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Muhammad Ali

The Making of an Icon

Michael Ezra

Publication Year: 2009

Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) has always engendered an emotional reaction from the public. From his appearance as an Olympic champion to his iconic status as a national hero, his carefully constructed image and controversial persona has always been intensely scrutinized. In Muhammad Ali, Michael Ezra considers the boxer who calls himself “The Greatest” from a new perspective. He writes about Ali’s pre-championship bouts, the management of his career and his current legacy, exploring the promotional aspects of Ali and how they were wrapped up in political, economic, and cultural “ownership.”

Ezra’s incisive study examines the relationships between Ali’s cultural appeal and its commercial manifestations. Citing examples of the boxer’s relationship to the Vietnam War and the Nation of Islam—which serve as barometers of his “public moral authority”—Muhammad Ali analyzes the difficulties of creating and maintaining these cultural images, as well as the impact these themes have on Ali’s meaning to the public.

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

"Muhammad Ali once said in response to the many people who had taken credit for his success, particularly his father, 'Who made me is me.' There is a part of me that feels similarly in regard to this book, but my wiser self prevails when I think about all of the people who have helped me to arrive at this point."

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Introduction: Why Another Book about Muhammad Ali?

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pp. 1-4

"For almost thirty years, Muhammad Ali has held the Guinness World Record as the most written-about person in history. Although John Lennon once claimed that the Beatles had become bigger than Jesus, Ali is the one who really deserves such distinction, at least in a literary sense. Why, then, would anybody have the temerity to think that he could add something to this already overflowing mix? What makes this book worth reading? Though library shelves may buckle under the weight of the Muhammad Ali ..."

Louisville Sponsoring Group

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Louisville’s Favorite Son: The Professional Debut

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pp. 7-13

"You’ve heard the story. A youngster goes into a merchandise fair in his hometown Louisville and parks his new Schwinn bicycle against a nearby wall. When he returns, the bike is missing. The agitated boy finds the nearest policeman and vows to beat up the culprit. The cop offers to teach the lad how to box. The kid becomes one of history’s greatest fighters.Twelve-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. took up boxing in 1954, several months after the Supreme Court issued the landmark Brown v. Board of ..."

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Choosing Management: The Courtship of Cassius Clay

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pp. 14-28

"Boxing isn’t easy. Most people think the physical grind is what makes it so tough, and at the sport’s highest levels, this is true. What separates the greats from the almost greats is athletic ability, mental toughness, and most of all, the willingness to train oneself into peak condition, for it is in the gym where matches are won and lost. On championship fight night, the result often boils down to who can most effectively synthesize mind and body in the face of opposition determined to demolish that connection...."

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The Early Bouts, 1961–1962

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pp. 29-39

"So eager was Cassius Clay to train in Miami that he started on December 19, 1960, instead of waiting out the holidays. He had reason to be confident. Chris Dundee had promotional rights to the city’s most meaningful venues, and was a boxing insider who could arrange big fights. Angelo Dundee was a shrewd trainer and matchmaker. The LSG had the money to pay for first-class handling. Clay’s professional debut had proven that with the right marketing, the fighter would sell a lot of tickets if his ability held up."

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Clay vs. Moore: The Seminal Text

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pp. 40-48

"Choosing Cassius Clay’s/Muhammad Ali’s bout with Archie Moore as his most significant fight is like picking Dwight Eisenhower as the most important American president. Sure, interstate highways were necessary, but haven’t far bigger things come out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue over the years? While Cassius Clay versus Archie Moore was an interesting contest, it doesn’t enjoy even a hint of recognition from boxing connoisseurs or the general public as an essential Ali bout. That honor is usually reserved ..."

