MUHAMMAD ALI: WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
By Sunni M. Khalid
The first anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s death also coincides roughly with the 50th anniversary of his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army – the event that allowed him to transcend sports and become a global political, cultural and spiritual icon.
Ali’s decision not to take that fateful step forward in Houston on April 28th, 1967 dramatically altered his life’s trajectory, as well as his career as a public figure and an athlete. As interesting as Ali’s lifetime of accomplishments, there’s an even more intriguing question about what he would have become, had his career not been interrupted for three-and-a-half years.
Had Ali been allowed to continue fighting, how very differently might Ali be remembered from how he is now? Would he have remained a villain to much of white America? Would he have become a lesser hero to Black America, or the world? In the case of Ali, his perception as a hero in boxing and the world may have been far different given alternate circumstances or choice.
Many boxing experts and historians regard Ali as not only the greatest heavyweight champion who has ever lived, but also the greatest boxer. Ali proclaimed himself as such during his first reign as champion, even before he defeated the feared Sonny Liston to win the title in 1964. After his return from exile, Ali burnished his credentials by recaptured the title twice, defeating the likes of George Foreman and Joe Frazier before retiring in 1981.
But Ali’s glorious career was truncated. Even Ali’s most legendary performances, like “The Fight of the Century,” “The Rumble In The Jungle,” and the “Thriller in Manila,” all took place after an athletic prime the world never got to see.
Ali emerged from exile as a different fighter than he was before exile. Physically bigger, often distracted or disinterested in training seriously, Ali became more stationary, relying more on ring smarts and determination, as opposed to overwhelming his opponents with peerless speed, reflexes and quickness.
How much better would Ali have become, if he’d been allowed to continue his career uninterrupted?
“That is the most difficult question in the world,” said Dr. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus at the University of California, who helped organize the black power protests at the 1968 Olympic Games. “Once a trajectory is set, everything changes.”
The pre-exile Ali had become virtually untouchable in the ring. The major reason for this was Ali’s footwork, his first line of defense. His legs carried him safely around the ring. Ali was rarely cornered or trapped along the ropes.
Never a heavy puncher, Ali’s rapier-like left jab punished and cut opponents. His extraordinary combination punching discombobulated foes. Clearly, Ali was on the ascendance as a fighter, in terms of his physical skills and confidence.
Ali had become so superior to his opponents that he often appeared to be toying with them. Shortly before he was knocked out by Ali in the seventh round of their March 1967 title bout, Zora Folley, the No. 1 contender at the time and a technically sound fighter, asked the champion: “Are you playing with me?”
“It’s my belief that Ali was still a work in progress as a fighter,” said Jerry Izenberg, sports writer-emeritus at the Newark Star-Ledger, who covered Ali’s career. “When he won the title, he had the skill but not the full confidence. His confidence as a fighter was even more a work in progress. When a guy reaches a goal, he looks at himself and says, ‘Look what I did.’ It gives him more confidence to become better.”
It is conceivable that, without his aborted induction into the Army, Ali would have fought at least three more times in 1967. And there was no reason to believe that he would not have maintained a regular schedule of fights for the following years. Indeed, there was no shortage of challengers to Ali at the time of his exile, like Jerry Quarry and Thad Spencer, but none were viewed at the time as serious threats to the undefeated champion.
“By that time, he wasn’t just winning fights,” said Robert Lipsyte, “he was choreographing them. We’ll never know how great he would have become. He was probably the greatest fighter of all-time. He was big. He was fast. He was a genius in the ring. If he continued to train, continued to stay motivated, in a few more years, he would have retired undefeated and gone on to do something else.”
If there was a potential threat to Ali during his first reign, it was a name that would be forever linked with “The Greatest.” Joe Frazier.
The unbeaten Frazier was ranked No. 1 by The Ring magazine at the start of Ali’s exile. There were already discussions about arranging the first Ali-Frazier bout in Japan, where Joe had won his 1964 Olympic gold medal. Yank Durham, Frazier’s manager, however, insisted on delaying a crack at Ali for at least two more years.
Given the stark contrast in styles between Ali and Frazier, there are many experts who are convinced that Frazier and his fearsome left hook would always been a difficult fight even for a pre-exile Ali. Some disagree.
“I don’t see how Frazier would have beat the pre-exile Ali,” said Robert Lipsyte, who covered Ali during the height of his career for The New York Times. “Look at what happened when they fought in ’71, it was a close fight and Ali had been off nearly four years. How could he have beaten Ali four years earlier, with less experience, against someone with a longer reach, someone who was faster and someone who moved?”
At the time of Ali’s exile, promoters made the lion’s share of the money. Fighters purses, mostly based on the live gate, were considerably smaller than they are now. Closed circuit television was still a novelty. Pay-per-view was a decade away. Promoters were increasingly looking to tap overseas markets, suddenly made accessible and attractive by satellite television.
Unpopular at home, Ali boxed exhibitions throughout Europe and the Caribbean in 1964-65. The following year, Ali defended his title overseas four times.
In November, Ali returned to the States to defend his title against the hard-punching Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in the Astrodome. Unveiling the Ali Shuffle, the champion virtually floated around the ring and knocked out Williams in the third round. It was perhaps the most mesmerizing performance of Ali’s entire career and a brief glimpse of what he may have become.
“He would have gotten better,” said Jerry Izenberg. “I think great fighters get as good as they need to be. He would have improved as long as he kept his legs,” adds Izenberg. “Back then, nobody could keep up with him.”
The sky was the limit on Ali’s fistic potential and so was his potential earning power, if not in the States, but globally. It is conceivable that Ali may have made another tour to Europe, or perhaps others to South America, Asia and the Middle East. But Ali was surrendered his passport after he was stripped of his title and banned from fighting overseas.
