Hard News by Russell Brown

26

Ali

Think of the most famous and newsworthy black man who is not Barack Obama. Kanye? Jay-Z?  Steph Curry?  In the mid-1970s, Muhammad Ali was 10 times that famous, infinitely more newsworthy.

In October 1974, only three years, after live satellite transmission had become available, 880,000 New Zealanders sat down one afternoon and watched The Rumble in the Jungle, from a population of only three million. No All Black test this year is likely to attract that many viewers.

As kids, we were too young to have taken in the controversy of Ali's black nationalism and his refusal of the draft in the 1960s. We knew he used to be called Cassius Clay, but not the significance of his change of name. We understood him through Johnny Wakelin's minor hit of a tribute 'Black Superman' – almost the whitest song you could think of – and not through the Nation of Islam.

I remember watching the Foreman bout as a 12 year-old, and being confused and a little horrified as Ali backed into the ropes, covered up and let Foreman pound him. Then amazed, as it all turned out to have been a ruse. The following year, as the rematch with Joe Frazier loomed in Manila, I told a friend in the playground that Ali would win because he was smart and George Foreman had been "big and dumb".

Incredibly, Ali's bout with Frazier in 1975 was his fourth that year. He fought Chuck Wepner in March, then Ron Lyle and the Englishman Joe Bugner. Not all of these bout were televised here, but they were on the radio. I remember another kid and me being allowed to stay late in the classroom one day so we could listen to a fight on the school intercom.

The next year, Ali again had four title fights – and a ridiculous match-up with a Japanese wrestler. He announced his retirement after defeating Ken Norton in a controversial decision. And he should have kept that promise. Nothing that happen afterwards added to his legend, everything contributed to his future health problems.

By chance, on Friday night I watched Soul Power, Jeff Levy-Hinte's film about about the music festival in Kinshasa that Don King got up to accompany the Foreman fight.

 There's an anxious feel to proceedings and many of the musicians seem to be trying on for the first time the African consciousness being trumpeted by a kaftan-wearing King. The star of the film is the remarkable James Brown, who seems to handle both the adulation and the politics (BB King is less comfortable). Ali is a side character, who sometimes handles the extraordinary pressure on him by going off into his poetic flights of fancy. His politics are still present.

The next day, after the news of Ali's grave illness and then death had come through, I watched Leon Gast's remarkable film When We Were Kings, which tells a different part of the story with similar pictures. It brings home quite what a surprise and what a risk Ali's rope-a-dope seemed to everyone watching: to George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, and to a schoolkid in New Zealand.

Inevitably, much of the chatter this past day or two has been around Ali's Muslim identity – Donald Trump has tragicomically helped by hailing the man he would have deported – but some of the subtleties have been lost. When Ali joined the Nation of Islam in 1964, he joined an organisation that had as much to do with black Freemasonry as it did with what we now understand as Islam.

My measure for the impact of his Nation of Islam rhetoric in the 60s is being at a Public Enemy show in London in 1987 when Professor Griff stepped forward and said the same things (including a complex exposition of Nation of Islam theology that culminated in the conclision that "white people are wicked"). It was tense as hell in that room. I can only imagine the impact of these things being said on American national television. And yet, then, as now, there was racism to be named and condemned.

Only months after the Foreman fight, Ali turned away from the Nation of Islam, apparently tiring of the organisation's deadly internal politics, and embraced mainstream Sunni Islam. Later in his life, he studied Sufism.

All of this, of course, was lost on kids in New Zealand and all the other places he was famous. We knew only that we were seeing a star.

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