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The Most Hated Man in Boxing? The Early Bouts, 1963

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pp. 49-61

"Arctic cold gripped Pittsburgh near the end of January 1963. Temperatures of eighteen below zero, accompanied by snowfall and winds reaching thirty miles per hour, had paralyzed the city. Traffic jams, impenetrable roads, school closings, business shutdowns, frozen and burst pipes, frostbite cases, and other chaos dominated the local scene. You did not want to be outdoors unless you had to.66

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Damage Control through Moral Authority: The Louisville Sponsoring Group’s Specialty

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pp. 62-66

"By steering Cassius Clay through boxing’s rough waters and landing on a title shot with Sonny Liston, the Louisville Sponsoring Group had essentially done its job. Certainly the members did not expect him to win, so all that was left for them to do was try their best to ensure that the gate receipts for the match were massive. After that, presumably, they and their fighter would sail off into the sunset carrying bags of money. There was no guarantee, however, that the bout would draw well. Clay’s obnoxiousness ..."

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The Relationship between Cassius Clay and the Louisville Sponsoring Group: A Summary

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pp. 67-79

"Muhammad Ali’s biographers have made much of the relationship between him and the Louisville Sponsoring Group, overwhelmingly praising the organization for treating him fairly within a milieu characterized by managerial abuse of clients. But what did the Louisville Sponsoring Group do for Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali other than pay him what he deserved? What was the actual nature of their relationship? Does the syndicate really deserve the high regard that biographers have afforded it? Does its square ..."

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The Commercial Elements of Clay- Liston I

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pp. 80-90

"Classic Muhammad Ali texts indicate that the first Clay-Liston bout was a financial disaster because of the disappointing live turnout in Miami Beach. This inaccuracy notwithstanding, it is worth exploring why things went so badly for promoter Bill MacDonald. One explanation, expressed by David Remnick in his best-selling..."

PART II Nation of Islam

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Main Bout Inc.: How Commerce Affects Culture

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pp. 93-119

"At a press conference in January 1966, Muhammad Ali announced that he had formed Main Bout Inc., a new corporation that would manage the ancillary promotional rights to his fights, including all live and delayed broadcasts, starting with a multi-million-dollar March 29 match, hopefully in Chicago, against top contender Ernie Terrell. “I am vitally interested in the company,” he said, “and in seeing that it will be one in which Negroes are not used as fronts, but as stockholders, officers, and..."

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Carving Out Moral Authority: Ali’s Race Man Phase

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pp. 120-134

"It is difficult to assess someone as a 'race man,' defined here as a person whose standing up for African Americans gains widespread recognition and legitimacy within black communities. Most observers would agree that Martin Luther King Jr. was one, but it is harder to analyze Muhammad Ali’s status as such since he was primarily a boxer who never formally led any social movement. Nevertheless, I will try to make the case that in the period between his November 1965 victory over Floyd Patterson and his June 1967 ..."

PART III Good People

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Forty Years of Ali: The Making of an Icon

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pp. 137-138

"American public perception of Muhammad Ali has undergone a dramatic shift since his conviction for draft evasion. Although Ali was once a controversial figure, his image has stabilized over the last forty years. Hated by many during the late 1960s, Ali has come full circle in the new millennium, admired almost universally, excepting a handful of dissenters. Ali’s make over from a largely disliked figure into one now understood in more positive terms is nothing new. People who could be viewed as Ali’s ..."

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The Legacy of Ali’s Exile and the Nation of Islam

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pp. 139-147

"Muhammad Ali’s moral authority, central to his appeal as an American hero, if not his gravity as a world-historical figure, draws a great deal of its strength from his three-and-a-half-year exile from boxing. His other outstanding attributes and accomplishments notwithstanding, it is the perception that Ali sacrificed his personal interests in the name of principle that has driven his cultural upgrade from legendary athlete to iconic model citizen and philosopher-guru. The exile has become the narrative linchpin of ..."

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The Prodigal Son Returns

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pp. 148-153

"In October 1970, three-and-a-half years after his previous bout, Muhammad Ali finally returned to the ring. Ali’s homecoming, although it predated the Supreme Court’s reversal of his conviction, was a product of the country’s turning against the Vietnam War. Even to many of the people who were repulsed by his connection to the NOI, Ali’s exclusion from the ring for taking a courageous stand had inspired sympathy and outrage. As the general public’s views about the war aligned with Ali’s, the idea that he was being..."