It is quite possible that by 1972 or 1973 – with no serious challengers around – that Ali would have retired undefeated, probably breaking Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 record as well as eclipsing the 25 successful heavyweight title defenses set by Joe Louis.
But few speculate that Ali would have retired, or, if he had, stayed retired.
“He would have had to have come back,” said Davis Miller, one of Ali’s biographers. “Man, he would have missed the ‘heat.’ Where else in the world would you rather be, where you’re basically naked before the world, where you’re in the center of the universe with the chance to be immortal?”
In the years before his death, a largely mute Ali became a global goodwill ambassador, lending his prestige to a number of causes, including promoting Islam, peace, social tolerance and ending world hunger. But before he became the world’s kindly old grandfather, Ali was perhaps one of the most politically divisive figures in modern American history.
Ali had declared his opposition to being drafted a year before he was exiled, famously telling reporters outside his home in Miami shortly after he was reclassified that “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.”
Ali’s initial opposition to the draft had less to do with his religious objections to a conflict halfway around the world and everything to do with being deprived of his right to earn a living.
“His first reaction was not that of a principled man,” according to Robert Lipsyte, who was on the scene to report Ali’s famous remarks about the Viet Cong. “He complained about why they drafted him, when he could make so much money for the government in taxing his purses. It was not until he went to speak at the college campuses speaking where he began to evolve and begin to understand what his sacrifice was about.”
At the time he was dethroned a year later, Ali was just 25-years-old. Although he had cultivated the public image of being brash, and outspoken, Ali tended to be shy and even sullen in private.
What few people remember is that immediately after he was banned, neither Ali, nor his stance, against joining the Army, was considered very popular among most Americans.
Initially, Ali did himself few favors with either, when he began a series of public speaking engagements to support himself and his new second wife, Khalilah (formerly Belinda). The champion wasn’t used to speaking in public beyond anything promoting his fights and it showed.
“He was always pretty smart about boxing,” added Lipsyte, “but he was also incredibly ignorant about the rest of the world because his mind was narrow and focused on the ring. When he first spoke on college campuses, he was terrible. He was boring. He did it for the money. He had not yet integrated his understanding of the Quran and politics. All he did at the start was throw out paragraphs from the Nation of Islam.”
The Nation of Islam was a quasi-religious cult and its black separatist message frightened many Americans. It never joined the larger anti-war movement, nor embraced the integrationist goals of the Civil Rights movement. The NOI even distanced itself from the other Black Power movement, which the NOI helped inspire.
For the first two years, Ali spoke on campuses, simply regurgitating the straight-jacketed positions of the NOI. Gradually, Ali grew more confident and spontaneous, his considerable charisma began to bridge the yawning ideological gaps with some of the more leftist elements.
At the same time, Ali became estranged from the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad suspended him from the movement for a year in 1969 for making public comments about resuming his boxing career. He leaned heavily on his second wife, Khalilah, who gave his home life structure and balance. Suddenly adrift from the movement to which he remained loyal, Ali began to evolve intellectually on his own terms.
“Without the exile, he’s a different guy,” added Dr. Harry Edwards, then a student at Cornell University and one of the founders of the Olympic Movement for Human Rights. “He spoke on virtually every college campus, he interacted face-to-face with all these white kids, Latino kids, black kids, everybody. Unlike boxing, these kids didn’t come to speak to Ali with their hands in his pockets. They came to hear him. And he came to hear them.”
Without exile from the ring, Edwards says, Ali would probably not have evolved much intellectually, if at all, beyond the NOI’s rigid doctrines.
“If he had remained fighting,” added Edwards. “The Muslims would have kept their thumb on him and he never would have been exposed to much of the outside world.”
Circumstance had thrust Ali into the role of an icon, but his choice of refusing to participate in an increasingly bloody war helped propel him into the international political and cultural stratosphere.
The easier choice for Ali, professionally, would have been to serve for two years in the Army. A deal was in place that would precluded Ali from ever seeing combat, which would have had him fight exhibitions for the troops and hold on to his title.
Ali’s manager, Herbert Muhammad, even tried to enlist Ali’s friend, football player Jim Brown, to persuade the champion to accept induction. Ali , however, remained steadfast. He was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for evading the draft.
Former Time magazine columnist Jack White said Ali would have been embraced by most Americans had he gone into the Army and emerged two years later, relatively unscathed.
“He never would have been vilified,” White says. “He would have venerated, like Joe Louis or Elvis Presley. He would have done his two-year hitch. His refusal to be inducted into the Army may have diminished him as a boxer, but his career as a human being was enhanced. Ali, without resistance to the draft, is Cassius Clay, a great boxer and maybe an all-time heavyweight champion, but not a figure of worldwide stature.”
White adds that Ali’s choice was one of a whole delicately-timed sequence of events that thrust him unto the world stage.
“In order to become the Ali of legend,” White argued, “you need resistance to the draft, his religious conversion to the Muslims, Malcolm X, Howard Cosell and The Wide World of Sports, you need the war in Vietnam and the political climate at the time, and you need Ali’s persona, that transformed him from clown to martyr. You needed all of those particular building blocks all at the same time.
“Everything about him comes out of his resistance to the draft. If he goes into the Army, nobody comes around him and he’s just another boxer. Maybe now we’d have Muhammad Ali grills instead of George Foreman grills.”
Yet, through it all, Ali seemed strangely detached from some of the tumult of his life and the impact it had on millions of others, according to some who knew him best.
“I don’t think Ali understood, initially, what his decision [to refuse induction] meant, but he was extremely committed to his faith,” said Davis Miller, who has written several books on Ali. “He used to tell me, ‘There’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand. I’m being used. I’m being used by God. I don’t know why, and it don’t matter if I know. He’s always used me.’”