The Barnes & Noble Review
Then and now, Muhammad Ali stands alone. In a society abundant with premier athletes, Ali transcended the realm of boxing and even sports as a whole, extending his charismatic influence beyond the ring, beyond race, beyond national borders, beyond his times. And in Redemption Song Mike Marqusee's satisfying exploration of the man and the heightened aura of the '60s Ali emerges as a potent, unique figure on the world stage.
Applauded today as the quintessential American hero, Ali was once castigated as an unpatriotic religious demagogue. But whatever the age, the simple utterance of the name "Ali" automatically evokes strong responses. The lyrical showman. The defiant spirit. The cocksure athlete. The blatant nonconformist. The penitent searcher. Redemption Song is a superbly written account of Ali's very public transformation and growth and how it intertwined with the turbulent '60s.
Beginning even earlier, Marqusee opens with a reexamination of Ali's historical predecessors like Jack Johnston and Joe Louis and the dynamics of the sport of boxing. Controlled by a wealthy elite, boxing thrived on the pent-up bloodlust of the urban proletariat. White bosses, white fans, white fighters. When blacks first succeeded in the ring, that success had to be muted. Black athletes were accepted only if they were deferential "passive spokesmen for whites" or "dense unintelligent brutes."
But, in the parlance of the day, a change was gonna come. Cassius Clay, as Ali was known at the start of his career, shattered the stereotypes and demandedredress.When Clay shockingly defeated the much-favored Sonny Liston and won the heavyweight title, the world was compelled to take notice of this brash-talking phenom. As never before, a black man stood above the crowd, openly proud of his own accomplishments. From that moment, the young man with the quick jab, lightning tongue, and facile mind charmed and challenged the public.
Marqusee meticulously chronicles Clay's spiritual journey toward the Nation of Islam and his budding relationship with Malcolm X. Ali's rejection of the "Clay" identity his slave name, as it was termed coincided with his adoption of "Muhammad Ali." The new outward designation marked a momentous internal transformation.
For a celebrity of Ali's stature to embrace the hard-line philosophy espoused by Elijah Muhammad prompted much debate. This aspect of Ali's quest, tenderly recounted by Marqusee, rings strong and true, conveying the competing, sometimes contradictory forces at work. Although his reasoning was questioned at times, Ali's convictions were generally applauded even when they were unpopular. Redemption Song deftly delineates tensions between Ali's political stances and those espoused by several civil rights activists. While Ali's positions on integration and the Vietnam War were reflective of the national debates, his impact carried farther than most contemporary observers realized, according to Marqusee. By speaking his heart and his mind, Ali crystallized political actions, at home and abroad.
When Ali said, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong," the statement resonated around the globe. In Trinidad, calypso musicians wrote songs sparked by Ali's defiance, inspiring Caribbean youth to question their countries' relationship to lingering British imperialism.
In the early 1970s, two seminal fights the "Rumble in the Jungle" and the "Thriller in Manila" extended beyond being mere boxing matches. Both contests grew into major cultural happenings that elevated Ali into a much larger arena. Ali, the boxer, could no longer be contained by the ring. His travels to Africa, in particular, forged new bonds between African Americans and the peoples of such diverse countries as Mali, Ghana, and the Congo. In several remarkable ways, Marqusee contrasts the struggles for African independence with the struggles against Jim Crow laws in the American South. Through these comparisons, Ali emerges as having been quite influential in shaping popular culture and in the growth of the black Atlantic consciousness.
Ali's many successes resound through the pages of Redemption Song. However, just as the very name of the book evokes Bob Marley's rhythmic commentary, it also connotes the many battles Ali fought in and out of the boxing ring. The word "redemption" could easily allude to Ali's physical rebirth after his devastating bouts with Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Leon Spinks. Perhaps, for some, "redemption" speaks of hope for a man whose intermittent extramarital affairs brought both public scrutiny and private anguish. Or perhaps maybe the title comments about the state of American race relations that Ali so remarkably reflected.
