The myth of Muhammad

The reality of the 20th century's most famous athlete is inspiring enough. Why turn him into a theology?

By Gary Kamiya

Published October 4, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

He was the most beautiful athlete of his time. If the essence of 20th-century sports had to be captured in a single image, like the discus thrower eternally frozen on a Grecian urn, that image would have to be of Muhammad Ali, his big, smooth copper-colored body uncoiling as he came off the ropes against George Foreman, or traded mighty blows with the great Joe Frazier.

No other competitor  not Jackie Robinson, not Babe Ruth, not Joe Montana, not Jim Thorpe, not Jesse Owens, not Gale Sayers  has ever transcended sport the way that Ali did. Through his unsurpassed physical skills, his invincible bravado, his vast, enigmatic personality and his dauntless courage (a courage manifested first in, then out of, the ring), Ali became, and remains, an uncanny Everyman, a symbol of triumphant, defeated, unbowed humanity. To this day, he is the most famous man in the world, and perhaps the most beloved.

To watch Muhammad Ali fight was to witness a savage and unforgettable grace. No one had ever seen anyone that big move that fast; no one had ever seen anyone that graceful hurt other people so badly. Fighting Ali was like being forced to glide across the floor with Gene Kelly in a murderous duet; a single deviation from the beat, a hundredth of a second's pause coming out of a liquid twirl, and a baseball bat would explode against your head.

Partly, it was a race thing: Jackie Robinson had smashed the color barrier, but Ali smashed the honky-shuffle barrier; he brought the smooth improvisational sexuality of black dance, the hellbent virtuosity of a bop tenor solo, to the ring. Stanley Crouch describes Ali as "the black schoolboy with plenty of eloquent sass for the stuffy white teacher," who "broke their rules and replaced them with his own  not out of ignorance, but out of knowledge". That knowledge untethered Ali, let him cruise and glide around his earthbound opponents like a leering bumblebee, hands hanging heretically at his sides, eyes open comically wide; it let him metamorphose from shimmering cloud into merciless buzz-saw, and back again, in the blink of an eye. Ali brought an exultant, swaggering style to his work, and sports in America would never be the same again.

Neither would race relations. It wasn't just that Ali dared to tweak whitey -- it was more interesting than that. Like most things about him, Ali's version of Black Power was complex and sometimes contradictory, but there were two things about it that set it apart: it left room for white people to be part of the human comedy, and it was embraced by a winner. As a Black Muslim who could playfully tug at Howard Cosell's rug and who seemed, beneath it all, bemused at everything, including his own strident rhetoric, Ali represented something that went beyond rage and separatism. And as an outsider, a rebel who always won with supreme style in the most dangerous of contests, he was a hero for anyone who, for whatever reason, marched to a different drummer.

The night of one of Ali's great fights  I can't remember if it was Foreman or Frazier II  I was living on Pine Street, in a mixed neighborhood in between San Francisco's rich white Pacific Heights neighborhood and its poor black Western Addition. Like everyone else, I was listening to the fight on the radio. When Ali won, I opened the window to shout with joy. As I leaned out, my call was answered by dozens of others, whoops of mad exultation soaring through the streets, an echoing chorus of black people and white people, brown people and yellow people alike screaming "Yes! We did it! We kicked their ass!" We couldn't have said who "they" were. Maybe it was the man, the powers that be, Mr. Charley, the straights who pointed their plastic finger at freaks like me. But more likely it was a different foe. It was everything that stood and stands on our backs from the start until the finish, old man gravity, old man never-win, old man fate. We howled and cried because Ali, aging now and so human like us, had faced that steam engine down, planted our flag on that mountain, high up where you could see it wave.

Ali was impossible to sum up, a combination of prophet and buffoon. He was one of the greatest performers, in every sense of the word, anyone ever saw. But just who the man behind the mask was was never clear: one sensed he didn't entirely know himself. Since his retirement, Ali, now slowed by Parkinson's Disease, has become a kind of ambassador to the world  a role epitomized by his inspirational appearance at the flame-lighting ceremonies of this year's Olympics. What Crouch presciently wrote 17 years ago is even more true today: "In the religion of particular Africans there exists the Orisha, the homemade god who is given celestial powers by the will and ritual of the people. The god is usually a community hero who has passed on and is given accouterments necessary to create miracles for humanity. Ali is an Orisha now."

