Muhammad Ali Taught Us All the Virtue of Arrogance

He represented the idea that you can be the most delusional version of yourself, and no one can stop you, as long as you win.

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Jun 7 2016, 1:17pm

Muhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston, who he had just knocked out in the first round of their 1965 title fight in Lewiston, Maine. (AP Photo/File)

Muhammad Ali is dead, and all I can think about are the violent men he told the world he wasn't afraid of.

I'm watching When We Were Kings, the 1996 documentary about the famous Don King–promoted battle between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, an African warlord, and America's obsession with old men fighting young men.

It's 1974. George Foreman is 25 years old. He's training at the presidential palace in Zaire, and the heavy bag he's hitting sounds like it's not going to make it. Foreman smashes the bag again and again—smooth, identical swings, the same spot each time, the bag starting to cave in. Foreman's face never changes. Fifteen minutes of this. When he's done, next to him, skinny men in sunglasses fold their arms and laugh, watching the bag sway, looking like a piece of fruit with a chunk bitten out of it.

I think about Ali, and I think of that moment, Foreman and the piles of pulverized human beings he left behind him, Ali knowing all this, deciding on a strategy where he'll stand in front of Foreman and get beat to ruins just like the bag, waiting, waiting.

Later in the film now. The sports broadcaster Howard Cosell has recorded a news segment. Close-up shot. No one else on screen. Cosell in his trademark ABC Sports yellow blazer, hairpiece shiny like melted candle wax. His sentences halt in strange spots, like he's relaying news of a tragedy. "The time may have come, to say goodbye, to Muhammad Ali." Behind Cosell, tree leaves move in the breeze. He speaks like a man has already died, like there's a casket just out of frame with Ali's maimed corpse inside. "Maybe he can pull off a miracle. But against George Foreman... it's hard for me to conjure with that."

George Foreman boxed like the birthday boy going after the piñata, wild and hungry and relentless. He once hit Joe Frazier so hard with a right hook that Frazier's feet came off the ground. Pause and watch what he does to Jose Roman:

Closer to the fight, Ali is in a gym, jumping rope shirtless, shouting at the ground. "HE'S SCARED TO DEATH, HE'S SCARED TO DEATH, HE'S MEETING HIS MASTER, HIS TEACHER, HIS IDOL."

Ali saw a tsunami coming and built a sandcastle.

When you watch him in the ring, it seems at moments like his movements were imprecise, arms dangling like wind chimes, exhausted, staggering, bent backward at the waist, like lifting body parts was too tiresome a task to invest in completely. But then you notice something, the other guy gets close and Ali has adjusted millimeters to one side, then the other, the other guy keeps coming, still nothing. It seems so simple! It's like trying to press the same sides of two magnets together. So simple, and yet, and yet. Ali moves backward, into the ropes, and then his course changes almost imperceptibly, a bounce or lunge, he's in the other guy's space now, he's turned a retreat into an ambush while the whole town is sleeping, and then other guy's on the ground, the fight is over, they're chanting Ali's name, and the other guy's alone in the corner trying to make out the faces of the people in front of him.

Ali was a scientist of ring dimensions, of human biology, angles and physics and punch velocities, the limits of someone's stamina, understanding when a body is starting to fail. He leaned against the ropes until Foreman went mad, and then Ali turned it on him.

In all contexts, this was his philosophy: behind podiums, or wading through mobs with microphones stuffed against his cheeks, or outdoors, before corrupt dictators, everywhere, he wanted to provoke until he exposed you as weak-willed, fraudulent, insecure, and reckless. Ali knew a certain irrefutable truth about masculinity: Make a man look agitated, make him look in the mirror and contemplate his worthiness? You already have him.

He once told Roger Ebert, "A good trainer knows a good fighter can't stand to have people talk about him bad on television."

A few days before Ali fights Foreman, Ali is hopping and shadowboxing in the middle of a long, straight road in Africa. The sun is starting to set, two cars are stopped behind him with their lights on, a dozen people are watching, standing still. Ali is breathing heavy, wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt but not a drop of sweat on his face. He's talking into the camera, but he's talking to Foreman: "Sucker you ain't nothing. You too ugly to represent us colored folks."

