Oakland, Calif. — MUHAMMAD ALI, who died Friday at the age of 74, was the greatest boxer of all time, but he was also deeply human, as full of frailty and foibles as anyone. He was physically vulnerable: Early on, doctors warned him and his camp followers that he was getting hit too much while training for his fights. He wouldn’t listen, and no one around him tried to persuade him otherwise.
Many would agree with the boxing trainer Emanuel Steward that Ali should have quit after his triumph over George Foreman in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), in 1974. Instead, he boxed for another seven years, and paid for it in the subsequent decades of physical and mental frailty. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, said that he was already suffering from brain damage when he fought his last two fights.
It seemed like the more people watched Ali, the less they understood him. Many of the writers who worshiped him — those I call the Ali Scribes — cast him as a member of the 1960s counterculture for his 1967 refusal to serve in Vietnam. In fact, he was simply following the nonviolence policy of the Nation of Islam, which he had joined a few years earlier.
Ali’s relationship with the Nation was always more complicated than the Ali Scribes realized, or wanted to admit. They saw him as a victim, saying that the Nation stole money from him. Unlike them, who dismiss Ali’s mentor and the head of the Nation, Elijah Muhammad, as a “cult racketeer” or worse, I actually interviewed some of the Nation members. They said that it was the other way around: According to Khalilah Ali, whose father was a captain in the Nation and whom I interviewed on a cold winter day in Chicago, the organization — and her father personally — gave him much more money than he gave in return. Some members of the Nation are still bitter.
Even so, Ali was generous, more perhaps than was good for him. Howard Moore Jr., a lawyer and a frequent houseguest, said that Ali’s phone would ring all day. Callers were asking him to pay their rent or loan them money, and more often than not he did, no questions asked. According to the documentary “The Don King Story,” after Ali was nearly killed in the ring by Larry Holmes in 1980, Mr. King, the promoter of the fight, cheated him out of all but $50,000 of an $8 million purse (Mr. King denies the charge).
Assistant Professor, TE