ali: Canonizing an American Radical

1b15decb97a7e442d17245363ff90a02_XLPaul Reyes at The Oxford American:

Ali spent twenty-one years as a fighter, between 1960 and 1981, and the best fight images from that time work as counterpoint. His brashly promised defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964 made him champion, and their rematch a year later provided his most iconographic fight image, a violent pietà: Ali looming over Liston, who buckled in the first round, demanding furiously of him: “Get up and fight, sucker!” The complement to this moment comes with Ali’s first defeat, in the “Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier (1971), in the echo of Frazier’s left hook: Ali tilting backward, his legs crooked and useless, his face wearing a cancelled look. Other images, other moments, connect this way: Liston staring from his stool (1964), mentally zapped, ignoring the bell for the seventh round, inaugurating Ali’s wild career as champion, countered by Ali slouched on his own stool in the fight against Larry Holmes (1980), a fight widely dreaded (Ali, thirty-eight, was already showing signs of damage in his slurred speech). Ali looks so bruised and zombie-like in this photo, it seems doctored. He would fight once more after this, but against Holmes the door was basically shut.

Photographs of Ali’s fights are innumerable, many of them hypnotic, but the images of him in more common circumstances are what both humanized and beatified him: meditative at training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, or clowning on a Louisville sidewalk, or talking easily with a gaggle of children in his front yard in Miami.

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