Then again, "redemption" is a somewhat incongruous term, as it neither defines Muhammad Ali nor the '60s. After all, Ali's stance was consistently unapologetic, a strident message delivered with boisterous voice and demeanor. "I am the greatest," he intoned, proving it repeatedly. However, Marqusee's most refreshing insight is the wonderful complexity of Ali's personality. The '60s cannot be viewed through a narrow lens, nor can Ali.
Attempting to understand Ali without delving into his intricate persona and the reasons for his actions is to box with a shadow of ill-defined shape and less substance. Thanks to Mike Marqusee's Redemption Song, Muhammad Ali comes into clear focus, as do the energetic times that swirled around him. And much like the greatest poets, Ali both reflected and directed his age.
Read an Excerpt
The Baby Figure of the Giant Mass
On 25 February 1964, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. This against-the-odds victory was one of the shocking upheavals characteristic of the era, a surprise that compelled people to reconsider their assumptions. The triumph of the underdog, and with it the confounding of bookmakers and experts, is one of the most visceral thrills sports have to offer; it brings with it a combined sense of disorientation and unsuspected possibility, feelings which were to be intensified by Clay's actions outside the ring in the days that followed.
After the fight, Clay chose to forgo the usual festivities at one of Miami's luxury hotels and headed instead for the black ghetto, where he had made camp during training. He spent a quiet evening in private conversation with Malcolm X, the singer Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, the great Cleveland Browns running back and an early champion of black rights in sports. The next morning, after breakfast with Malcolm, Clay met the press to confirm the rumors that he was involved with the Nation of Islam:
I believe in Allah and in peace. I don't try to move into white neighborhoods. I don't want to marry a white woman. I was baptized when I was twelve, but I didn't know what I was doing. I'm not a Christian any more. I know where I'm going, and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want.
"I don't have to be what you want me to be." No boxing champion, and noblack sports star, had ever issued such a ringing declaration of independence. The next day, Clay amplified his views. In place of his usual ingratiating bravado, there was now a steely and even exultant defiance:
Black Muslims is a press word. The real name is Islam. That means peace. Islam is a religion and there are seven hundred and fifty million people all over the world who believe in it, and I'm one of them. I ain't no Christian. I can't be when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blowed up. They get hit by stones and chewed by dogs and they blow up a Negro church and don't find the killers.... I'm the heavyweight champion, but right now there are some neighborhoods I can't move into. I know how to dodge boobytraps and dogs. I dodge them by staying in my own neighborhood. I'm no trouble-maker ... I'm a good boy. I never have done anything wrong. I have never been to jail. I have never been in court. I don't join any integration marches. I don't pay any attention to all those white women who wink at me. I don't carry signs.... A rooster crows only when it sees the light. Put him in the dark and he'll never crow. I have seen the light and I'm crowing.
Reactions to Clay's announcement were swift and hostile. The southern-dominated World Boxing Association (WBA) began moves to strip him of his title. His record album, I Am the Greatest, was pulled from the shelves by Columbia. A scheduled appearance on the Jack Parr "television talk" show was canceled. Endorsement deals evaporated. Senators threatened to mount an investigation into the legality of the Liston fight. The syndicate of Louisville millionaires who sponsored Clay described him as "ungrateful." With a fine disregard for history, Jimmy Cannon, the doyen of boxing writers, declared that boxing had never before "been turned into an instrument of mass hate.... Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness." Harry Markson, the head of Madison Square Garden, warned Clay, "You don't use the heavyweight championship of the world to spout religious diatribe. We've made so much progress in eliminating color barriers that it's a pity we're now facing such a problem."
Joe Louis joined in the condemnation: "Clay will earn the public's hatred because of his connections with the Black Muslims. The things they preach are the opposite of what we believe." NAACP leader Roy Wilkins echoed the sentiment: "Cassius may not know it, but he is now an honorary member of the White Citizens' Councils.... He speaks their piece better than they do." Floyd Patterson told the press he would fight Ali for free "just to get the title away from the Black Muslims."
