Taking Your Talents to South Beach: What LeBron Can Learn From Muhammad Ali

One year ago this week LeBron James told the world on national television that he would be taking his talents to South Beach. “The Decision,” as it was called, would kick off a year that would see LeBron transformed from one of the most sought-after and beloved players in the NBA into a tragic and troubled figure. Booed wherever he played, heckled and jeered at in public, lampooned and lambasted by the press, LeBron was eventually disgraced in defeat in an NBA finals where it seemed fans the world over were rooting against him rather than for the Dallas Mavericks. Even Muhammad Ali himself appears to have been cheering for the Mavericks - after the Mavericks won he gave Dirk Nowitzki a pair of his boxing gloves with the message "You are the greatest."

Perhaps Ali would have sent LeBron the same gift if the Heat had prevailed. Certainly the "Greatest Of All Time" could find it in his heart to sympathize with LeBron's situation.  Ali himself had once packed up and moved to Miami in search of stardom and success. There in South Beach Ali would be confronted with many of the same issues that LeBron has faced over the last year.  Criticized for his confidence and his lack of a killer instinct to back it up, Ali, too saw his fans turn on him and root for his opponents. Even in victory Ali, like James, found a public who was more interested in judging him as a person than as a boxer. What could LeBron James learn from Muhammad Ali's early years in Miami?
“In this fall, this is very tough, in this fall I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”
Shortly after returning from winning the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, Cassius Clay signed a professional contract with the Louisville Sponsoring Group, a group of about a dozen local business leaders and attorneys. The group took responsibility for Clay’s career, believing that he would be a contender for the heavyweight championship within four years. While the group did have some civic pride around Clay being from Louisville, their primary motivation was money. They stood to collect half of all of his professional earnings. In order to get the biggest return on their investment, the group wanted Clay to win the title. And they knew that the man who could make that a reality didn’t live in Kentucky, he lived in Miami.

In 1960 the Fifth Street Gym in South Miami Beach wasn’t as storied as some of its counterparts in Detroit or upstate New York. It was a new gym with only one titleholder, Carmen Basilio, under their tutelage. But Dundee had a reputation among the boxing elite as a guy who could work with young, skilled, pure boxers, and when the Sponsoring Group asked around for recommendations, Dundee’s name came up. It helped that, because Dundee and his brother were just starting up their own gym, they were willing to work cheap.

Clay moved to Miami in the winter of 1960, renting a very modest bungalow in Miami’s black district. His early professional fights weren’t particularly exciting, but people were excited about him as a boxer. Much like LeBron James’ high school games, Clay was the first ever fighter to have his fights nationally televised right out of the amateurs.

Angelo Dundee taught Clay how to use the media to his advantage to promote a fight. Dundee’s advice, coupled with Clay’s passion for professional wrestling (particularly the villain Gorgeous George), created a motor-mouthed self-promotion machine the world of professional sports had likely never seen before. It helped that he was good-looking, charming, non-threatening and polite. Most importantly it helped that in those early days he was always considered an underdog.

Boxing writers were critical of Clay’s skills, even in victory. A.J. Liebeling accused him of keeping his hands too low during the Olympics, of running around the ring from his opponents. Dundee felt the criticism was unfair. “In the beginning, a lot of people criticized Ali for not being able to take a punch,” Dundee once said. “That’s why he danced around the ring they thought. Those guys didn’t know what they were talking about. Ask any fighter and he’ll tell you, you don’t get hit because its fun. You get hit because sometimes you can’t avoid it. And if you can avoid it, more power to you.”

Dundee publicly bristled at the criticism his fighter received, but he was far from convinced that he had the next heavyweight champion in Cassius Clay. As Clay continued to rack up wins, Dundee’s confidence grew. “Each fight proved a little something to me, and I started to realize the talent I had in my hands.” As Dundee’s confidence grew, Clay’s was growing tenfold. Clay soon made a habit of predicting what round he would knock his opponents out in, usually offering his predictions in poems he would write.
"Not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7. Hey, and when I say that, I really believe it. I'm not just up here blowing smoke at none of these fans, because that's not what I'm about. I'm about business. And we believe we can win multiple championships."
Eventually Clay was channeling Gorgeous George both before and during his bouts. When Clay famously fought Henry Cooper in London in 1963, he came to the ring wearing a red robe that read “Cassius the Greatest” on the back and a crown on top of his head. By the fourth round of the fight, Clay was clearly in control. Cooper was already bleeding and seemed headed for a knockout. But Clay would step back after connecting a punch and taunt Cooper or shuffle his feet and do a little dance. His behavior was enough to irritate even his own backers. According to Thomas Hauser, at one point Bill Haversham, member of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, came ringside to exhort “Angelo, make him stop the funny business.”