Playing with the idea of turning men into gods is OK, but it isn't something you want to take too seriously. The problem with Davis Miller's ambitious but hopelessly mawkish new book, "The Tao of Muhammad Ali," is that Miller appears to actually believe that Ali IS some sort of demiurge, or cosmic force, or emissary from the seat of all that is holy, Taoist and Zenlike. In fact, as we read on we realize that Miller is much too intelligent to completely believe this  but that makes things even worse. For Ali-as-Tao is really a highblown device that Davis uses to frame and explore his own life  a life that begins to feel increasingly manipulated for heartwarming effect.

There's nothing wrong with Miller writing about himself, of course, and it isn't even that he isn't a good enough writer to pull it off. Miller's descriptive prose can be spare and vivid, and he knows how to structure the events of his tale to heighten their dramatic effect. Indeed, he knows how to do that only too well: he makes his own life so dramatic, fills it with so many revelations and transformations and something-inside-me-that-had-been-closed-for-years-opened-ups, that it begins to feel oddly artificial, even during his most honest-sounding confessions. One senses Miller milking every event and emotion for maximum "writerly" effect, twisting and shaping his material to make it a better story. All writers do this, of course, but Miller all too frequently crosses that invisible line that separates pathos from bathos.

Davis' book began as a Pulitzer-nominated magazine piece, "The Zen of Muhammad Ali," and unfortunately it grew from there. The riff that was heartbreaking at 6,000 words becomes lugubrious at 90,000: emotional epiphanies, left out too long, curdle until they begin to smell unmistakeably "inspirational." Miller seems to be a thoroughly decent fellow, and you really want to like this book, but after a while you begin to feel like that guy in the beer ad is braying "I love you, man!" in your ear  and you suspect that, while he may truly love you and want to explore the meaning of life, he also has one eye on your Budweiser.

This impression is not alleviated by Miller's unfortunate decision to use the progress of his freelance writing career, a subject of extremely limited interest, as one of his book's narrative hooks. As a general rule, writers should never, ever write about their struggle to become a writer  it's a little too much like videotaping yourself masturbating. But Miller takes it one treacly step further: In an icky postmodern twist, the publication of "The Tao of Muhammad Ali" is the point of "The Tao of Muhammad Ali." After sharing with us the banal woes of his years of freelance strivings, Miller reveals that, ta-da, he has made it  and the proof is in your hand!

So what does Muhammad Ali have to do with all this? Everything and nothing  which about sums up the Taoist wisdom one can glean from this book. (Unless one is fond of such low-grade bits of spiritual insight as "One thing for sure  interconnectedness ain't all smiley, smiley, let's come together, drink a Coke, pet a puppy, and sing Barry Manilow songs.") Miller was a skinny, put-upon kid who idolized Ali and became a martial arts expert. When he grew up, he introduced himself to and became friends with his idol. And Ali keeps popping up throughout the book, at every significant juncture of Miller's life. These scenes with Ali, particularly the first time Miller meets the great man, are the most interesting, quirky and best-written in the book. Ali comes across vividly as a funny, warm-hearted, remarkably charismatic man who loves children, has renounced hatred and has attained some admirable peace with his life.

But that isn't enough for Miller: when he reflects and "writes" (as opposed to reports), his idol magically becomes an Orisha (slightly out of focus, but maybe that's Taoism), an inscrutable life-force. The root of the problem may simply be that Miller seems never to have progressed beyond awe at knowing Ali. This humility is sweet, but it also makes you question his capacity to render an accurate judgment. By about the tenth time Miller has a Big Question and  guess who?  Ali somehow has the answer for it, you feel like you're in a cloud bank that has collided with a mist.

In his magazine pieces on Ali, Miller performed a valuable service by pointing out that Ali in retirement was not the pathetic, tragic figure he had been portrayed by most of the media. His acute, empathetic portrait was a vital guide to one of the century's most interesting figures. But he should have left it at that. It's time for Miller to get off the Ali beat. By blowing his hero up into a vaguely portentous, almost mythical character, Miller succeeds only in sentimentalizing him  and with him, his own life. They both deserve better.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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