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Book Review: Sucker Punch by Jack Cashill

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Sucker Punch by Jack Cashill is not your normal Muhammad Ali story. It is less of a boxing story than a cultural analysis of Ali’s impact upon America. There is Ali the legend and there is the real Ali. Writer Joyce Carol Oates began her boxing essay, The Cruelest Sport, “Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942 grandson of slave, began boxing at the age of twelve, and by eighteen had fought 108 amateur bouts.” Nice beginning but not true. Ali’s grandparents were not slaves but born after the Civil War. Here is another irony: Clay was named after a white abolitionist firebrand named Cassius Marcellus. This is just one of many gems Cashill produces.

Cashill’s book follows up on Mark Kram’s book, Ghost of Manila which began the process of deconstructing Ali’s image. Kram’s book challenged some of the myths of Ali while portraying a more accurate picture of Ali the man and the fighter. Cashill major objection to Ali is that at a time when America needed a unifier, Ali introduced the politics of black separatism unto the political scene. The Nation of Islam was a black separatist movement and openly racist. While some reporters like Cosell considered themselves courageous for accepting Ali’s conversion to Islam, Cashill counters by noting that Ali joined the Nation of Islam, a sect not part of the mainstream Islamic movement. Unlike many, Cashill understands the difference. In reviewing the history of the Nation of Islam, Cashill finds that Elijah Muhammad spent World War II in prison for draft resistance and during the 1930s, he openly supported the Japanese cause. The Nation of Islam appeared comfortable with supporting the Axis powers and their goals. This was the religion that Ali joined.

Cashill observes Ali’s similarity to another American icon – Elvis Presley. Cashill write, “Both Elvis and Ali were inherently sweet, Southern momma’s boys, each with something of a chip on his shoulder – Ali because of race, Elvis because of class. Both achieved too much fame too soon and sought protection in their respective entourages.” Cashill continues by noting that both men were in the need of powerful mentors. For Ali, his mentor turned out to be Elijah Muhammad.

To understand Ali’s impact, one has to understand the heavyweight champion’s hold on the American public. The heavyweight champion was one of the most noted figures in all of sports. Joe Louis became the first black man who transcended the color barrier in popularity and had a large following even among the white population. Many whites rooted for Louis even against other white opponents and Louis’ popularity allowed the great champion to essentially pick his own successor when he retired. Ezzard Charles inherited Louis’ title after he defeated Jersey Joe Walcott. (Louis declared the winner of this bout as his heir). For the first time, a black fighter followed another black fighter as heavyweight champion and African-American domination of the heavyweight division took hold. With few exceptions, an African-American held the heavyweight champion over the next fifty years.

In the early ’60s, Sonny Liston defeated Floyd Patterson for the title. The symbolism of this for the black community was significant. Patterson raised himself from poverty and street crime to become champion. Patterson believed in integration and in the American dream. Liston was a thug and mob-controlled fighter. When he wasn’t breaking legs outside the ring as an enforcer, he was pounding folks in the ring. He was the ultimate killing machine, one of boxing’s most fearsome fighters–but many blacks did not want this illiterate boxer as the proper role model.

In a joint interview before the fight, Liston told Howard Cosell that he just wanted to run Patterson over like a truck. When Liston won, the thug triumphed over good. Nor was Ali given much of a chance against Liston when they fought the first time. Coming off a tough bout with Doug Jones, the young Cassius Clay was a seven to one underdog. Clay out boxed and out fought Liston. This despite a foreign substance that Liston managed to get in Clay’s eyes, which nearly forced Clay to retire from the fight. Fighting the entire fifth round nearly blind, Clay survived and then spent the sixth round pounding Liston. Liston retired in his corner following the sixth round.

After the fight, the boxing world was turned upside down, as Clay officially became a Black Muslim and the world heavyweight champion was in the hand of the black separatists. For much of America, this proved shocking. Just imagine if a white heavyweight came out and declared himself a member of the KKK or a neo-Nazi and you understand the gravity of what Ali did.