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King of the World: The Consequences of Monarchy

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pp. 154-159

"Muhammad Ali’s victory over George Foreman to regain the heavyweight championship in the October 1974 Rumble in the Jungle is one of those historical moments that has developed its own mythology. Norman Mailer devoted a book to what he called The Fight. In 1997, the documentary When We Were Kings won an Oscar for its coverage of the event. These accounts, and others like it, place Ali at the center, as the transcendent conquering hero who reclaimed his throne as king of the world, once..."

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Death of a Salesman

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pp. 160-163

"By the mid-1970s Muhammad Ali was severely compromised as a fighter. It was clear that Ali was not the man he used to be, but he fought on because he needed the money and the glory. Pitted repeatedly against soft and overmatched competition whose major qualification for receiving title shots was the ability to allow Ali to compensate for his inadequacies in the ring, the champion floundered when faced with quality tests. In 1978, Ali lost his title to upstart Leon Spinks, who had only seven professional fights and ..."

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Lonnie Ali: The Savior

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pp. 164-166

"Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Muhammad Ali took place on November 19, 1986, when he married his current wife, Yolanda 'Lonnie' Ali. Without her intervention, there’s a good chance that Ali would be financially insecure, convalescent, or dead. She saved her husband’s life and engineered his becoming the icon he is today. When they married, there was much work to be done. Ali’s health and reputation had to be salvaged. Such rehabilitation was only the beginning of repairing Ali’s life."

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Thomas Hauser: The Literary Rehabilitation of Ali’s Legend

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pp. 167-174

"Between 1988 and 1998, nobody did more to publicly rebuild Muhammad Ali’s legendary image than writer Thomas Hauser. Charged by Lonnie Ali to transmit her vision to a larger audience, Hauser served as Muhammad Ali’s biographer and chief spokesperson for a decade. Hauser’s writings during the 1990s were the ideological foundation of Ali’s recoding as a sanctified American hero. They were—and still are—taken as proof of Ali’s greatness and are key to his enduring cultural relevance. How Hauser was ..."

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Olympic Torch: From Literature to Television

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pp. 175-181

"It had been a long journey for the torch that was going to be used to ignite the cauldron signifying the start of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Some 10,000 people had handled and transported it 15,000 miles over the eighty-four days preceding the games. One of the most successful athletes in Olympic history, Al Oerter, who had won four consecutive gold medals in the discus throw between 1954 and 1968, carried it from just outside what is now known as Turner Field, and through the stadium’s bowels before passing it on ..."

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Beyond Moral Authority: The Apotheosis of Muhammad Ali

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pp. 182-185

"By the onset of the new millennium, the idea that Ali was an otherworldly, divine mystic possessed of superpowers came into vogue among his biographers, admirers, cultural emissaries, and partners in commerce. The inkling has been floating around the culture for almost fifty years. Mal-colm X had injected a significant amount of religious symbolism into Ali’s title victory over Sonny Liston, as evidenced by the fighter telling the world during his post-fight interview, “I talk to God every day.” While fighting for his life ..."

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Culture Meets Commerce: The Muhammad Ali Center, Naming Rights, and the Price of Moral Authority

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pp. 186-193

"Without a doubt, the climax of the Ali renaissance that began in 1991 with the publication of Thomas Hauser’s biography was the opening of the $80 million, 93,000-square-foot Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville near the banks of the Ohio River. The major themes that had been developing around Ali during a fifteen-year period, most important of which was the idea of Ali as a moral authority, dramatically came to fruition with the opening of this shrine in November 2005...."

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The Backlash: Exploring Contradictory Meanings of Ali

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pp. 194-198

"To a small band of dissenters, it is ludicrous that Muhammad Ali has become an American hero. They believe that Ali’s achieving iconic status signifies a misguided society. Although few in number, and mostly without the cultural and commercial backing that has often accompanied works trumpeting forth Ali’s glories, these critics have formed the literary and cultural backbone of a nascent backlash against Muhammad Ali. Surprisingly, they are not the types generally associated with the majority ..."


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pp. 199-228


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pp. 229-235

E-ISBN-13: 9781592136636
Print-ISBN-13: 9781592136629

Publication Year: 2009