The Greatest

By Gene Mahoney

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Muhammad Ali

In his new book, Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King’s Dream, Jack Cashill uncovers the real story of the much-heralded heroic rise of boxer Muhammad Ali.

Cashill discovers that Ali’s exploiters carefully crafted his hero status, and in the process, slighted other black boxers who were much more heroic than him.

Ali denigrated Joe Louis, who left boxing at the height of his career to join the army after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Cashill has claimed that this heroic act influenced President Harry Truman to sign Executive Order 9981, which banned racial segregation in the armed forces (and preceded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by sixteen years). The author believes Louis did more for civil rights than Ali ever dreamed of doing.

Anyone over 40 remembers Ali’s vicious ridiculing of Joe Frazier, who left home at 15 and built his fighter’s physique hauling carcasses around a slaughterhouse, then went on to defeat the more talented Ali for the heavyweight title through sheer grit and determination. Early in his career Frazier got hit so much that he became legally blind in his left eye; a fact he never revealed until after his retirement. Frazier was rewarded for all this by routinely being derided by the black community as an “Uncle Tom” who didn’t care about civil rights.

And don’t forget George Foreman, who emerged from a deep depression after being defeated by Ali, only to reemerge happy and fulfilled as a born-again preacher.

“For 10 years, I didn’t even make a fist,” recalled Foreman. “I didn’t box. I didn’t try to box. I was done with it.”

Foreman needed money to open a youth center in Houston so he could help wayward teens. To do so, he trained and made the greatest comeback in sports history when he reclaimed the heavyweight title at age 46.

Why Ali Dodged The Draft

As early as 1933, Nation of Islam founder Wallace Fard was predicting a war between the United States and Japan. That a hovering “Mother Plane” would launch smaller planes, which would drop poison bombs and eliminate white America. That plane was to have been designed and built in Japan.

By this time too, Fard had granted his now loyal acolyte the name Elijah Muhammad and appointed him Supreme Minister.

Fard and Muhammad did more than talk about their “Asiatic brothers.” They conspired with them, getting involved with Japanese agent Satohata Takahashi, who had burrowed into a variety of black nationalist organizations, and his protégée, Ashima Takis. In a 1933 rally transcribed by the FBI, Takis told his black audience, “You are the most oppressed people on earth. If you join the Japanese and other colored races, you will be in command of the whites.” As Karl Evanzz notes in his book on Elijah Muhammad, The Messenger, “This ideological confluence marked the beginning of the federal government’s monitoring of Muslims in America.”

Fard disappeared one step ahead of the law, so Muhammad assumed control of the Nation of Islam. Throughout the decade, Muhammad peppered nearly every speech with boasts of Japanese superiority.

“The Japanese will slaughter the white man,” Muhammad promised repeatedly. Takahashi promised each Nation of Islam follower a single-family detached home in Hawaii if they supported Japan in a war against America. The Feds listed Muhammad as a “threat to national security” and arrested Takahashi for immigration violations.

On December 7, 1941 “Allah’s Asiatic Army” bombed Pearl Harbor. In the weeks that followed, as Evanzz relates, “Muhammad and his followers reveled in newspaper accounts of Japan’s exploits.”

On September 20, 1942, federal agents found Muhammad hiding under a bed in a Washington D.C. house. A week later, Ashima Takis pled guilty to forging a money order and turned state’s evidence against the Nation of Islam. Three weeks later, a grand jury indicted Muhammad for conspiracy to commit sedition.

Among the evidence presented against Muhammad in his subsequent trial was a lecture he had delivered at the Chicago temple in August 1942. “You shouldn’t fear the devil when he tells you that you must go and fight in this war. You should refuse to fight,” he told his followers. “The newspapers are lying when they say that the Japanese are losing. We are going to win.”

Muhammad ended his three-year stay at a federal pen 53 weeks after the Second World War, which the Japanese/Nazi/Nation of Islam axis didn’t win, came to its end.

How Toni Morrison Helped Reinvent Muhammad Ali

Cashill recounts how the autobiographers of Muhammad Ali faced a problem: his middle class home, loving parents, Olympic gold, glorious hometown reception, generous white sponsors, and inevitable pink Cadillac did not make for a compelling grievance narrative. So for his 1975 autobiography and the movie that it spun off, The Greatest, Ali and his handlers had to concoct an event powerful enough to undo it all. For symbolic reasons, they focused on the Olympic gold.