While some like Joyce Carol Oates declared that much of the opposition to Ali was due to a “conservative white press,” the reality was not that simple. Cashill writes, “The major sportswriters of the era – Jimmy Cannon, Dick Young, Jimmy Powers, Red Smith, Arthur Daley and Milton Gross – attacked the flagrantly illiberal character of the Nation.” Cannon, an early supporter of Joe Louis, declared, “Boxing has been turned into an instrument of hate … Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness in an attack on the spirit.”

What Cashill details is the decline of liberalism and its replacement by a more extreme leftist philosophy. Cashill noted, “In the mid ’60s, liberals openly defended values like God, country, and racial brotherhood and challenged those who did not.” America expanded her presence in South Vietnam under the liberal Lyndon Baines Johnson, who followed John Kennedy’s policy of bearing any price for freedom. Many of the older generation reporters reflected a more moderate liberalism and found Ali less than heroic. While many younger reporters supported Ali, their older cohorts reacted negatively. A generation schism developed between the older generation reporters and their younger colleagues that mirrored what was going on politically outside sports. Many older liberals tended to be Cold War hawks whereas a new generation of liberals were turning more sharply to the left. The party of Truman morphed into the party of McGovern.

As the ’60s moved forward, the liberal sect became more radical and many black activists abandoned Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a color-blind society. Ali’s embrace of the Nation of Islam gave credence to a black separatist movement. As for Ali, he often proved a contradiction. Despite his joining a black separatist movement, he got along with many whites on a personal basis. His trainer was Angelo Dundee and he never taunted or disrespected a white opponent. Much of his worse taunting was reserved for fellow African-Americans. Floyd Patterson, who decided to challenge Ali’s ideas, wrote pieces for Sports Illustrated on why he needed to beat Ali. The first Patterson-Ali bout resembled a jihad with Ali torturing Patterson throughout the fight. Ernie Terrell was another fighter that Ali treated with disdain. During the buildup for their fight, Terrell called Ali “Clay” and Ali decided that he would dish out the same treatment for Terrell as he did for Patterson. Throughout the fight, he would lash combinations against Terrell and then ask Terrell what his name was. Terrell was never the same fighter and there was no doubt that Ali enjoyed beating the hapless Terrell to a pulp over fifteen rounds.

The one fighter who received the worst of Ali’s treatment was Joe Frazier. Frazier supported Ali’s right to fight and even gave Ali money during Ali’s exile. Frazier felt betrayed when Ali went after him. Years later, Ali would claim it was all to build up the gate but Frazier didn’t buy it and many of his family members were harassed as well. Frazier became the representative of all that was wrong with America, and often derided as the “white man” champion.

After Ali came back from his boxing exile, his stance on Vietnam made him a hero among the antiwar movement and Ali understood that he became more than just a fighter–he was now a symbol for many people. During his period of exile, he gave lectures on college campuses, and many whites, in particular those on the left, adopted Ali cause as their own. Unlike Patterson or Terrell, Frazier had the skills to go toe to toe with Ali, and in their first match he pulled off the upset as he took a tough fifteen round decision. These two warriors would fight 41 of the most brutal rounds in Heavyweight history and their trilogy shortened both men’s careers.

Ali’s greatness as a fighter came from beating George Foreman in 1974 and his trilogy with Frazier. Before these fights, many boxing pundits ranked Ali far below other historical figures such as Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano or Jack Dempsey. But after the “Rumble in the Jungle” and the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali was viewed as something special in the ring. His fights with Foremen and Frazier became his ticket to immortality.

As the ’70s dragged on, Ali also changed his own political stripes. After the death of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam began to move toward the more mainstream Islamic faith. The Nation would split with Ali joining the moderate forces that moved away from the racist aspect of their faith. Those who followed the original separatist theories maintained the Nation name and identity. The rest, which included Elijah’s sons, forged a new faith.

