Wednesday Book: The politics of a boxing life

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The Independent Culture
IN THE sports writing of the Nineties, dominated by fan confessionals, Mike Marqusee's deftly pointed and well-researched analyses of world cricket and the continuing decline of the game in England have been outstanding. Here he turns his attention to another international phenomenon and, while acknowledging his own status as a Muhammad Ali fan, draws as far as possible from the potential pitfalls of personal investment.

Boxing can do without Hornby-esque nostalgia for a champion's prime, or a celebration of aggressive masculinity (both of which feature in Thomas Hauser's definitive work on Ali). Marqusee works well away from these orthodox ringside positions, leaving the fight world as background for a political analysis of his hero's life.

This, then, is a sports biography in reverse. The "context" is the focus, and the fights, contractual disputes and personal life of the boxer are mentioned as and when appropriate in the life of a politically aware Black American in the Sixties and after. Angelo Dundee and Bundini Brown are sidelined, while the lives of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Bob Dylan are woven around their involvement in Ali's life and into the domestic and foreign policies of the United States.

The civil rights movement and the Cold War provide a constantly shifting counterpoint in the story of a fighter whose decision to join the Nation of Islam made him the first sports star to receive the daily attention of the FBI. Needless to say, in this account, as in all other work on Ali, the crucial moment is the boxer's refusal to serve in Vietnam. Here, thanks to his detailed knowledge of the politics of race in America, Marqusee is at his best, providing the most subtle and detailed account we have of Ali's developing response to the draft.

Marqusee sees Ali as part of the supranational trade in African-descended culture and ideas which Paul Gilroy has identified as the "Black Atlantic". He relates Ali's career to changing patterns in popular music and sport, which made them at the same time the object of critical acclaim (good, as he sees it) and of the slick transformative power of a media-fronted international capitalism - which is, in his view, disastrous.

He ends by juxtaposing the telling image of Ali's broken, silent body, as it has recently appeared in commercials for pensions, and of Ali endorsing the campaign to end Third World debt. Marqusee proposes that, in the latter image, Ali still upholds the burden of representation. The boxer works as a radical symbol because of the deeply politicised life that Marqusee has carefully reconstructed.

So far, so convincing. This is a version of the story that needed to be told, and it is written well and forcefully. Those who complain of a book in which Ali can disappear altogether for 20 pages while the author tells a complementary part of the story will have missed the whole point.

But Marqusee has also, very deliberately, missed a point of his own. His eagerness to underline the importance of race in American and global politics is paralleled by a disinclination to think positively about the politics of identity, and he consistently underplays his subject's unique contribution.

Although he acknowledges Ali's theatrical ability - to perform "blackness" as well as boxing - he spends little time on the nature of that performance. Why do we remember Ali the fighter? What for? Not as a black Muslim, or just as a boxing champion. There are and have been plenty of both. Ali as a progenitor of rap, perhaps; more, as the man who kept his arms by his sides for a round while fighting Sonny Liston for the world title; as a dancer whose bodily control and display matched that of James Brown or Michael Jackson; as the man who, 10 years later, didn't dance but took George Foreman's punches, then knocked him out and got his title back; as the man whose symbolic self-immolation at the opening of the Los Angeles Olympics summarised the agonies of the boxer and the black American alike.

Each time, Ali was performing the "Black Atlantic" and bringing it into global consciousness - in a way that has made all of us think differently about the body and its potential. The foundation for his significance is, quite simply, the way that he fought.

Andrew Blake

The reviewer's edited collection of essays is `Living Through Pop' (Routledge, pounds 45 hardback, pounds 13.99 paperback)