Ali and Liston

In the book version, Ali and his friend Ronnie stop at a diner to escape a rainstorm. Outside waits a gang of motorcycle outlaws, wearing Nazi regalia and sporting Confederate flags. Inside, the manager tells Ali that gold medal or no gold medal, “We don’t serve no niggers.”

“This is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Ali proclaims. “You’re disgracing it with your actions.”

Ali then describes how the motorcycle gang chases him and Ronnie to a climactic showdown on the Jefferson County Bridge. Here, two of the bikers pull out their chains and attack the innocent duo. Bloody violence ensues, but the good guys prevail, and the villains retreat, begging for mercy.

The Olympic gold medal had not protected Ali from America’s racist heritage. “Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do with this cheap piece of metal and raggedy ribbon,” says Ali.

He proceeds to the highest point of the bridge and throws it in the river. The New York Times described the book as “honest” and “very convincing.” The Detroit Free Press called it “the greatest, most honest contribution to sports literature perhaps ever.”

Writes Cashill:

The motorcycle chase proved too much even for Ring Lardner Jr., the unrepentant Stalinist who wrote the screenplay for the movie, The Greatest. The defining moment in this major studio production comes instead when the young Ali innocently enters a restaurant where one of his millionaire sponsors is eating. Ali suggests he bring his black friend in as well, but the sponsor responds, “Don’t make waves.” The suddenly disillusioned Ali then proceeds to the bridge and throws the medal in. “It’s phony, gold plated, and ain’t worth a damn,” he says of the medal, but as the movie audience is led to understand, he is really speaking about the American dream.

At best, only one of these two accounts is true. Almost assuredly, neither is. Ali was still wearing his Olympic trunks with “U.S.A.” on the side when he started fighting professionally several weeks after the alleged incident. When Jack Olsen wrote his book on Ali in 1967, three years after Ali formally joined the Nation of Islam, the gold medal legend had yet to crystallize. “It was retired later,” Olsen writes casually of the medal, “some of its silver underwear exposed where months of constant wear had rubbed off the gold.”

Thomas Hauser’s comprehensive 1991 biography makes no mention of any incident involving the gold medal. Ali’s sidekick Bundini Brown would tell Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram, “Honkies sure bought into that one.” Ali’s best friend Howard Bingham admits that the story was “concocted.”

Why Ali Betrayed Malcolm X

“Turning my back on Malcolm,” says Muhammad Ali forty years after the fact, “was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life.”

Malcolm X died on February 21, 1965, four days short of the first anniversary of Ali’s surprise defeat of Sonny Liston.

Writes Cashill:

When Sonny Liston failed to answer the bell at the beginning of the seventh round, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad had something of a revelation. In a heartbeat, he decided that perhaps boxing wasn’t such an unworthy enterprise after all. Immediately after the fight, he called Ali and courted him hard.

At a press conference the day after the Liston fight, Ali announced his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and shared with the world his new name. That name makes for a good trivia question. Despite Howard Cosell’s claim to the contrary, it was not originally Muhammad Ali. It was Cassius X. The rejection of “Clay” horrified his parents, especially his father, whose name had been devalued in every sense of the word.

A day later, speaking to five thousand followers at the annual Nation of Islam convention, Elijah Muhammad joyously announced that “Clay whipped a much tougher man and came through the bout unscarred because he has accepted Muhammad as the messenger of Allah.”

This turnabout dismayed Malcolm and his wife, Betty Shabazz. Shabazz remembers all too well the denunciations of Ali before the fight, the hysteria about how he would “bring disgrace to the Nation of Islam,” and on and on. “All of a sudden,” she recalls, “they were breaking their necks, trying to get close to the heavyweight champion.”

In the Nation of Islam one would receive an “original name”—i.e. an Arabic name—only after mythic founder Master Wallace Fard returned from wherever it was he had gone. Thus, even after his years of dedicated service, Malcolm remained merely Malcolm X. But the Nation of Islam, “bendable” as it was, made an exception for an unschooled twenty-two-year-old in a “filthy” profession. On a March 6 radio broadcast from Chicago, Elijah Muhammad gave the young boxer his new name, Muhammad Ali. In fact, Elijah Muhammad used the name as bait to lure Cassius X away from his mentor, the rebellious Malcolm.

At first, the name did not exactly take. When, for instance, Ali attended a fight at Madison Square Garden soon after his name change, Harry Markson, president of the Garden’s boxing program, refused to introduce him as “Muhammad Ali.” “We’ve made so much progress in eliminating color barriers,” said Markson at the time, justifying his decision, “that it’s a pity we’re now facing such a problem, the heavyweight champion of the world preaching a hate religion.”

