Muhammad Ali

How the Greatest became an Islamic teddy bear.

Muhammad Ali is the Dalai Lama of the post-9/11 world—the beatific sweetheart we call on to sanctify every important moment. He is always available to symbolize, well, whatever the heck you want.

The Champ, who may be the world’s most famous Muslim and the world’s most famous American, is certainly the world’s most famous Muslim-American, and he has been using that status for the good. He made news last week by pleading, in Allah’s name, for the release of kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Hollywood executives have recruited Ali to headline a PR campaign to show Muslims that the United States opposes terrorism, not Islam. On Sept. 21, Ali was the all-star among all-stars at the 9/11 celebrity telethon—a Muslim teddy bear insisting that the religion of the prophet means peace. The December release of the biopic Ali prompted still more Ali worship, as did Ali’s 60th birthday celebration on Jan. 17 and his lighting of the Salt Lake City Olympic torch at the start of its cross-country relay.

Since Ali’s Parkinsonism was revealed about 15 years ago, the dazzling, scary, draft-dodging, anti-American, Nation-of-Islam-embracing, racial-invective-spewing, sexually promiscuous, savage, gorgeous, hilarious boxer has been reinvented—and has reinvented himself—as a catch-all holy man, a “saintly, ethereal force,” as one writer dubbed him.

He has become a full-time global do-gooder. The Greatest has taken medical supplies to Cuba and food to African children; he campaigned to cancel Third World debt; he traveled to Iraq on the eve of the Gulf War to beg Saddam Hussein to release a few American “human shields”; he negotiated a prisoner exchange between Iraq and Iran; he visited Vietnam with American families searching for MIA relatives; he has raised money for Parkinson’s, muscular dystrophy, and many other diseases; and he has committed countless acts of private generosity for people in need—a few grand here, a nursing home saved there, pretty soon we’re talking millions of dollars. Presidents, the United Nations, and Amnesty International, among many others, have showered him with medals.

If Ali were, say, Jesse Jackson, his indiscriminate activism would have branded him a self-aggrandizing, short-sighted opportunist undermining America. After all, Ali has cheerfully given photo ops to Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein—Hussein in a time of war. His food giveaways have been photo ops for Global Village Market, a soy meat-substitute marketing company that pays him hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to use his image. But because Ali is Ali, his favors only serve as evidence of his big heart.

Why does no one lay a finger on the Champ these days? It is the unmanning of Ali that has made him angelic. Parkinson’s has stolen all that made Ali vital. It has robbed the Louisville Lip of his lip, taken the speed from his lightning feet and the strength from his mighty arms. Meanwhile, the kind of Islam he has embraced—a pillowy, warm-hearted universalist Sunnism—has diminished (at least for his white audiences) his racial identity. Ali, who once embodied the black supremacist dementia of the Nation of Islam, has become transcendently nonracial, much more an icon of Islam than of black America.

It is by losing all that made him threatening to the establishment—his quick tongue, his physical might, his black power—that he has been welcomed in the American living room. Emasculated, he is heroic. The less like his grand and contentious old self he is, the more he is revered. The rough edges that remain—the self-aggrandizement, the constant telling of ethnic jokes (A favorite: “What’s the difference between a Jew and a canoe? A canoe tips.”)—are written off as cute.

Ali also appeals so widely because he can be admired in so many contradictory ways. He is cherished as one of the 20th century’s greatest talkers: the Lip, a low-comic Tennyson, the father of rap. And yet he is adored too as an inarticulate monk, whose forced silences seem eloquent and whose words are (supposedly) rich with meaning because they are so rare.

He is celebrated as one of the most brutal boxers in history, and as a peacemaker. No pantheon of black rebels is complete without him, but he is now venerated for his universalism. Leftists recall him as an anti-American dissident who fought the U.S. government over the draft, yet he has become patriotic, even jingoistic. He is at once the greatest of all entertainers and an icon of contemplative spirituality. He is admired for his joyful, fun-loving hedonism but also for his asceticism.

He symbolizes both physical perfection and the ravages of disease. (Whenever he throws a slow-motion jab these days or mumbles a word, hard men weep.) He is idolized as a champion, the three-time heavyweight king but also as a loser, whose most heroic moment was his defeat at the hands of Joe Frazier. Like the Bible, Ali can be turned to any purpose you choose. He contains multitudes.

This is why it is fruitless to try to find the essential Muhammad Ali, a task that has preoccupied writers since he was Cassius Clay. Ali is uninterested in principles or ideas—Islam, his very squishy version of it, is the only one that has stuck to him. Ali’s basic philosophy is the soft touch. Everything is a random act of kindness. A friend asks him to do it. He is touched by a particularly sweet letter from a needy fan. Someone visits his house and needs help.

There is no consistency to Ali’s work, no sense that it matters beyond the moment of kindness. He doesn’t follow through. Ali’s good intentions often have dismal consequences. He happily handed out food to Africa’s needy but seems indifferent that Global Village Market gave only 5 percent of what it claimed to charity, according to a Montreal Gazette investigation. He doesn’t care that Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein got more out of Ali’s visits than those Ali was helping. He hands out cash to folks he knows will squander it, just to make them happy.

This is where Ali and the Dalai Lama differ. The Dalai Lama, for all his happy-go-lucky spriteliness, is obsessed with a particular, very real cause. All his work and all his smiles are aimed at freeing Tibet. But the Champ has no higher goal. He revels in the adulation and appreciation of those who see him. What matters is the instant that brings joy into someone’s life. Ali is a saint—a saint for a short-attention-span world.