their own enlightenment by sending respects to a man they didn’t know. I suppose you can throw me in that lot, too. Of course, an absolute majority of them are glowingly positive. Perhaps they should be. A man’s death is no time to point out his failings, and — even in an age when culture looks to leave most courtesies and graces behind.
As a long-time amateur fighter, a fan of the boxing’s history and now a coach and trainer myself, I always had a different take on Ali that shocked many of my friends and peers because I chose not to forget or ignore some of the boxer’s most heinous behavior. The fact that the media and its followers choose to turn a blind eye to Ali’s willful ignorance (at best) and outright hatred (at worst) says something about the current state of politics and pop culture behind the squared circle.
When Ali was banned from competing after refusing to serve in Vietnam he cited his Muslim faith. He was stripped of his license and denied the ability to make a living as a boxer. During that time, then-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier publicly supported Ali’s political stance. To paraphrase Smokin’ Joe, “If Baptists weren’t allowed to fight, I wouldn’t sign up either.”
Meanwhile, Frazier quite literally put his money where his mouth preceded by giving Ali money that helped him stay on his feet during the ban. According to Frazier, Ali never thanked him privately for the help. Still, once the ban was lifted, Frazier wasted no time giving Ali two title shots — creating the first two bouts of their famed trio.
Despite Frazier’s support and generosity, Ali’s public behavior toward Frazier was openly racist. During the build-up to their first fight, Ali represented Frazier as an Uncle Tom and “the white man’s champion.” This was largely celebrated by the rising 1960s counterculture of the baby boomers. For their second bout, “The Thrilla’ in Manilla,” Ali repeatedly mocked Frazier’s African American features and openly called him a “gorilla” before cameras. How can we forget a man now celebrated as a hero of civil rights on par with Martin Luther King, Jr. engaged in such an obviously abhorrent manner? If any other public figure behaved like that (then or today), he or she would be correctly pilloried, then ostracized. But, Ali’s death has world leaders weeping.
Ali always had multiple factors protecting him. He was certainly a spectacular fighter to watch. He was a hero of the antiwar movement and the emerging activist media. He was a racial minority in the age of the Civil Rights battle. He made a very public religious transformation. Essentially, he had multiple qualities the cultural gatekeepers thought worth protecting, so they ignored the more vicious aspects of his character.
Meanwhile, those same gatekeepers celebrated every turn of phrase by Ali, regardless of its actual insight or validity. Ali is famous for explaining he would not fight the VietCong because they “never lynched him or put no dogs on him.” The cultural elite were so busy applauding the homey wisdom of the remark that none of them correctly highlighted the 50,000+ Muslims forced to flee Vietnam after the war ended due to the threat of extinction.
Ali was a tremendous athlete and easily one of the greatest boxers of all time. But, he was often vindictive, ungrateful and hateful — especially when convenient to the bottom line of his fight promotion. By endlessly protecting a man who displayed the very same behavior that we abhor because he otherwise expressed politically correct views, we cheapen ourselves. Now, after his death, the racist vitriol Ali showed Frazier and the attention grabs disguised as sociopolitical wisdom will be washed away entirely — though the process was all but finished years ago.
What does it matter? Why remind a dead man of his flaws? It’s necessary because, while Ali is gone, hypocrisy is not dead. The media retains a tendency to overlook the misdeeds of people if their political affiliations are agreeable. But, that doesn’t make the misdeeds or the tendencies that drive them go away. Apply the hush-hush we’re seeing for Ali now to the vindictive, sexist behavior of Donald Trump, the endless wink/nod deceptions of the Clintons or any other public figure today and consider the value of what we’re left with tomorrow.