Saturday, June 4, 2016
Black Swagger Extinguished
When I was a little boy around 10 years old, I remember Mike Tyson knocking out Frank Bruno in the 3rd round of their heavyweight title fight. The pure power on display on March 16th, 1996 seemed to sear the sport into my permanent conscience. I don't remember much about the fight, but I do remember Bruno being totally out matched. My memory seems to tell me that Bruno was beat before the fight even started. (As I got older, I learned that that was what Tyson was best at.) Now at the time, I didn't know much about boxing, but I knew two things about Mike Tyson; I knew he was a boxer, an exceptional one, and I knew, somehow, that Tyson was "tough."
It wasn't because I had this knowledge of the inherent "toughness" that being the world heavyweight champion "magically" endows it's holder with, but in my young mind, the name "Mike Tyson" somehow seemed to be synonymous with something fearful. Something not quite as sinister as hearing the name Lucifer invoked, but I knew "Mike Tyson" meant "rugged" or "hard". I knew rappers would use his name in their lyrics, likening themselves to Tyson's strength and prowess. That night in 1996, I thought I was watching the world's greatest boxer ever by the way my uncles and male older cousins were cheering and hollering. They used colorful language that I wasn't allowed and eagerly exchanged high-fives. I don't quite recall which uncle or older cousin that said it, but something to the effect of, "I'm telling you, Tyson's the baddest motherfucker ever to do it", was yelled out. And almost instantaneously it was rebutted by another family member who exclaimed, "Na, young blood. He good but he ain't Ali." (Later that year, I watched Ali light the Olympic flame in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. This was my first time seeing Ali live on television.)
Over the next twenty years of my life, a sort of obsession with the sport, more so an obsession with one of the sport's chief figures, Muhammad Ali, began. I have always said there is ONE reason, ONLY ONE, someone of my race should want to travel backwards in time. The opportunity, no, the PRIVILEGE of seeing Muhammad Ali fight in his prime. I've soaked up nearly every documentary, watched every dramatic retailing, read books, and articles chronicling the details of Ali's life and career. A few reading this will remember Ali signing a deal with the clothing line FUBU to be the new face of their "Platinum" line, after their "Fat Albert" collection ended. I'd save up from various jobs and use my earnings to buy shirts and jeans embossed with Ali's likeness and memorable quotes. From the moment I was old enough to truly comprehend the breath of his career, Ali has been without question or equal, my favorite athlete of all time. Mind you the man's last athletic endeavor took place over 5 years BEFORE I was ever born. One could reasonably argue that Ali's last great fight took place even earlier, in 1975. Ali's in-ring skill alone could warrant praise, but the fact that a young boy who had never and would never see him perform, could anoint Ali as his favorite athlete speaks to the sheer force of personality that was Muhammad Ali.
It wasn't his footwork, his hand speed, his punching accuracy, or his toughness as a fighter that endured with me. Rather his fearless and uncompromising persona. Ali's gift of tongue inexplicably surpassed even his enviable godlike skills in the ring. It was his confidence. His braggadocious nature during the time in which he spent the prime of his life that I've admired most. Spending time in Mississippi I have always been uniquely aware to this country's history as it relates to racism, so for me, one of the more fascinating aspects of Ali was that he survived. It continues to be bewildering just how the hell he made it out of 1960s America. Martin Luther King Jr didn't. Medgar Evers didn't. Even Ali's former mentor, Malcolm X was met with a violent end before the decade's end, but Ali survived.
In an age where it could literally be in one's best PHYSICAL interest to be quiet, Ali wasn't. Ali never wavered in his faith and his personal convictions. Ali risked prison, sacrificed years of his athletic prime, as well as untold millions, in protest of the Vietnam War. He spoke openly about the hypocrisy of America. While America was championing war abroad to "free" people from the "tyrannical rule of communism", it feverishly worked to deny basic civil rights for millions of African-Americans here at home. Ali's bravery standing up and speaking his mind, despite the personal cost, is only NOW universally admired. For awhile, I always wondered why we hadn't seen a derivative athlete to Ali. Beside Ali's luck of being born during the golden age of the sport and the heavyweight division, and working to become the best of those titans, I've come to understand that it was the unique circumstances of 1960s America itself, more than anything else, that helped cultivate Ali. No athlete is Ali, because no athlete needs to be Ali.
Gone are the overt racist obstacles that Ali had to navigate in his day-to-day life. The blatant systems of control and oppression pressing on the necks of millions of Blacks have long been eradicated. The death of that America meant the death of those athletes. Racism is a much more complex beast in 2016. Equally as adversarial as its predecessor, just more hidden. It couldn't be denied in the 1960s that something was twisted with this country's logic of democracy when it was granting rights to only its white citizens. Even your wealth and status as a rich and famous athlete couldn't shield you from the dangers you faced if your skin were a few shades too dark. In 2016, money can create this fraudulent cocoon of security that most athletes of color lean on. There's no personal stakes for you if you're a rich athlete. To speak out now would be to speak up for people that aren't you or your family. To speak out now would be speaking out against forces that you, yourself don't face. Where Ali faced an almost moral and social responsibility to speak out, it can seem like a bothersome inconvenience or option to do so today.
Ali wasn't perfect. No man is. He wasn't the most faithful husband nor was he winning any awards for his dedication to fatherhood. However to me, his greatest sin was the way he taunted and mocked his rival Joe Frazier. Frazier, rightfully so, was hurt, angered, and confused as to why Ali continuously leveled him with horrendous racial epithets. Often comparing Frazier to a gorilla, questioning Frazier's "Blackness", or worse of all, outright calling Frazier an "Uncle Tom". That's a charge worthy of coming to physical blows in today's Black America, but in 1960s Black America, it was damn near worth killing it's accuser.
Those indiscretions not withstanding, the man lived an amazing life. The unanimous outpouring of respect and love for Ali goes to show the massive impact his life had not only in this country, but around the world. Ali has been this bright beacon of Black pride and confidence for young Blacks to look upon for over 50 years. While I was never lucky enough to meet him, I was smart enough to learn about him and get to know him as much as one could from a distance. I'm sadden that Parkinson's robbed THAT man of all the wonderful gifts that made him so special. His motor skills, his speech. It almost doesn't seem fair. But yet, I'm thankful that the world had him, because if man were to tell the story of boxing, of sports, of Black America or just America in general, you can't tell it without mentioning Muhammad Ali.