A week or two ago, as a healing balm for sports-starved people like myself during this pandemic, ESPN broadcast the last fight the artist-soon-to-be-known-as Muhammad Ali would fight under his birth name of Cassius Clay. It was his 1964 World Heavyweight Championship bout against the menacing then-champ Sonny Liston. I grew up watching boxing matches with my grandfather and uncle, hearing them narrate and act out the backstory to the epic and culturally defining fights Ali would have with Joe Frazier and other contenders of the 1970s,
Watching boxing matches with them, as was the case with other big sporting events at my grandparents’ house, was a guaranteed time to learn all that was brewing in my family and in society, beyond the event being broadcast. It was a time when generational divides would be laid bare; family members’ openly and messily wrestled with issues of politics, racism, sexism, and self expression. As early as I can remember, I was allowed to join the fray. Insults would inevitably be hurled, feelings would be hurt, but I also got to witness the incremental shifts in the older generations’ thinking. Muhammad Ali was a lightning rod for almost all of the mixed feelings my working-class, politically conservative, but in practice more socially liberal than they might care to admit, family was working through. Real life could be polarizing in the days before social media and the professional wrestling-style news media that is the norm today, but real people were allowed to swing between poles without it affecting their “brand.”
Anyhow, I’d never seen this Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight until now. I’d grown up hearing about Liston and how much of jerk he was. Even though my grandfather was leery of Ali’s political rabble-rousing and general showboating in the early ’70s, he never had a good thing to say about Sonny Liston. He thought he was a thug and cowardly threw his fight against Clay. I could hear my grandfather’s gentle voice as I watched the soon-to-be Muhammad Ali dance and playfully gesticulate while jabbing at the ogre Liston. I was only a year old when this fight took place, so I can only imagine what Grandpop might have been saying back then, but I’d watched the three epic Ali-Frazier fights at his side. Watching Cassius Clay in 1964 gave me a sense that this boxer had already been beamed in from the future to do more than dominate opposing ogres in boxing trunks. The Civil Rights movement was already underway, but Clay’s long left arm jabbed as if he was reaching for the whole Black Power trip that was still a few years away. This young boxer was already proclaiming himself The Greatest, which public figures didn’t do back then. This Clay fellow was ahead of John Lennon and his “bigger than Jesus” quote. He was paving the way for James Brown‘s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” After the fight, while the ringside announcer tried to get in a few words with the new champ, Clay told the media crowd pressing in on him to make way for his friend Sam Cooke to come through. He gave Cooke a hug and told anyone who would listen how pretty the two of them were. A change was gonna come.
So, to me, that 1964 version of Cassius Clay is an example of an artist who’s been beamed in from the future. His appearance is a precursor of a coming social upheaval. Clay/Ali was so much more than the greatest heavyweight boxer of his time, perhaps the greatest heavyweight boxer ever.
On the other hand, there’s Secretariat – or Michael Jordan, for that matter, who ESPN is also celebrating with a 10-part documentary on his last year with his legendary Chicago Bulls team. Secretariat was a horse, of course, so it goes without saying that his nearly 30-length victory in in the Belmont Stakes – the most dominating athletic performance I’ve ever seen – did not move the needle in a cultural sense, not even during Watergate. Likewise, the decidedly apolitical Jordan, was merely 30 lengths greater than any other basketball player of his era. That doesn’t take away from the greatness of Secretariat or MJ, but I don’t think their greatness instilled a culture, in a yogurt sense, that would influence the culture, in a social sense, over the coming decades, the way Ali’s greatness would.
I’m going to ask you to think about musical figures who were more than the greatest of their time, on their instrument. The Beatles, for instance, could be argued as having been beamed in from the future to blaze the trail forward. Probably James Brown, too. What about Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, or Coldplay?
I’ll give you an example of arguments one may make:
- Although I’m not a huge fan of Michael Jackson‘s solo career, I will grant that he was miles ahead of almost anyone else in the history of music. However, I put him in the Secretariat/Michael Jordan category. I am willing to be wrong.
- I’m not sure where I’d place Hendrix. I love his music and think he’s still 100 years ahead of any other guitarist on the planet, but I’m not sure if he’s in the Ali/Brown/Beatles camp of serving as a culture for cultural change or merely 30 lengths ahead of the rest of us.
Argue as we might over this silly topic, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with merely being 30 lengths ahead of the rest of the planet.