Truth, Justice, and Muhammad Ali
An American icon reminds us to take the high road
Superman burst onto the pop scene in the spring of 1938 with the first issue of Action Comics. Despite the unnerving connection to Nietzsche’s Übermensche and the altogether loaded idea that among us eventually will walk our superiors, the image of Superman quickly became the image of the quintessential American male: a six-foot plus study in athletic prowess and heroism; a handsome man, a humble man, an Anglo-Saxon Protestant. When World War II broke out the next year, his mission expanded beyond fighting crime in the U.S. and into the European theater where he single-handedly defeated dictators and tossed tanks around. In 1940 he appeared in the Sahara desert to face down Arab assassins.
Superman represented truth, justice, and the American way and vanquished villains from here, there, and outer space. And then, in the spring of 1978, after a forty year reign, a Muslim beat the crap out of him.
Muhammad Ali was anything but an American hero in the 1960s. An Olympic gold medalist written off as a chest-puffing braggart, the man born Cassius Marcellus Clay flaunted a fluttery fighting style that was as much an affront to the time-honored fundamentals of the sport as his poetry was to Robert Frost. Not even his world-shocking win over heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, an ex-con and a mobbed-up leg breaker, could endear him to Middle America.
Heroes should be humble, they said. Heroes should be white, they said without saying.
When he embraced the teachings of a separatist sect calling itself The Nation of Islam and insisted that all call him Muhammad Ali, things got worse. Joe Louis, whose one-round destruction of German Max Schmeling crumpled up Hitler’s übermensche nonsense and tossed it aside like Superman did those cartoon tanks, shook his head. “I’m against Black Muslims. I have always believed that every man is my brother,” Louis said. “The heavyweight champion should be the champion of all people. He has responsibilities to all people.”
Criticism like that privately stung, though Ali was destined to blaze his own path, a path without precedent and not without pitfalls. He put his freedom on the line when he refused induction into the U.S. Army, dramatically refusing to consider America’s enemies as his own. “No Vietcong ever called me nigger,” he said. He was stripped of his championship, denied a license to box and thus make a living, faced jail time, and went broke. Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, was among his critics. “I don’t want that draft dodger ever to box in my state,” he said.
The world turned. By 1975, the Vietnam War was over and the Supreme Court exonerated Ali, who was not only boxing again but had defeated another monster in George Foreman to win the heavyweight crown a second time. Ali was also moving away from the “us vs. them” paradigm into which he’d been indoctrinated and toward mainstream Islam. In October, he defeated Joe Frazier in “The Thrilla in Manila”—a fight no one would ever forget, and ennobled himself further by raising the hand of his foe. “He’s the toughest man in the world,” he said. Ali had become what Joe Louis said he should be all those years ago, “the champion of all people.” Even Governor Reagan came around. “He’s marvelous, that Ali,” he said.
But his powers were declining fast. Before Manila, his legs were already stiffening, his punches slowing. After Manila, his reflexes were shot, training camp short, and he relied on will and showmanship to win decisions. By the time “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” hit the stands, he’d lost the heavyweight crown to Leon Spinks, a novice. He barely won it back later in 1978 and then lost his last two in spectacles that were enough to make the whole world cry.
Something was happening. Ali’s famous physicality was giving way to something else, something that ran deeper than muscle and bone. Closed fists opened like flowers blooming under the warming sun, and his braggadocio became a monastic whisper. When his face eventually froze into an expressionless mask, the twinkle in his eye never quite left, and one got the feeling that behind it was the wisdom of ages. He’d surpassed that stratospheric level of fame that sends most into self-indulgent segregation from common folk, and his response was precisely the opposite, his path less traveled. “Boxing was only a way to introduce me to the world,” he said, and out he went into the world like a missionary, a former separatist preaching and practicing radical universalism.
In 1979, he offered himself as a hostage if the fifty-two held in Tehran were released back to the U.S. In 1985, he travelled to Beirut where four Americans were being held by Hezbollah; he returned empty-handed though it later came out that one hostage who reportedly escaped his captors was actually freed as a result of Ali’s intervention. In 1990, Saddam Hussein was using fifteen Americans as human shields for likely targets. Ali once again defied the American government and the mainstream media when he travelled to Iraq, requested an audience with the dictator, and returned home with all fifteen.
Underneath his suit there may have been an “S” on his chest—for Sufism.
In 2001, he spoke out strongly against the 9/11 terrorist attack and reminded America that Islam is a religion of peace. “[It] does not promote terrorism or the killing of people,” he said. “God doesn’t stand with assassins.” We’ll never know how much retaliatory violence Ali prevented simply by being Ali, though if it’s anywhere the number of those he influenced in the ring or inspired to go to mosque, then it should have earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.
Ali recognized that gravity limits even the greatest among us. At times he seemed to lament it. During a news conference to announce the comic book where Ali whups Superman, Ali said. “All I can do is fight for truth and justice. I can’t save anybody.”
He was wrong.
In 1981, a disturbed young man was on the ledge of a fire escape high up on the Miracle Mile building in Los Angeles. He’d been there for two hours hollering that he was “no good” and that the Vietcong were after him. A crowd gathered under the window, urging him to jump, and a police psychologist and a chaplain tried and failed to talk him off the ledge. Someone made a call. Four minutes later, a brown limousine pulled up and a six-foot plus study in aging athletic prowess and heroism jumped out. He looked up in the sky and then headed that way.
A minute later he was leaning out of a window nine stories up and near the ledge. “You’re my brother. I love you and I wouldn’t lie to you,” he said. “It’s really you!” said the young man. Ali got close to him, encouraged him, and listened to him for a half hour. He put his arms around him and the love, he said later, “was screaming inside of me. And I said to myself, ‘Cool, cool, stay cool. Help this brother.’” The young man started crying on his shoulder and, said Newsday,kind of folded into him. Ali then firmly and gently pulled him to safety. The two walked out and got into the limousine as the cops and the crowd—whites, blacks, and everyone in between—cheered. Ali went with him to a VA Hospital. “I’m going to put him in college and find him a job. I promised to help him with his life if he didn’t jump,” he said later. “He wants to be somebody.”
“No doubt about it,” said a police spokesman. “Ali saved that man’s life.”
And he didn’t leap over a tall building in a single bound to do it.
The real Superman took the stairs.
SPRINGS TOLEDO is the author of The Gods of War, In the Cheap Seats, Murderers’ Row, and Smokestack Lightning. His work has been featured on NPR’s Here & Now, recognized dozens of times by the Boxing Writers Association of America, and was honored in Best American Essays 2019. He was born and raised in Boston.