The funny business continued, as did his keeping his hands low, and eventually Cooper caught Clay with a hook that dropped him to the floor. At the end of the round, as boxing lore has it, Dundee was forced to both use smelling salts to revive Cassius Clay (which was illegal) as well as secretly cut open his gloves to get the referee to delay the start of the fifth round (according to Dundee, the gloves were already cut, he merely "helped them along a little"). Ali bought enough time to recover his wits and was able to end the fight in the fifth round by opening up the cut over Cooper’s eye - a narrow escape, and a humbling performance. Clay, for his part, was less than humbled, at least publically. His statement after the controversial fight: “I am not the greatest. I am the double greatest. Not only do I knock ‘em out, I pick the round. I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skillfullest fighter in the ring today.”
“It is very humbling for myself, to continue to showcase my talent, and the fans to respect that is humbling. It is an opportunity for them (the fans) to have their wish list come true.” 
Cassius Clay and Angelo Dundee had set their sites on a title shot against Sonny Liston, but first they had to beat Doug Jones in New York City. Prior to the Jones fight Clay took to his usual routine of boasting, bragging, and predicting the round he would win in. During the weigh-in Clay asked Jones how tall he was. “Why do you want to know” asked Jones. “So I’ll know how far to step back when I drop you in the fourth” Clay responded.

It wouldn’t be so easy for Clay. Jones nearly knocked Clay down in the first round with a huge left that sent Clay back against the ropes. The fight went the distance, was largely a boring affair, and after the judges announced a unanimous decision for Clay, the New York crowd booed, jeered, and threw peanuts and bottles into the ring. Clay defiantly walked to the middle of the ring, picked up a peanut, cracked it open and ate it, grinning at the crowd. Clay had won the fight, but even his own fans had turned on him as if he had lost. He fell far short of his own boasting, and many were growing tired of it. The famous boxing writer Peter Hamill wrote at the time“Cassius Clay is a young man with a lot of charm who is in danger of becoming a dreadful bore.”
“I like boos, I don’t have a problem with the boos. I’ve grown accustomed to it. I enjoy it.”
Clay’s title shot against Sonny Liston was set for February of 1964 in Miami. At the time Sonny Liston was considered unbeatable. He had just knocked down Floyd Patterson three times before knocking him out in the first round. He was also as reviled in the black community as he was among whites. White fans called him a “gorilla,” considered him unintelligent, a physical freak. The black community were embarrassed by both his association with the mafia (he was managed by a group of mobsters) and his refusal to support the civil rights movement. The NAACP even asked Floyd Patterson not to fight him, believing that losing the title to Liston would be detrimental to the public perception of the black community and to the cause of civil rights. Liston took the criticism in stride. “A prizefight is like a cowboy movie. There has to be a good guy and a bad guy. People pays their money to see me lose. Only in my cowboy movie, the bad guy always wins.”

Incredibly, Cassius Clay fared little better in the public’s eyes. At this point in Clay’s career his popularity was at its lowest point. Jim Murray wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the Clay-Liston bout would be “the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin – 180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout.”
"Don't think for one min that I haven't been taking mental notes of everyone taking shots at me this summer. And I mean everyone!"
Clay was a 7-1 underdog for the fight. Nobody was picking him to win. His own backers even worried that the fight was a mismatch. Gordon Davidson, one of the Louisville Sponsoring Group’s lawyers, was quoted as saying “We did not want this fight so soon, but Cassius insisted and we had to give in…We finally concluded Cassius doesn’t try to learn anything from one fight to the next and really doesn’t care about becoming one of the finest heavyweights who ever lived. All he wants is to be the richest.”