Other black voices struck a more realistic balance. "Considering the associations and activities of other prizefighters I have known," observed George Schuyler, a conservative columnist, "Cassius Marcellus Clay is picking good company." Jackie Robinson insisted, "Clay has as much right to ally himself with the Muslim religion as anyone else has to be a Protestant or a Catholic." Despite his sometimes "crude" behavior, Clay, Robinson believed, had "spread the message that more of us need to know: `I am the Greatest,' he says. I am not advocating that Negroes think they are greater than anyone else. But I want them to know they are just as great as other human beings." And a younger man, Leroi Jones, saw even greater possibilities in the new champ: "Clay is not a fake, and even his blustering and playground poetry are valid; they demonstrate that a new and more complicated generation has moved onto the scene. And in this last sense Clay is definitely my man."
Cassius Clay's conversion to the Nation of Islam set him on a path to uncharted lands, and transformed him in the eyes of both black and white. As a young challenger he had been brash and bold, an entertaining eccentric; within hours of winning the championship he had metamorphosed into an alien menace. He dared to turn his back on America, Christianity and the white race. Many black men had been lynched for less. The governors of American sports stood appalled as Clay brought the anarchy of political controversy into their orderly realm. Boxing fans were bemused. And in the black communities, while there was much dismay over Clay's rejection of the civil rights movement, there was also, among many, a mood of pleasant surprise. Whatever else it may have been, Clay's conversion to the Nation of Islam was recognized as an embrace of blackness; in willingly subjecting himself to the vilification that had been the lot of the Nation of Islam for years, he had placed his black constituency on a higher footing than the white audience to whom black performers were normally beholden, and this in itself earned him legions of black admirers.
"I'm free to be what I want." It's often said that at this moment Muhammad Ali "invented himself." Through sheer charisma he brought the old stereotypes tumbling down like a black Samson in the temple of the Philistines. But he did not invent himself out of nothing. In his search for personal freedom he was propelled and guided by a wide array of interacting social forces. Ali's public conversion was one of the unexpected jolts that peppered the decade, opening dizzying vistas of both fear and hope. But as with all such moments, its significance can only be discovered by diving into the river of historical experience which flows into and out from it.
* * *
At root there is something irrational and arbitrary about sporting partisanship. As Jerry Seinfeld once observed, "People come back from the game yelling, `We won! We won!' No: they won; you watched." How is it that passive spectators come to feel they partake in someone else's victory or defeat? This leap of imagination, this widening of the definition of the self is a wonderfully human phenomenon, which is why, as Seinfeld realized, it is also a rich vein of comedy.
Shakespeare comments on the irrationality of sporting partisanshipand the dangerous propensity of the masses to read their own fortunes into sporting contestsin his brittle meditation on love and war, Troilus and Cressida. Commenting on the prospect of one-on-one combat between the two champions of the Greek and Trojan armies, Achilles and Hector, the statesman-politician Nestor observes to Ulysses:
Though't it be a sportful combat,
Yet in the trial much opinion dwells;
For here the Trojans taste our dear'st repute
With their fin'st palate: and trust to me, Ulysses,
Our imputation shall be oddly pois'd
In this wild action; for the success,
Although particular, shall give a scantling
Of good or bad unto the general;
And in such indexes, although small pricks
To their subsequent volumes, there is seen
The baby figure of the giant mass
Of things to come at large.
Modern, secular spectator sportsin the forms of boxing, horseracing and cricketfirst emerged from the womb of parochial ritual and folk pastime in mid-eighteenth-century England. Their midwives were rapid urbanization, the spread of market relations and the growth of an ambitious elite with both time and money to squander. The sporting realm preserved and organized the pointlessness, the triviality of play. The activity unfolding within its boundaries was an end in itself; and the consequences of success or failure in that activity were of a profoundly different order than the consequences of success or failure in other competitive activitieseconomic, political, military. From the beginning, modern sports commanded a space both apart from and within the society that had given them birth.