In the 70’s, the anger that propelled Ali in the ring began to disappear. After the Thrilla in Manila, Ali told Frazier’s son that he was ready to bury the hatchet. Frazier’s retort was that any apologies had to be done face to face and not through a family intermediary. Ali and Frazier eventually buried the hatchet in 2002 in a face-to-face meeting. Ali’s own political philosophy evolved into a more conservative leaning one as he even voted for Republicans in the ’80s and ’90s. Ali became the man that we know and love today.

Of course, much of this went unreported and Cashill notes that many of his biographers and sport writers seemed disturbed by this tamer side of Ali. My first and only meeting with Ali occurred when he was promoting a men’s cologne in Kansas City. Ali became part of the establishment and reconciled with America. When Ali took part in the 1996 summer Olympic, there was hardly a dry eye in the house, but the symbolism was there. America accepted Ali the rebel and Ali the rebel accepted America.

Many of Ali’s opponents started to gain their due as well. Mark Kram book, Ghost of Manila, resurrected Joe Frazier’s career in the eyes of many pundits and George Foreman’s comeback in the ’90s only reinforced the solid nature of Ali’s own accomplishments in the ring. Ali fought and dominated in the deepest era of the boxing heavyweight division and no heavyweight could claim the number of victories over such high quality of opponents as Ali. Foreman, Liston, and Frazier would have been champions in any eras and fighters like Jerry Quarry, Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton or Jimmy Ellis would have been worthy contenders.

Ali’s place in boxing history is secured as one of the top two heavyweights along with Joe Louis. It is Ali the man that perplexed many Americans. Always comfortable around whites, he joined a black separatist sect. While many of his white supporters were adamant supporters of equal rights for women, Ali was a profligate womanizer and often treated women as second-class citizen early in his adult life. His support of the Viet Cong and North Vietnam mirrored Elijah Muhammad’s support of the totalitarian Axis before and during World War II.

The reason for Ali’s popularity today has less to do with his religion and more to do with his opposition to the Vietnam War. Cashill’s own research contradicts much of what was written about Ali’s struggle with the draft. There was no strong desire on the government part to put Ali in jail or turn him into a martyr. Ali was offered deals that would allow him to keep fighting and keep his championship. Cashill notes that Elijah Muhammad preferred Ali to be a martyr and many of the Nation leaders did little to aid Ali during his exile. While one can commend Ali for willing to go to jail, was it the right cause to go to jail for?

Many reporters today were young opponents of the Vietnam War and Ali’s cause became theirs. As long as history viewed Ali’s opposition as both heroic and correct, their own views were vindicated as well. Which is why much of Ali’s own changes go unreported since he has in some way repudiated his own past.

Jack Cashill’s own thesis is that Ali could have been a force for good at a critical time in American history. With racism being confronted and the Cold War at its height, Cashill contrasts Ali’s own action with that of Joe Louis. Louis joined the Army with no guarantee that he would not be sent to fight. The Army preferred to have Louis fighting exhibitions but it is here that Louis became a civil rights hero in his own right. He insisted on fighting before integrated audiences at a time when the United States military was segregated. This action made it easier for Truman to fully integrate the United States in 1947. Louis defended his country and loved it, even with all of its imperfection.

Ali chose not to fight and instead of fighting for integration, he joined a radical black separatist movement. It would be near the end of his championship reign that he rebuked the separatist side of his movement. While some have viewed Louis as an Uncle Tom, there was no doubt that he was one of the most effective agents for civil rights.

As he grew older, Ali became a part of America folklore. There were many heroic aspects of Ali’s career but there were the blemishes as well. Ali’s complexity is clouded by the political agenda of those writing the history books but even without the mythology, Ali accomplished much. He rose to the top of the sporting world and transcended his sport. Ali showed that the American dream works.
Edited: [GH]

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About Tom Donelson

  • Sonny

    Donelson knows ziltch about boxing.

  • tom donelson

    So sonny, I have written three books on boxing, member of the bwaa, so in your infinite wisdom, educate me.