Despite the echo it received in the press –where it was described as a “punch”, a “jab”, a “swing” or “knock-out response”-, Ali’s reply did not, in fact, feel like anything like a knock-out. Donald Trump did not go down in the first, or even 5th round (as did Sonny Liston or Henry Cooper in their time). A few days later, Trump was still doing great in the polls, unscathed by the so-called “punch”1.
“Boxing was just something he did”
In his heyday, Ali’s tongue was as fast as his fists. He was a boxer who spoke. And, according to his coach, Angelo Dundee, at times, Ali even « talked too much ». Clare Lewins’s 2014 film I am Ali makes the fact crystal clear: Muhammad Ali was much more than a boxer. The point is made over and over again in the film and George Foreman, Ali’s one-time opponent who became a pastor, wraps it up neatly : « boxing was just something he did ». Muhammad Ali was a voice just as much as he was a remarkable athlete. He spoke up for causes such as the fight against segregation and the war in Vietnam2. But Ali’s voice went beyond political statement. It had a dimension Clare Lewins managed to capture in her film.
The film relies quite heavily on a series of tapes handed down to Lewin by Maryum and Hana Ali, 2 of the boxing champion’s 9 children. We learn that Ali taped most of his phone conversations with his children and his entourage as if to capture the fleeting moment. We hear him declare in one of these conversations that “history is so beautiful that the time we’re living it we don’t realize it”, a poignant statement that rings particularly true in retrospect given the fact Ali has spent the last 3 decades struggling with Parkinson’s disease.
A voice that has faded away
By broadcasting Ali’s auto-diary for the first time, Lewins brings back the champ’s “rich, Deep South voice” which was, indeed, “as beautiful as his Adonis physique”3. It is a voice filled with tenderness and love for his children. A voice that has unfortunately faded away as Parkinson’s disease has taken hold of his body.
By bringing this voice to the fore, Lewins’s film testifies to a deeply moving paradox: Ali is still alive yet it feels as though he is longer among us. Dundee, Gene Kilroy (his manager) and Foreman all speak of him in the past tense. The champ’s statements today –however appropriate- lack the enunciation that made them feel like the “jabs”, “swings” and “punches” he delivered in the ring. They testify to the fact that a human being doesn’t amount to the photographs we have of him/her or to the statements he/she made during his/her lifetime. A subject is a voice. I am Ali makes it painfully clear.
1 See Vanity Fair’s December 11th Cocktail Hour edition and Tina Nguyen’s article in which she quoted a recent Bloomberg poll that showed 2/3rds of Republicans supported the proposed ban:
http://www.vanityfair.com 1 Ali was drafted in 1967 but his refusal to enlist led the New York State Athletic Commission to suspend his boxing license and the World Boxing Association to strip him of his title 1 David Jones in the Daily Mail.