Cosell, that critical interpreter of the Ali myth, claims that he alone acknowledged the new name “instantly.” He adds, “I could have cared less what the public’s reaction would be towards me.” To Cosell, it made perfect sense for Ali to change his name. No “intelligent proud black in the 1960s” would want to keep a “slave name.” That Cosell changed his own name from the proudly Jewish “Cohen” to the more ambiguous “Cosell” is explained away as a historical rectification.

As Cosell and others retell the story, it was only brave and tolerant souls like themselves who accepted Ali’s turn toward Islam. In 1964, however, Ali did not embrace Islam. He embraced the Nation of Islam, a cult that preached segregation, fantasized about genocide, and horrified the serious civil rights liberals of that era, black and white. “When Cassius Clay joined the Black Muslims,” said Martin Luther King, “he became a champion of racial segregation and that is what we are fighting against.”

Why Liston Didn’t Get Up 

Ali was the heavyweight champion in 1965, but he feared a rematch with Liston, his marriage was on the rocks, and his life was in jeopardy.

Cashill writes that on February 21, the night of Malcolm’s assassination, a highly suspicious fire erupted in his apartment. Two days later, someone firebombed the Nation of Islam headquarters in New York. As Ali trained for his May rematch with Liston, he had reason to be grateful for the protection the FBI offered.

“The atmosphere surrounding the fight was ugly,” reflects sportswriter Jerry Izenberg. Rumors abounded of a retaliatory strike against Ali. There were rumors, too, of Muslim threats against Liston.

Less than two minutes into the fight, Liston slumped on to the canvas. Ali stood above Liston yelling, “Get up, you bum. No one is going to believe this.”

Liston rolled over on to his back and looked up at Ali. Celebrity ref Jersey Joe Walcott could not begin the count until Ali headed for a neutral corner, but Walcott was slow to corral him. Meanwhile, boxing historian Nat Fleischer ran down to the ring and started shouting that more than ten seconds had expired, and the fight was over. But obviously, Fleischer had no authority over Walcott. In the midst of all the confusion, Liston had gotten up and resumed fighting. Walcott stopped the fight. No wonder the crowd began chanting, “Fix, fix, fix.”

Even in replay, the knockout punch is hard to see. “I’m so fast, I even missed the punch on TV,” Ali would admit.

When asked by the California boxing commission why he did not get up, Liston replied, “Commissioner, Muhammad Ali is a crazy man.” He then made a rational case that Ali, still in center ring, could smack him down as soon as he tried to stand up. Jose Torres, who broadcast the fight for a Spanish language station in New York, makes the equally rational case that Liston feared the Muslims a good deal more than he feared Ali.

Whatever the truth is, it went to the grave with Sonny six years later.

The Unusual Men to Whom Ali Paid Homage

Maybe you saw When We Were Kings, the excellent 1996 documentary about the Ali-Foreman fight. Here’s Cashill on the prelude to that famous bout:

In September 1960, the very same month Ali won his Olympic gold in Rome, Joseph Mobutu staged a coup in the Congo and placed elected President Patrice Lumumba under house arrest. In November, Lumumba escaped but was recaptured by Mobutu’s troops. They eventually delivered him into the lethal hands of rebel leader, Moise Tshombe, with the understanding that he would be permanently removed from center stage.

Ideology fully shapes the death narrative of Patrice Lumumba. Although recent revelations have shown the Belgian to be fully complicit—and they have apologized profoundly—the international left has preferred to blame the CIA, which wasn’t. Malcolm X was among those who saw the Lumumba death as one of those infamous “chickens” that had come home to roost in JFK’s assassination.

What matters for this story is that Mobutu was as thoroughly implicated in the death of Lumumba as Elijah Muhammad was in the death of Malcolm X. To deny that involvement is to patronize the both of them. Each was capable of murder and competent enough to get away with it. Neither of them needed the help of the FBI or the CIA or the Belgians.

What Muhammad Ali did not know when he signed to fight George Foreman in Mobutu’s Zaire was just how incoherent his myth had become. At one point, Ali jokingly warned Foreman, “My African friends will put you in a pot.” His African friends were not pleased. They reminded Ali that such talk is “not in the best promotional interests of a country on the move.” The very phrase, “Rumble in the Jungle,” coined by Ali and popularized by Don King, dismayed them as well.