"All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that." .
Meanwhile as preparations for the Liston bout continued, rumors swirled around Miami that Malcolm X had come to town and was there to recruit Cassius Clay into the notorious Nation of Islam. This didn’t help Clay’s already damaged public image.

The details of the fight are well known. Clay shocked the world, hurt Liston enough to force him to refuse to leave his corner at the start of the round, and then stood on the ropes and proclaimed himself “king of the world.” Two days after the upset, Cassius Clay called a press conference in Miami and made an announcement that would once again shock the world: Cassius Clay was now Cassius X, a member of the Nation of Islam and a devoted follower of Elijah Muhammad. Soon after that Elijah Muhammad would bestow upon Cassius X the name Muhammad Ali.

Ali’s conversion to Islam and his role in the controversial Nation of Islam made him a lightning rod across the country. At the time the Nation of Islam was seen by most of white America as a hateful and violent organization. Ali’s role in the Nation of Islam did much more for legitimizing them than it did for making him more marketable. Columbia Records, who had recently offered Ali a contract to record his boastful poems, now were pulling the LPs off of record store shelves. Most sportswriters refused to call him by his new name and openly mocked his new religion. Jimmy Cannon at the New York Post said that Ali was “a more pernicious hate symbol than Schmelling and Nazism.” Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, remarked that Ali was now “an honorary member of the White Citizen’s Councils.” Floyd Patterson said he would fight Ali just to get the title away from the “Black Muslims.” Even his own family spoke out against his decision to join the Nation of Islam. His father insisted that Ali was a Baptist. His mother blamed the bright lights and big city of Miami. “The big mistake was when they sent him to train in Miami all by himself. That’s when the Muslims got him.”
"We didn't actually like Cleveland. We hated Cleveland growing up. There's a lot of people in Cleveland we still hate to this day."
Muhammad Ali was no silent follower, either. He was an outspoken advocate for even some of the Nation of Islam’s most controversial subjects. And when his former friend and confidant, Malcolm X, was exiled from the Nation of Islam, Ali also turned his back on him. He was quoted before Malcolm X’s assassination as saying “they think everyone out to kill them because they know they deserve to be killed for what they did.”

LeBron James is the same age now that Muhammad Ali was when a jury found him guilty of resisting the draft. That year was the lowest of low points in Ali’s career. He was stripped of his titles and his licenses to box. It would be another seven years before Muhammad Ali would regain the title in Zaire against George Foreman. During those seven years, Ali would grow spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. He left the Nation of Islam, became a Sunni Muslim, apologized for his treatment of Malcolm X, reconciled with fighters he had humiliated (he even called Henry Cooper to compliment him on his left hook), became a philanthropist, and sought out a role as an international advocate of peace. He grew to become one of the most respected and beloved public figures in the world.
”I am who I am, and I think I'm in a position of my life where I'm going to get better every day, but it's too much. That's just crazy. What those guys did, the courage and what they stood for, I should be nowhere near that list. Nowhere near it.''
Most importantly, history has remembered Muhammad Ali not as a 22 year old obnoxious braggart, or as a  firebrand hate-monger, or even as a lazy boxer or an impatient and stubborn student. History has remembered him as a poor kid from Louisville who shocked the world as a seven-to-one underdog, as a brave young man who stood up for what he believed in against the worst possible consequences, and as an amazing fighter who could twice shock the world in an unwinnable fight by showing a whole lot of heart and serious God-given talent. History remembers the moments where Muhammad Ali made the right decisions, the decisions we all aspire to have the guts and the intelligence and the resolve to make. History has forgotten the moments where he did otherwise.

There’s no telling how history will remember LeBron James. The only thing we know for certain is that, at least on this point, LeBron controls his own destiny. Muhammad Ali’s story teaches us that redemption is possible, but it requires of us to both seek forgiveness and to act with thoughtfulness, courage, and kindness when the truly important “decisions” that test our character arise. One other thing, it helps a lot if you win.

David Hill is a writer living in Brooklyn. He spent his honeymoon in Miami, but claims it was his wife's idea. You can follow him on twitter at @davehill77

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Anonymous said...

shitty. didn't have anything to do with the correlation, just a quick overview of ali.

Anonymous said...

