In today’s column: We discuss Muhammad Ali’s career and cultural impact as reflected in the comics of the 1960s and beyond.
Last night, the world lost one of the true giants of modern sport. Muhammad Ali—the former three-time lineal heavyweight boxing world champion, Olympic boxing gold medalist, humanitarian, and goodwill ambassador—passed away at the age of 74 due to a respiratory illness.
No boxer before or since has so captivated the public’s attention and exerted so much influence on the larger culture.
The young Cassius Clay (as Ali was known earlier in his career) was brash and supremely confident and became even more so as he rapidly rose through the pro boxing ranks and captured the lineal heavyweight title with his defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964 at the age of 22. Clay was fighting as an 8-to-1 underdog, no less. While it may not sound so momentous a feat to those who are too young to remember when boxing was one of America’s most popular spectator sports, at the time, the world heavyweight boxing championship was among the most celebrated and prestigious achievements in international competition.
Not one to pull his punches either in the ring or on the mic, Clay—who had started using the name Muhammad Ali after converting to the Muslim faith soon after becoming champion—was a favorite subject for satire and parody by cartoonists because of his outsized public persona—a combination of huckster, raconteur, and modern day poet—and his politics. In the page below, his affiliation with the controversial Nation of Islam was lampooned by writer Larry Siegel and artist Mort Drucker in a strip entitled “Stokely and Tess: A Modern Mad Version of ‘Porgy and Bess’” that appeared in Mad #111 (June 1967, EC Publications):
Ali’s refusal to accept the terms of his being drafted into military service for the Vietnam War—a political stance that was immortalized in Ali’s statement to the press saying “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger”—led to him being branded by many in the media as a coward and a traitor to his country. In March of 1967, the World Boxing Council (WBC) and the World Boxing Association (WBA) stripped him of his titles and his boxing license was suspended indefinitely by the New York State Athletic Commission.
In Mad #111, writer Frank Jacobs and artist Bob Clarke made light of the situation with the following satirical cartoon:
Three months after being stripped of his belts, Ali was convicted by a federal court of draft evasion, fined $10,000, and sentenced to five years in prison. Ali paid a bond in order to remain free while his legal team appealed the conviction on the grounds that his application for conscientious objector status was mishandled by the authorities, but the damage to his career was done: Ali would spend the next three-and-a-half years—what should have been the prime of his athletic career—on the sidelines as a fireplug of a fighter named Joe Frazier ascended to take his place at the top of the heavyweight division.
Ali’s boxing license was reinstated in 1970 and he made quick work of an overmatched Jerry Quarry in his comeback fight. He then earned the number one heavyweight contender ranking by dispatching rugged Argentine slugger Oscar Bonavena in 15 rounds later that same year. In 1971, the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled to overturn his conviction for draft evasion, vindicating Ali and underlining the fact that in the course of contesting his conviction, Ali was also calling on and defending a most American constitutional right—the right to due process. The importance of Ali’s legal battle was formally recognized years later in 1987 when he was dubbed by the California Bicentennial Foundation for the US Constitution as the personification of the vitality of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Ali tried to make up for lost time and engaged in a run of fights that cemented his self-proclaimed status as “The Greatest” the boxing world had ever seen. His flurry of activity included a trilogy of bouts with Joe Frazier—“The Fight of the Century” (a unanimous decision win for Frazier and Ali’s first-ever loss as a pro fighter), the non-title bout “Superfight II” (a unanimous decision win for Ali), and “The Thrilla in Manila” (a technical knockout win for Ali)—and capturing the lineal heavyweight title a second time by stopping power-punching juggernaut George Foreman in eight rounds in “The Rumble in the Jungle.”Ali fought an impressive 20 times between 1971 and 1975—a period considered the “golden age of heavyweight boxing” because of the depth of talent in the division—compiling 18 wins (ten by stoppage) and two defeats, his only other loss during the span coming courtesy of Ken Norton by way of a split decision which he duly avenged.
Ali’s resurgence extended outside the ring. Part of this was due to his disassociation from the Nation of Islam and conversion to the more mainstream Sunni sect of Islam. In addition, public opinion, both in the United States and in the international community, had also turned against American military involvement in Vietnam in the face of the massive casualties being incurred and debacles such as the My Lai Massacre. Ali’s decision to refuse conscription, while still a cause for debate, was now seen in a different light. In a feature by writer Lou Silverstone and artist Jack Davis entitled “TV Disclaimers We’d Like to See” published in Mad #180 (January 1976, EC Publications), the caricatured Ali appeared not as a loudmouthed braggart and buffoon, but as a voice of reason:
Ali’s comics presence reached its apogee in 1978 with DC Comics’ publication of All-New Collectors’ Edition C-56: Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, a 72-page full color special oversized issue by the creative team of Neal Adams (script & pencils), Denny O’Neil (original story), Dick Giordano (inks), Terry Austin (inks), Cory Adams (colors), and Gaspar Saladino (lettering), with Joe Kubert contributing the original cover layout.