Ali’s hosts had much to be sensitive about. [Norman] Mailer marvels at how Mobutu and his henchmen had managed “to couple some of the oppressive aspects of communism with the most reprehensible of capitalism.” Images of Mobuto loomed as ubiquitously and as frighteningly as Stalin’s or Mao’s in their respective heydays. Among these images was a forty-foot photo of Mobutu glaring over the soccer stadium where the fight was to be held.

Mobutu also had the savvy—and the nerve—to build a monument to Patrice Lumumba in the heart of Kinshasa. If Ali ever knew Zaire’s history, he seemed content to forget it. “I wish Lumumba was here to see me,” Ali tells Leon Gast on camera, “I want to win so I can lead my people.”

“History repeats itself,” wrote Karl Marx, “first as tragedy, second as farce.” The tragedy had occurred ten years earlier when Ali paid homage to a man—Elijah Muhammad—who had encouraged the murder of one of the era’s two great black nationalist heroes, Malcolm X. The farce occurred when Ali paid homage to the man who orchestrated the murder of the second, Patrice Lumumba. One can almost forgive Ali his naïveté, but there is no excusing the shapers of his myth. They knew better.

In his autobiography, Ali innocently boasts of the murderous tyrants who embraced him. On his first trip out of the country after the Supreme Court decision, for instance, he flew to Libya where he met Libya’s strongman Muammar al-Qadaffi. Ali was seeking financing for a mosque at about the same time Qadaffi was financing the Black September attack on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Qadaffi bemoaned “American arrogance” and assured Ali that his loss to Frazier provoked “a day of mourning” in Libya. On the same trip, Ali met Uganda madman Idi Amin, a former prizefighter himself, who “laughed and flexed his muscles” for Ali. In less than a decade of rule, Amin would murder an estimated 300,000 black Ugandans and expel all 80,000 Asians, many of whose families had been in Uganda for generations.

How Ali Found God and Became A Republican

Muhammad Ali traces his hour of enlightenment to “around 1983.” It was only then that he became a “true believer.” Before this moment, he confesses to biographer Tom Hauser, “I thought I was a true believer, but I wasn’t. I fit my religion to do what I wanted. I did things that were wrong, and chased women all the time.”

“I conquered the world, and it didn’t bring me true happiness,” Ali admits. “The only true satisfaction comes from honoring and worshipping God.”

As Cashill notes:

In the retelling, the moment of self-awareness comes in the early 1960s and enlightens all that happens thereafter. Any subsequent incidents that might challenge the myth of the proud, black, independent Muslim hero are typically edited down to the nub or ignored. In 1965, of course, Ali put his still embryonic myth to the test by betraying Malcolm X. In 1984, he put his mature myth to an even more severe test when he publicly supported Ronald Reagan and even attended the Republican National Convention.

Cashill notes that this dismayed many people interviewed in Hauser’s book, and it apparently dismayed Hauser, too:

Hauser finds a useful explanation in the manipulations of an attorney and hustler named Richard Hirschfield. He makes the case, which Hirschfield denies, that Hirschfield imitated Ali’s voice in making phone calls to support a wide range of policy initiatives, most of them minor. Hauser may be right, but that still does not explain Ali’s appearance at the Republican National Convention.

Hauser leaves the vague impression that Hirschfield must have manipulated Ali into his seeming Republicanism as well, but this is a subject that Hauser and the other mythologists leave alone. How, after all, could a man with Ali’s “crystal sense of the irrationality and the cruelty of the society” now be supporting causes “harmful to the great majority of Americans”?

The answer to this question is fairly obvious. Outside the ring, his only area of true authority, Ali had long been vulnerable to the most transparent of hucksters. “Ali has always been managed by someone else,” says Wilfred Sheed, an early and insightful biographer, “and perhaps he always will be.” If not more independent, the Ali who emerged in the summer of 1984 was at least more true to himself than the earlier incarnations.

At a fourth of July celebration in Washington, for instance, Ali publicly scolded Louis Farrakhan for an ongoing series of threats and insults against Jews. “What he teaches is not at all what we believe in,” said Ali boldly. “We say he represents the time of our struggle in the dark and a time of confusion in us and we don’t want to be associated with that at all.”

The chroniclers of Ali tell his story as one of complete virtue. Cashill gives credit to Ali for not doing the same thing.###

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All contents © 2006 by Gene Mahoney