Rules for boxing were first codified in 1743. Soon after, national champions were recognized. Newspapers advertised "prizefights" and employed the world's first sportswriters to cover them. Bouts sometimes drew crowds of ten to twenty thousand. They were usually staged under the aegis of aristocrats, who wagered substantial stakes on the results. Prizefighting became a pioneer enterprise in the commercialization of leisure, a trend that has grown to huge dimensions in our own time.
In the early decades of modern sports, gambling offered the principal basis for spectator identification with competitors; the financial investment became an emotional one. But other factors soon entered into the making of sporting loyalties: local, regional, national, generational and racial identities, school ties and individual whims. These give a veneer of rationality to the imaginative act of identification between spectator and competitor, but in one sense it always remains a veneer. The loyalties and identifications are not inherent in the spectacle; the tie between spectator and competitor is a constructed one, and the meanings it carries for either are generated by the historiescollective, individualbrought to bear on a contest that would otherwise be devoid of significance to all but direct participants. Precisely because they are universal and transparent, innocent of significance or consequence, sports became charged with meanings; because they meant nothing in themselves, they could come to mean anything.
Like Shakespeare's Machiavellian Greeks, the Victorians were highly sensitive to the social implications of "sportful combat." They saw that by giving "a scantling / Of good or bad unto the general," sports champions became representatives of larger constituencies. Precisely because "in the trial much opinion dwells," that opinion had to be shaped and guided from above. The Victorian ideology of amateur sports encased the unbridled competitive zeal in which sports are rooted within a higher morality. The egalitarian autonomy that is the presupposition of modern sports was overlaid with the prevailing hierarchies. As a result, competitors were to be judged by criteria extraneous to sports. Winning under the rules was not enough; one also had to uphold certain social and moral conventions. Thus the "role model," that incubus on the back of so many sporting champions, was born out of a need to tame the democracy of sport. It was a means of neutralizing its sublime indifference to social status.
The aristocrats under whose aegis the modern sports revolution was wrought never themselves entered the prizefighting ring (unlike the cricket pitch). Professional boxers were plebeians, performing at the behest of their social superiors. From its beginnings, boxing has been intimately linked with the urban proletariat, but its higher reaches have always been controlled by wealthy elites.
The social rupture that haunts boxing has disempowered boxers and boxing fans; it is one of the reasons why boxing has remained among the most anarchic of major world sports. From its earliest days, boxing has been a honey-pot for criminals, not least because it is relatively easy to fix the fights. During its two-hundred-year existence, boxing has been the plaything of aristocrats, politicians, newspaper proprietors, businessmen, public relations entrepreneurs and satellite and cable television moguls. But the gangsters have been ever present, expropriating fighters, fans and punters alike.
Boxing is not an expression of ghetto criminality or primitive aggression or some innate human propensity for violence, though when a Mike Tyson comes along, it is all too easy to paint it in those colors. The culture of boxing is all about self-restraint, self-discipline and deferred gratification. It is a highly structured response to and safe haven from the anarchy of poverty. The boxing gym is a world of rituals and regimen, mixing co-operation with competition, the hierarchy of skill and experience with the sweaty egalitarianism of the work ethic. Even when boxers leave the ghetto, they take this sustaining subculture with them. It is not boxing itself, but its historically constructed social and economic framework which has ensured the persistence of criminality and exploitation.
Outside the gym, boxers face a daunting gap between supply and demand in the labor market; the rewards at the top of the profession are prodigious, and have always been so, but only a tiny proportion of boxers come within reach of them. Boxing appears to be highly individualistic, but the individuals involvedthe boxershave less power over their bodies and careers, even today, than almost any other sports people. Even successful boxers, with few exceptions, are dependent on the whims of promoters, managers and satellite TV executives. If they are disabled in action, they remain reliant on charity. If they wish to advance towards a title, they must placate a variety of forces behind the scenes. Boxing ability has never been enough in itself.
In boxing, social and moral hierarchies have always been policed with special zeal. Such naked one-on-one human confrontations need to be managed (and packaged) with care if they are to serve as both an avenue of individual advancement and a re-enforcement of the existing distribution of wealth and power. Hence the paradox of boxing, a value-free institution sponsoring a spectacle laden with values.