The comic has Superman and Muhammad Ali forced to fight each other by an invading alien despot named Rat’Lar, with the winner facing the alien champion Hun’ya for the fate of the Earth. Ali defeats Superman (their bout is contested on a planet with a red sun that negates Superman’s Kryptonian superpowers) but they also collaborate on a scheme to overthrow the occupying alien forces. With Ali fighting Hun’ya, Superman conducts a series of raids against the assembled alien fleet in space.
Ali eventually defeats Hun’ya but Rat’Lar still orders the destruction of the Earth as retaliation for Superman’s actions. In a transparent nod to Ali’s real-world refusal to fight in what he saw as an unjust war, Hun’ya and the alien fleet refuse to follow Rat’Lar’s orders, and it is they who ultimately divest the alien leader of his authority.
Neal Adams has stated numerous times (such as in this 1999 interview with Comic Book Artist magazine) that he considers Superman vs. Muhammad Ali to be the best comic he ever made, which is a pretty high assessment for the work given Adams’ extensive comics bibliography.
Originally slated for a Fall 1977 release, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali got pushed back to a Spring 1978 retail date because of numerous production delays. By the time the comic book hit the stands, Ali was no longer the heavyweight champion, having been dethroned by Leon Spinks in February. In a classic demonstration of Marvel Comics’ advanced trolling game, writer Marv Wolfman made a joking reference to the delays that plagued DC’s comic and the unfortunate timing of Ali’s loss to Spinks in Amazing Spider-Man #186 (November 1978):Ali would regain the title in a rematch later that year, though, becoming the only fighter in history to win boxing’s lineal heavyweight world championship on three separate occasions.
By the close of the 1970s, it had become clear even to the casual observer that Ali was undergoing a rapid physical decline. His dazzling footwork, more a dancer’s than a pugilist’s, had become significantly less adroit. Even at his best, Ali was never the most sound fighter in terms of his defensive fundamentals when fighting in close—his supreme athleticism allowed him to get away with the tendency to lean back from his opponent’s forward pressure. The combination of his slowed footspeed and the flaws in his defensive technique meant that he absorbed even more punishment in the ring than ever before. Even more disturbingly, while his intelligence was undiminished, he now spoke slowly, sometimes haltingly, the formerly steady stream of trash talk and witticisms he was renowned for reduced to labored outbursts.
The tenor of the depictions of Ali in comics and cartoons began to reflect this new reality. Gone was the elite boxer of old, replaced by just a plain old boxer, a caricature of a man who was overstaying his welcome in the fight game, trying to chase past glories, in denial of his fast-fading abilities.
Ali retired from boxing in 1981, a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday, with a record of 56 wins and five losses. Three of those losses would come in his final four fights, each one an extended beating at the hands of a much younger man. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinsonism, although whether this was from early onset Parkinson’s disease, a Parkinson’s disease-like condition induced by the head trauma he received during his boxing career, or a combination of both has never been definitively established.
Ali’s post-boxing life saw him involved in philanthropy and various humanitarian causes. In 1998, he was awarded the title of United Nations Messenger for Peace in recognition of his previous advocacy for the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, his promotion of the message of healing of racial and religious rifts, and his ongoing charitable work in support of hospitals and orphanages in Asia and Africa. Later Ali portrayals in superhero comics, however, tended to focus on his glory years as boxing’s top heavyweight. The prime Ali was synonymous with the turbulent 1960s and his inclusion in a scene became effective shorthand for the era.
It can be argued that Ali’s greatest impact on the comics industry was how, for better and for worse, his public persona became part of the blueprint for the first generation of African-American superheroes that started appearing in leading roles in comics in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Characters such as Marvel’s Falcon and Luke Cage and DC’s John Stewart (a Neal Adams creation who would go on to become a popular Green Lantern) and Black Lightning were all cast in the same angry, anti-authority-minded, young black man mold seemingly informed by the general public’s somewhat simplistic parsing of the racial politics engendered by Ali’s emergence as a cultural icon.
Ali’s outspokenness and visibility as the world heavyweight champion at a time when boxing was still one of the world’s most popular televised sports brought the racial discourse, as uncomfortable as it could sometimes be, into living rooms, schoolyards, comics shops, bars, and diners across the country. His once-ubiquitous presence on television, in the news, and in comics and political cartoons compelled people, regardless of their own background, to examine the issue of race in America and the sweeping societal changes he represented. As Ali is supposed to have said:
I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky, my name not yours. My religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.
Ali was a most unlikely catalyst for change in the world, a man who argued for peace and equality even as he mercilessly humiliated his opponents in pre-fight press conferences before taking them apart in the ring. But change the world he did, and the world is a better place for his having lived in it.
Rest easy, champ.