The Lost Legacy of Muhammad Ali. By Thomas Hauser. Sport Classic Books, 2005
Reviewed by Brett Conway FROM MAX BOXING
In the spring of 1976, having just won a close decision over Jimmy Young, the aging heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali, appeared on the PBS show Face the Nation. In this interview, Ali spoke of his charities, of his management team, of his businesses, and of his dreams for himself and blacks in America and the world. He spoke about making a certain amount of money and expressed plans to use it to fight social injustice. This Ali, interviewed by respected journalists and being watched by a crowd who may often forego prizefights, was not the Ali of the 1960s, defying the established order; instead he was asserting a wish to become an establishment of his own.
Ali, the establishment, is the focus of Thomas Hauser’s book The Lost Legacy of Muhammad Ali. This book, published as a “companion volume” to his biography Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, argues that Ali’s persona is not just a face we see on television commercials and not just a guy selling the rights to his name for $50 million as he has recently done – rather he has endured a “deliberate distortion” that has twisted what Hauser refers to as “the legacy”, the one borne out of Ali’s fighting the American establishment when as a young Muslim he refused to go to Vietnam in the 1960s.
A small book compared to the girth of the biography of 1990, it contains over twenty black and white photographs and five sections of essays – reasons for the book, essays from previous publications, personal memories of the author’s time with Ali, a lengthy section of quotations from others about Ali’s legacy, and the final essay, “the Lost Legacy of Muhammad Ali,” the heart of the book. This book, like Hauser’s other boxing writings, contains much analysis and information. Hauser focuses on Ali’s influence not just out of the ring but also in it, as well as the sporting world beyond the ring. He reminds us that Ali defended the title ten times in thirty-seven months against mostly top-notch competition, quotes a 1965 New York Herald Tribune editorial saying although Ali is the new champion, he – a Muslim -- is a disgrace, and that Joe Namath was making the unheard of sum of $427 000 over ten years only a few years before Ali and Frazier earned two-and-a-half million each for just over an hours work, and the dark side of Ali’s early involvement in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. Some essays well worth reading are Hauser’s corrective to Mark Kram’s mean-spirited Ghosts of Manilla and “Muhammad Ali and Congress Remembered” -- a reminder of how controversial Ali was in the 1960s through a liberal dose of quotations from some not so liberal congressmen of the time – all of whom called Ali, Clay.
These essays are meant to show that Ali was not always the corporate name we recognize today; he was an American rebel having the perch of the heavyweight championship from which to preach about social injustice, the Nation of Islam, and the evils of racism. It seems Hauser has opened a discussion about Ali worth having. As Ali has become more and more beloved by around the world, appearing in television commercials from America to South Korea and keeping a reputation alive not as a boxer but as a humanitarian, many have forgotten how vilified he was in the 1960s. Ali, for his part, has not done much to change this ignorance. He has become leery to speak out against injustice for fear of hurting his stock portfolio. He has become part of the establishment.
But how much was Ali ever willing to speak out for others? During his boxing career, the biggest risk Ali took that did not involve receiving punches was his stand against Vietnam. This stance took away the easy time he would surely have had there, working to increase morale rather than the body count, much as Joe Louis did in World War II. But we must remember the risk Ali took by not going to Vietnam had as much – and probably more -- to do with self-interest than with protecting others from the grip of conscription. Thus, when we hear that Ali is being distorted, we have to ask who is doing the distorting? Is it Ali, his handlers, or us? We also have to ask was this “rebel” Ali the “true” Ali or the Ali we all wanted him to be? We wish to see the Ali that stood up to the government reaching out to pull others to the quagmire of Vietnam. But this is never what Ali was. Rather, Ali is a human on the public stage onto whom we can project our wishes and dreams and aspirations and whom we have turned into some kind of idea or ideal. As he used to say, “we only see what our eyes allow us to see.” Granted, we can look to Ali as a paradigm but also realize that as this book argues, there is a lost legacy of Ali, a legacy maybe some of us hoped for – that he would give up all for social justice – but that never existed in the first place. When ascribing a legacy to an enigma like Ali, we must be cautious, and remember this boxer, like all human beings, does have feet of clay.