Foreman hit 32-year-old Muhammad Ali for eight rounds, and then Ali leaned on Foreman and whispered in Foreman's ear, "George, is that all you got?" Then Ali punched him in the face, and it was done.

Ali, to quote Mike Tyson, "was the meanest fighter of all time." He could be beaten, but when he beat you, he left you existentially devastated, like Foreman lived after Zaire, a man left to wander the earth.

You could argue that there were better fighters, but none with a better sense of their powers, none who seemed to get more diabolical satisfaction from using them. Look at Tyson, coming unraveled like he was permanently alive in the middle of a fever dream. Or Floyd Mayweather, whose methods are so joylessly calculated you could imagine him laminating copies of his ATM receipts and passing them out like prayer cards. Ali always seemed like a menace and a monk simultaneously.


Here's a moment, from some time around 1974. Ali is in a studio, on a stool in the middle of a pretend boxing ring. The audience is asking him questions. A middle-aged white woman tells him she doesn't like his arrogance. She says she's a minority in America, too, because she's from England, and she doesn't act this way.

Ali says this: "You white. You can go anywhere in this city you wanna go. You can go to town, move into neighborhoods, buy things, you can open a business downtown Chicago... and I can't, but you from England! You got some nerve to get mad at me because I'm proud, and I want to fight and be confident and get my people to be proud... We been the minority for four hundred years; you freer than me, and you're from England."

She tries to say no, but it's no use, the crowd's applause has already blown her away.

He is the idea that you can be the most delusional version of yourself, and no one can stop you, as long as you win.

Ali's great ability was to antagonize, to infuriate; proof of a man's ability to alter the tone of a moment all by himself. To make Foreman come unhinged, to reduce an audience or a nation to haters sputtering with anger, to incite something, and then stand back and watch people reveal themselves. He is the idea that you can be the most delusional version of yourself, and no one can stop you, as long as you win. He seemed driven not by impulse or rage but by a need to disrupt and embarrass. Arrogance is not toxic; it is just brilliance + a vendetta. "Arrogance" is a word used by people who've had their own smallness magnified by the presence of something large. It is hypnotizing to watch a man who has acknowledged your rules, your steadfast obedience to them, and who then tells those rules he does not care about them.

The only Ali I saw growing up was silent, fragile, a figure to wince at, thick sunglasses, someone next to him holding his arm. I only saw Real Ali when he was being used as montage fodder, a signifier of either defiance, playfulness, resilience, or victory, depending on whether I was being sold a sports drinks, life insurance, or a new ESPN network. His life was sanded down until all that remained were the theatrics and slow-motion. Biography, though, is always more complicated than montage.

His religious and political views fluctuated from radical to pragmatic to sympathetic to diplomatic. He could seem gracious and docile, sitting next to Joe Namath delivering sanitary anecdotes about fighting Joe Frazier in a cemetery if he had to. And then, surrounded by college students who called him a traitor for refusing to be drafted, he could unleash scorching, unpunctuated sermons about racial hypocrisy and the myths of patriotism.

He preached kindness but viciously degraded Joe Frazier. He claimed to be a family man but carried on affairs throughout most of his life. He said of women in 1977, "These independent women that don't have any children, they get weak and sickly. Look at [his children's nanny] Miss Elly. Fifty‐eight grandchildren, and strong as a horse. Stand up Miss Elly. Lots of babies—breast fed—that's what women need." He spoke against the races mixing. He spoke about the need for religious tolerance.

We want unambiguous superheroes, easy obituaries, stories with tidy morals. But he also said this, just after changing his name from Cassius Clay: "I don't have to be who you want me to be. I'm free to be who I want." This, for all his contradictions, all his defects, was a truth. This is why some men get only memes and others get their faces on the walls of freshman dorms. Ali was impenetrable. He was unshakable. He could hit us, he could move us, but we could never get our hands on him.

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