Last night while I was reducing the wine sauce I switched on the Tube of Boobosity and caught the opening ceremony at a college football game featuring the University of Louavul. (I think I may have misspelled it but I know how to pronounce it.) Muhammad Ali, who was born in Louavul, was there as an honorary coin tosser, but he was too debilitated by Parkinson's Disease to do anything but stand there.
When I was a youth, I admired Ali for many reasons. He was an astonishingly gifted athlete. He violated everything the crusty old guy in the dusty old gym tells the golden boys trying to punch their way out of the ghetto, by carrying his hands low and standing up straight -- deliberately confronting his opponent with his guard down. He could do this because he was so much quicker, able to flick punches away with his forearms or slip them by moving his head, while leaving the opponent defenseless against attacks to the ribs and powerful upward jabs.
But he really became popular, and world famous, because he showed that he was more than a braggart and a rabble rouser when he refused induction into the armed forces during the Vietam war. Nobody could accuse him of cowardice, obviously -- not only because he had proven his physical courage in the ring. It was obvious that the army would not have sent him into combat but rather would have used him as a good will ambassador, yet he sacrificed his career and willingly endured prosecution and the risk of imprisonment. (He was convicted but the Supreme Court ultimately vindicated him as a legitimate conscientious objector.) He said very openly that the war was contrary to his religious principles, and that it was not being waged on behalf of his people. "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger," he provocatively remarked .
He was banned from boxing for three years and when he came back, he had lost something. He regained his championship but he depended more on guile and psychology than sheer athletic superiority. He was a great hero to African Americans, and to oppressed people everywhere. He became the most famous person in the world.
Like many former members of the Nation of Islam, he converted to orthodox Sunni Islam. Since his retirement from the ring, he has pursued a life of piety and good works. But his physical disability has prevented him from continuing as a public figure. There is no proof that his parkinsonism was caused by repeated blows to the head, but it seems a pretty good bet. It is terribly sad to see this proud, intensely charismatic man, once the epitome of physical beauty and grace, trapped in a dysfunctional shell of a body.
Many argue that people who choose to pursue a career in boxing are exercising personal freedom. They are presumably aware of the risks and accept them. This might be countered with the observation that professional boxers are overwhelmingly from disadvantaged backgrounds, and in fact may not have a lot of other chances in life. Suzanne Leclerc and Christopher D. Herrera discuss some of the ethical arguments here. They don't conclude that boxing should be banned, but they do conclude that physicians should not participate as ringside "fight doctors." (This is rather like the AMA position against physicians participating in torture, without specifically condemning Bush administration policies.)
The liberty argument for permitting professional boxing hinges on the presumption that only the participants are harmed. That presumption dodges the issue of the socio-cultural effects of a spectacle in which men* attempt to win money and glory by rendering an opponent unconscious through repeated blows to the head. While many people believe that such spectacles provide a catharsis of violent impulses that spectators might otherwise channel into antisocial behavior, Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence, argues the contrary: that research has shown that spectators become more agressive after witnessing boxing matches.
In the case of Muhammad Ali, it is impossible to say what he might have become without boxing. Perhaps he would have excelled at another sport, but it is more likely that he would have died in obscurity, and the world would have been deprived of a public life that was not only entertaining, but deeply meaningful. Would Ali himself trade his fame and fortune for a healthy old age? I doubt it. But I personally no longer watch professional boxing and I do wish that it would fade away.
*Women now box, of course, including Muhammad Ali's daughter. It is said that he disapproved, and tried to discourage her. But when she wouldn't listen to him, he ended up giving her his blessing. What else is a father to do?