Part 1: True Strength in a Man

Part 2: True Strength in a Man

Part 3: True Strength in a Man


Part 2 of Aesthetic Realism Seminar:
True Strength in a Man
with a discussion about Muhammad Ali

   As a boxer, Muhammad Ali affected people greatly, and I feel that Eli Siegel explains why in his 1949 lecture, "Poetry and Strength."  Speaking of another great fighter whom Ali admired, Joe Louis, Mr. Siegel says: 
Strength is an aesthetic term, really .... One of the things that made Joe Louis strong was the fact that not only did he have a punch, but he had a style with that punch.  It was the way he whirled, not only the way he hit.
     Ali had style with punch.  His noted self-description, "I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee," moved people.  He was refreshingly new to a sport known primarily for its grimness and brutality.  He said: 
When I first came into boxing ... fighters were not supposed to be human and intelligent.  Just brutes that exist to entertain and satisfy a crowd's thirst for blood.
    Ali, as a fighter, was human and intelligent, but, just as I described in myself last week, he had another notion of what would make him strong which was based on contempt "the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it." He felt, at times, that he had a right to punish his opponents in the ring.  He was criticized for how he was brutal with both Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell, extending their fights, punishing them because he felt that as blacks they had been meek about the race issue and were being used by white people.  He was right to be critical, but he made these fighters' feelings unreal in his mind. Ali felt bad about this and tried to apologize to Patterson. This showed how deeply ethics was working in him, and comments on the importance of the question Mr. Siegel asked me in the earlier discussion, "Do you think you would feel bad if you felt you had a bad effect on anyone?" 

   I have seen that boxing as a sport can appeal to contempt in a person.  Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World, an Explanation of Aesthetic Realism, about the fake strength people can go for.  He says: 

When a human being rebels against anything, there is anger in him; but he would like very much to change the anger into contempt.  It is like a prizefighter summoning up his combative strength to defeat an opponent; but should he find the opponent lying on the floor with the referee counting over him, the prizefighter's purpose has been successful: he can now have the repose of contempt. Anger has pain in it, but contempt is inward bliss; repose; some quietude.
    This, I feel, is why Ali, with all the glory and success he had, was not at peace with himself about fighting.  He said at one point: "True, fighting was all that I had ever done, but there was something in me that rebelled against it." He was troubled that he didn't have friendships with opponents, especially with Joe Frazier.  He hoped that together they could use their popularity to work for justice to black people, but he said their rivalry prevented this.  He once said: 
I always try to build up immunity to my opponent's personality, at least until I defeat him. I create a special personality for him and invent, if I have to, motives for my attacks.
    Ali would give his opponents nicknames, say they represented evil, but the best thing in him and I admire it very much objected.  Prior to his first fight with Jerry Quarry, he met Quarry's young son and tells movingly of his thoughts: 
Can I pretend hatred for a father whose little boy takes my hand in his, holds the fist that may smash his father's face or limit his father's future or ruin his reputation? ... Then, I dream of Quarry and his son that night, and I wake up in a sweat.
    The press hurt Ali's life. They were vicious and cruel, tried to make fun of him, and said his religious feeling was fake, which was untrue.  Later, seeing his power, they praised him for his victories, his jokes, but not for his true feeling for people, his desire to be self-critical. 

   As a member of the sports press in the late 60's, I regret being a part of news conferences in which press people were thirsty for what we could get from Ali a funny or demeaning quote about an opponent. We wanted to be superior to him and tried to mock his thoughtfulness, his feeling about justice.  And Ali for all his charm, his humor and seeming braggadocio was weakened by the press; he did not know how to protect himself from them as he did in the ring. 

True Strength Is the Same as Justice

In 1960, at the age of 18, Ali still known as Cassius Clay won the Heavyweight title for the U.S. at the Olympics in Rome.  But returning to Louisville, he was refused service in a restaurant because he was black. Disillusioned, he threw his Olympic medal in a river. He didn't know why he did it, saying about the medal: "I worshipped it .... It was proof of performance, status ... a symbol of being part of a team, a country and a world." But he said, "I wanted something that meant a lot more than that." 
Sonny Liston and Muhammad AliTurning professional and calling himself "the greatest" and exciting fans by predicting in what round his opponents would lose, Ali moved to a title shot against champion Sonny Liston in 1964. But shortly before the fight, he was introduced to the Islamic religion.  In Definitions and Comment: Being a Description of the World, Eli Siegel defines religion as "the attitude one has towards what one sees as the biggest or most powerful thing in the world." While I am not commenting on the Islamic faith, from what I have read, Islam is for the submitting of oneself with humility to the power of God.  Ali, I feel, wanted to care for something large and good outside of himself. And I also think he may have been afraid of what winning the championship might do to his ego how it might weaken him and he wanted opposition to it. 

   But when it became known by the promoters of the fight with Liston that Clay had converted to Islam, they threatened to cancel the fight if he did not renounce his religion. There was intense pressure.  Even some of his closest associates advised him to give in. But he refused, saying with strength and conviction that his care for the teachings of Islam was more important than the title. The promoters, who had heavily invested in the fight, were furious, but finally had to back off. The fight went on, and he won the heavyweight title in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. 

  For Part 3, conclusion, click here

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