No one has felt the pinch of that paradox more sharply than the generations of black boxers who have sustained the fight game at all levels. This long history has given boxing a special place in black communities. The triumphs and tragedies of black boxersdependent on elite white power-brokers to make a living in the ring, expected to subordinate themselves to elite white norms outside the ringhave made black boxing a rich, complex, living tradition. During the first half of the twentieth century, black boxers were the most celebrated individuals in black American life. Their exploits were part of folklore, and they were admired as the epitome of black glamor. If the strangest fact about boxing is that it has not gone the way of cockfighting or bear-baiting, and has somehow managed to survive under the glare of the electronic media, then the next strangest is that it owes its survival in no small measure to the brilliance of black boxers, the people most exploited and brutalized by it.
In the 1950s, Nelson Mandela (a heavyweight) trained regularly at a black boxing club in Orlando, a township north of Johannesburg. "I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it," Mandela explains in his autobiography. "I was intrigued by how one moved one's body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match." Here, boxing serves as preparation for long-term political struggle. But, for Mandela, the sport's main attraction resides at a deeper level. "Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant. When you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking about his colour or social status."
Mandela here invokes the "level playing field," a metaphor from sports which has been applied to social, electoral and economic competition. In sport itself, the "level playing field" is more than just an ideological cosmetic, a democratic charade in an undemocratic order. Sports lose their meaning for the spectatorand therefore their place in the marketunless everyone plays by the same rules, shoots at the same-size goalposts, is timed with the same stopwatch. The level playing field is the autonomous logic of modern sport. For a contest to be seen as satisfactory, its rules, conditions and conduct must ensure that the result is determined only by the relative and pertinent strengths and weaknesses of the competitors. The objectivity of sporting contests is like the objectivity of a scientific experiment. To the extent that the extraneous is excluded, the test is regarded as valid. In boxing, which pits one man's strength, stamina and agility against another's, it was recognized early on that a fight between a heavyweight and a flyweight was meaningless as a test of individual prowess, and therefore unattractive as a spectacle.
The logic of the level playing field gives sports an egalitarian premise, undoubtedly one of the reasons for their enduring popular appeal. The major cliché about race in sports is that sports offer black people opportunities denied them in other spheres. In the autonomous realm of sports, equality reigns. Of course, the level playing field is enclosed within a society that is anything but level. As a result, a host of social forces converge to ensure that, despite its apparent autonomy and indifference to social status, the level playing field mirrors prevalent ideas about social hierarchy, including ideas about race. And when these ideas are challenged from below, the level playing fieldor, in this case, the boxing ringbecomes socially contested terrain.
Initially, it was whites who made black boxers into "representatives of their race," declaring that they should be either defeated or excluded altogether from competition precisely because of this "representativeness." In 1810, Tom Molineaux, a black American ex-slave, fought the legendary English heavyweight, Tom Cribb, in East Grinstead. In the nineteenth round, the crowd rushed the ring and Molineaux's finger was broken. In the twenty-third round, Molineaux was dominating. "For God's sake, don't let the nigger win," shouted Sir Thomas Price, prominent member of the "fancy" that followed and wagered on prizefights. "Remember the honour of old England." Cribb failed to rise for the beginning of the twenty-eighth round and Molineaux began to celebrate. Then Cribb's second claimed that Molineaux was hiding bullets in his fists. By the time the black boxer disproved the charge, Cribb was back on his feet. In the thirty-ninth round, Molineaux conceded. Three days later he wrote to Cribb asking for a rematch. "As it is possible this letter may meet the public eye, I cannot omit the opportunity of expressing the confident hope, that the circumstances of my being a different colour to that of a people amongst whom I have sought protection will not in any way operate to my prejudice." The appeal to sporting equality seems to have struck a chord. The rematch, attended by 15,000, was one of the great sporting events of the nineteenth century. Molineaux broke his jaw in the ninth and was knocked out in the eleventh round. Ten years later, at the age of thirty-four, he died penniless in Ireland.