I’m not sure whether or not it’s entirely seemly to bring this up just at the moment; but I really do think that as well as honouring a heroic, courageous human being, we also need to ponder what boxing did to Mohammed Ali in the end, and has done to thousands of other fighters over the years.
I wrote this nearly ten years ago, on the occasion of Ali’s 65th birthday:
Above: a bloodied Henry Cooper battles Cassius Clay (as he then was) in 1963 (Getty images)
Muhammad Ali is 65 today and suffering from Parkinson’s disease – a cruel fate for a man once renowned for his physical and mental speed and agility. Perhaps surprisingly, the most fulsome tribute to Ali I’ve seen today is from the Daily Telegraph, which devotes five pages of its sports section to a splendidly illustrated tribute, plus part of the main paper’s leader column:
“…Who can rival him as a sporting hero? His achievement in a sport of which some disapprove was not just to knock men out. He was an artist, not a psychopath; knocked down by Henry Cooper in 1963, 40 years later he telephoned him to reminisce. Psychic presence and witty self-promotion brought him double success in the ring and as a civil rights champion.
“Ali showed moral as well as physical courage. He refused to serve in Vietnam out of religious principle, he explained, but added ‘No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger’. His career seemed at an end, yet he made an amazing comeback in 1974 in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. More recently, when asked why he thought he would have beaten Mike Tyson, Ali simply tapped his temple: he was always the cleverer fighter.
“We need heroes, and Ali really is the greatest”.
Once over the shock of the voice of the retired colonels of Tory middle England praising a black, Muslim, civil rights activist and opponent of the Vietnam war, I have to say that I don’t dissent from any of that. Ali most certainly was (and is) a brave, generous and thoroughly admirable human being.
But the “sport” at which he excelled (and that may also be responsible for his Parkinson’s) is a foul business. I don’t think it should be called a “sport” at all: the object of boxing, unlike any other sport (including dangerous sports), is to render the opponent unconscious by repeated blows to the head and body. Since 1945 there have been 361 deaths in the ring, and the number of boxers reduced to shambling, punch-drunk wrecks by brain damage is uncounted. That’s not to mention permanent eye damage (up to and including blindness), ruptured eardrums, broken noses and jaws, smashed teeth, the famous ‘cauliflower ear’ and renal damage.
It has long amazed me that so few liberals and lefties seem at all concerned about boxing, and some even support it. The main reason for this is, I suspect, because boxing is traditionally a proletarian “sport” and a way for poor young men (often black or from other ethnic minorities) to achieve something in life. But that’s exactly the reason that socialists should oppose boxing: we want a society where that sort of barbarism simply isn’t required as a way to escape poverty, prejudice and lack of opportunity.
One of the few socialists to write extensively opposing boxing was the American Trotskyist James P. Cannon. Commenting on the death of 20-year-old Georgie Flores in the ring at Madison Square Garden, he wrote:
“It is a commentary on the times and the social environment out of which the boxing business rises like a poisonous flower from the dunghill, that nobody came forward with the simple demand to outlaw prize fighting, as it was outlawed in most states of this country up till the turn of the century. Cock-fighting is illegal; it is considered inhumane to put a couple of roosters in a pit and incite them to spur each other until one of them keels over. It is also against the law to put bulldogs into the pit to fight for a side bet. But our civilisation – which is on the march to be sure – has not yet advanced to the point where law and public opinion forbid men, who have nothing against each other, to fight for money and the amusement of paying spectators. Such spectacles are part of our highly touted way of life”.