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Muhammad Ali: The great social changer of all time?

14th April 2011 - Steve Newman

Jacket image for GOAT (Greatest of All Time)Sometimes views can be clarified by coincidence. I was skimming Greatest of All Time, an extremely weighty book about Muhammad Ali currently displayed on the Sports desk, when a line caught my eye that suggested that all other black boxers were white stooges. This got me thinking because, as a boxing fan and a history student, the idea doesn't ring fully true.

When I was studying for my history degree, I wrote a paper on the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. The name that kept cropping was Ali's. He was strong, handsome, brash, opinionated, one hell of a boxer, proud of his colour and not afraid to tell the world that he was the greatest.

For those white Americans determined to maintain the status quo despite the social upheavals of the 1960s, Ali was their worst nightmare. So in an essay where I was originally planning to write about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, I found myself returning to a heavyweight boxer from Louisville, Kentucky, who threw his Olympic gold medal into the river because his local coffee shop refused to serve blacks. But were his opponents stooges for white America?

Jacket image for RingsideAs an aside you should know that payday is a dangerous time for booksellers, we're always tempted to buy the books we're putting on the shelves. On the day I was looking at that quote, I'd received my pay and was shelving Budd Schulberg's Ringside. Now Ali's name is world famous, but Schulberg's is one for the connoisseurs and I found myself wondering whether this man might have the answer to my question. A boxing writer for nearly 80 years, he's the only writer to be selected to the boxing hall of fame and Ringside is a collection of articles and essays that covers his career. He's boxing's font of all knowledge. So one minute I was shelving the book and the next I was buying it, all because I had an itch I couldn't scratch.

I spent the evening reading with two names foremost in mind: Jack Johnson and Joe Frazier; Schulberg suggested a third: Joe Louis. Johnson offended almost all of white America by having the audacity to be the first black man to win the world heavyweight belt. Brash, handsome, opinionated, with a habit of ignoring white America's rules, he was the Edwardian age's Ali - he won the belt in 1908.

Frazier was Ali's bitter rival and their war with both words and fists would culminate with the 'Thriller in Manila'. Neither of these two men were white stooges, yet Schulberg's response is an essay about Joe Louis. Louis was the second black man to win the heavyweight belt and the missing link that resolved my doubts.

He was billed as the anti-Johnson, but had he been fighting in the 1960s he would have been billed as the anti-Ali. He had help in winning over America though in the form of pre-war Nazi Germany and their reluctant poster boy Max Schmeling. So in 1938, Louis became the fist of democracy. So back on that pay-day evening, in the pub, beer in hand, nose in book, I was reading how a few weeks before his second fight against Schmeling, Franklin Roosevelt told Louis, "Joe, we need muscle like yours to beat Germany": it started to make sense.

So why separate Ali so much from his peers? Well boxing writers, for all their cynicism, are a romantic lot. When you include the likes of Schulberg (who wrote the screenplay for On the Waterfront), Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Ernest Hemingway and (in Jack Johnson's day) Jack London, they're also rather a literary bunch and Ali was the perfect hero for them. He had the charisma and swagger to hold the audience's attention, while being complex enough to angst over.

Yet his rivals were treated as cameos, two-dimensional villains to be hissed at. Sonny Liston was characterised as thug, as was George Foreman. There is an eponymous documentary I keep meaning to watch about the Thriller in Manila with an unusual perspective: it's told from the point of view of Frazier. Ali certainly isn't the only hero in boxing.

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