Ali and James share a brashness that is, in part, a reflection of their era.

Ali and other African-Americans during the civil rights era compensated for their ill treatment and the subsequent effect on their pride, egos, and identities. A black man knew that he was perceived as dirt, and the resulting self-esteem issues were no one's sob story. Toughness was necessary for survival.

James is a product of his environment in a much more direct manner. His public persona is a collective of ideas that lack genuine individuality. He has blurred the line between what is considered a thoughtful, intellectually aware person and a commercial brand entity. The American corporate structure wherein a business has human rights is analogous to James, the person, as a corporate nameplate. He is no more real than a cigarette advertisement and yet he is still a human being with a human brain living in a society.

Ali didn't understand society but strove to. He probably thought of himself as more empathetic and intellectual than "most" and desired to bridge his educational experience to others. James doesn't understand society but thinks he does. He thinks he knows what the world is like, and that they want sneakers and TV specials to escape from their mundane lives. James' lives his life as Ego, the real name of "business LeBron". To understand that James was a teenaged fan of MTV Cribs' during its heyday speaks volumes both about the man and the society we live in, and how it influences the fame generation.

David Hill said...

i think the point of what i wrote was that people could and often did make similar arguments about muhammad ali in the early 1960s (and perhaps even later) that you are making about lebron.

i won't quibble about whether or not those arguments were fair or not.

i wrote this to point out that the book is not yet written on lebron james. and while he certainly is on a shitty chapter right now, redemption is possible. ali found it.

to follow ali's example would require lebron to see himself as more than a business, more than just a guy doing a job for a check, but to accept and even embrace his role as a public figure and to use that role boldly, inspire both on and off the court.

Anonymous said...

The athlete as an outspoken social activist was invented by Muhammad Ali. Jesse Owens and Joe Louis won acclaim through their sheer perseverance, not as thoughtfully vocal avatars for change. There can never be another Ali, simply because he was the first. What does LeBron have to stand for? In 2011, what injustices in America or elsewhere touches LeBron James in such a way that his voice and opinion need to move our society forward? Asking these things is legitimately absurd. He's a high school graduate who manages to speak in cliches and invent new prepositions and modifiers at the same time. His voice is as important as any insulated, educationally lacking young man who cares mostly about music, cars and clothes.

What does LeBron care about when he thinks about the world at large? LeBron seemingly cares only to be respected for his ability to earn money. Most of his goals end with the making of money. Earning money is his end game. Beyond that, it almost seems clear that LeBron doesn't think much about the world. Make money; have fun; repeat.

As far as LeBron's opportunities, as an athlete, or as a black man, they are afforded in part by Ali's struggle. Making fans like you because you are an invested in by several corporations is not the same as Ali winning racist fans over by being uniquely himself. Eventually, he became beloved for not only his brashness, but his thoughtfulness, intelligence and ability to adapt. LeBron may adapt and change, but his track record has suggested that he won't. LeBron genuinely thinks people are crazy for not liking him. He doesn't understand that cockiness is not brashness, that his on-court histrionics smack of a caffeinated Stephon Marbury more than effusive Magic. He doesn't get that he is fucking annoying. Watching him rap an Eminem song during pre-game shootaround was as uncomfortable as a successful multi-millionaire can make me. His thoughts were so transparent as to be pathetic. "Everybody's looking at me, I love this song, they'll be so impressed that I know all the words and then I'm gonna go out and score 30, man, they all love me. Do they love me? Do I look as cool as I know I think I feel?"

Ali was himself despite what others thought, and eventually, he caricaturized parts of his personality on purpose to spite those who didn't like him. LeBron James is an absolute polar opposite. He says what he thinks we want him to say even though we know he's full of shit. When he talks about the "great history" of this thing or that thing, it becomes painfully obvious that he wishes us to think he is more intellectual than he is. He shoehorns this in between braggadocious posturing and whatever the latest Nike memo told him to plug. "Actually, for me, right now, LeBron needs to do what LeBron do and go about my business." This quote sounds like a Sarah Palin nightmare, a long sentence that manages to convey absolutely nothing. His public persona doesn't contain an ounce of anything genuine. For that, he will always be a spectacularly gifted basketball player and not much else.

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