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Editor’s note: In his eye-opening new book, “Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King’s Dream,” Jack Cashill un-tells what may be the most mis-told story of the late 20th century – the heroic rise of boxer Muhammad Ali. This re-telling sheds bright new light on some slighted boxing greats like Joe Louis, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, and reveals the surprising role that Christianity has played in the sports culture. Today, we cover part 3 in this special 10-part series.
While watching Oprah grill fraudulent author Jamie Frey, I thought of one major story that Oprah has yet to discover. In fact, I even called the show to volunteer my services. I am still waiting to hear back about the subject at hand: the autobiography of Muhammad Ali.
The autobiographers of Muhammad Ali faced a problem: his middle class home, loving parents, Olympic gold, glorious hometown reception, generous white sponsors, and inevitable pink Cadillac did not make for a compelling grievance narrative. So for his 1975 autobiography and the movie that it spun off, “The Greatest,” Ali and his handlers had to concoct an event powerful enough to undo it all. For symbolic reasons, they focused on the Olympic gold.
The book offers the most extravagant account. In this version, Ali and his friend Ronnie stop at a diner to duck an impending rainstorm. Outside waits a gang of motorcycle outlaws, resplendent in Nazi regalia and Confederate flags. Inside, the manager tells Ali that gold medal or no gold medal, “We don’t serve no niggers.”
Ali rises to the occasion. “This is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave,” he tells the patron and his sheepish clientele. “You’re disgracing it with your actions.”
For page after preposterous page, Ali describes in heart-pounding detail how the motorcycle gang chases him and Ronnie to a climactic showdown on the Jefferson County Bridge. Here, two of the gangbangers, “Frog” and “Kentucky Slim,” pull out their chains and attack the innocent duo. After a violent, bloody encounter, the good guys prevail, and the evildoers slink away, begging for mercy.
The Olympic gold medal had purchased Ali no refuge from America’s racist heritage. It could not even secure him a meal at a local diner. “Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do with this cheap piece of metal and raggedy ribbon,” says Ali.
He proceeds to the highest point of the bridge, and presumably the deepest point of the river, and throws it in. The New York Times, by the way, described the book as “honest” and “very convincing.” The Detroit Free Press called it “the greatest, most honest contribution to sports literature perhaps ever.”
The motorcycle chase proved too much even for Ring Lardner Jr., the unrepentant Stalinist who wrote the screenplay for the movie, “The Greatest.” The defining moment in this major studio production comes instead when the young Ali innocently enters a restaurant where one of his millionaire sponsors is eating. Ali suggests he bring his black friend in as well, but the sponsor responds, “Don’t make waves.” The suddenly disillusioned Ali then proceeds to the bridge and throws the medal in. “It’s phony, gold plated, and ain’t worth a damn,” he says of the medal, but as the movie audience is led to understand, he is really speaking about the American dream.
At best, only one of these two accounts is true. Almost assuredly, neither is. Ali was still wearing his Olympic trunks with “U.S.A.” on the side when he started fighting professionally several weeks after the alleged incident. When Jack Olsen wrote his book on Ali in 1967, three years after Ali formally joined the Nation of Islam, the gold medal legend had yet to crystallize. “It was retired later,” Olsen writes casually of the medal, “some of its silver underwear exposed where months of constant wear had rubbed off the gold.”
Thomas Hauser’s comprehensive 1991 biography makes no mention of any incident involving the gold medal. Ali’s sidekick Bundini Brown would tell Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram, “Honkies sure bought into that one.” Ali’s best friend Howard Bingham admits that the story was “concocted.”
The breakdown in accountability begins at the top. Random House editor-in-chief James Silberman tells Hauser that he often had to rely on the uncorroborated testimony of Ali or his manager, Herbert Muhammad, and so parts of the book may or may not be true. He consoles himself, however, with the nonsense that “if you check Winston Churchill’s version of history, you’d find it somewhat at odds with other versions by historians.” Historian Thomas Hietala meanwhile flirts with parody in his indulgence of the book’s obvious fraud. “While inaccurate in detail,” he writes of Ali’s rumble with the motorcycle gang, “the story was metaphorically true.”
When sportswriter Kram asked Ali about the medal years later, Ali just shrugged and said, “Who remembers?” In his revealing book, “Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties.” Mike Marqusee surely remembers. “It was because of the gap between Olympic ideals and American realities,” Marqusee writes on the book’s second page, “that … Cassius Clay had flung his gold medal into the Ohio River.” The Anglo-American Marqusee is a serious writer. Much of the reporting he does in the book is sober, solid and sometimes highly critical of both Ali and the Nation of Islam.
Although the Nation of Islam is by almost any definition a rightwing organization, its angry deconstruction of the American ideal played into leftist and even Soviet hands. Ali, in fact, would become well known throughout the Eastern bloc. The Soviet journal Pravda reported extensively on what on it called “the campaign of persecution against Muhammad Ali by racists who wanted to curtail forever the career of the Black Hope.”
Such propaganda was not something new. The Comintern, the international Soviet propaganda arm, had been quietly slipping toxins into the melting pot since the Sacco and Vanzetti trial 50 years prior. Although largely free of Soviet influence, the New Left was not above a little racial mischief of its own.
“Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King’s Dream” is the latest work of hard-hitting author and WND contributor Jack Cashill, and is the first comprehensive, pull-no-punches account of America’s least likely icon.
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