By Tom Donelson
The Soul Of A Butterfly is not a book about boxing; it is a book about life. Muhammad Ali reflection on his life co-written with his daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali deals with issues that go beyond boxing. Ali details his own journey from the small skinny kid who started boxing to punish the thieves that stole his bike to one of the most recognizable men in the world today. While it was Ali who stood down the United States Government and invented the rope-a-dope to upset George Foreman, it was Cassius Clay who first dreamed of being heavyweight champ. We see the transformation from Clay to Ali.
Ali seemed to have that inner drive to achieve greatness and an awareness of the world around him from the very beginning. As a youngster, he could never understand why he only saw white super heroes and a Christ that was white as well. It was Ali dream to be that black role model. This would lead him on a journey that extended beyond the ring.
There are some interesting tidbits. One example is Ali disclosing that he was dyslexia and this affected his learning as a child. It was always curious to me that one of the quickest minds in sports and man who could adopt as quickly as any men in the ring would have trouble passing intelligence tests. Now we know. Ali suffered from a learning disability.
He described his journey to the Nation of Islam in the beginning as a rebellion against White society as much as a journey in faith. It is now faith that takes precedence over any feeling of hatred or revenge.
Ali wrote, “The Nation of Islam taught that White people were devils. I don’t believe it that now; in fact I never really believed that White men were devils. But when I was young, I had seen and heard so many horrible stories about the White man that this made me stop and listen.” He also chided the press for misrepresenting the Nation of Islam as a hate sect and complained, “We never preached hate and “Black Muslims” as a name given to us by the media.” He softened the Nation of Islam stances on race relation by writing, “Elijah Muhammad was not teaching hate when he told us about all of the evil things the White man has done any more than the Whites are teaching hate when they tell you what Hitler did to the Jews. That’s not hate; that’s history.”
He acknowledged that a young fighter, he knew there were whites willing to help but he also relayed the story that Elijah told him about rattlesnakes. “If there were one thousands rattlesnakes outside your door and maybe one hundred of the wouldn’t bite you,” Ali related, “Should you open the door and hope that the hundred snakes that wouldn’t harm you will come together and form a shield…Or should you close the door and stay safe?” For a long time, Ali appeared to be distrustful of the America society as a whole. Ali added, “I never hated anyone” and pointed out that his trainer was the Italian-American Angelo Dundee and his camp manager was Gene Kilroy. Now Ali is a mainstream Sunni Muslim and has rejected the separatist movement that set the Nation of Islam apart from the mainstream Islamic movement. Certainly during his exile from boxing, it was individuals like Gene Kilroy, who stood by his side when even members of the Nation of Islam deserted him.
As one gets older, we get a chance to reflect upon our accomplishments and mistakes. For Ali, he regrets rejecting Malcolm X. For twelve years, Malcolm X was one of Elijah chief followers but in the last year of his life, he broke with Elijah on doctrine. In Mecca, he saw many different races worshipping God and this led him to question the path of Nation of Islam was taking in the United States. .
Ali supported Elijah and turned his back on Malcolm X, who played a significant role in Muhammad Ali’s conversion to Islam. Ali stated, “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I ‘d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry that he was right about so many things…He was a visionary- ahead of us all.” Shortly after Ali broke with Malcolm X, rival members of the Nation of Islam assassinated Malcolm X.
The second mistake he admits was his verbal abuse of Joe Frazier. He admitted in this book that Joe Frazier was the toughest man he fought. Of Frazier, Ali writes, “
There lives a great champion named Joe
Who kept his head held high.
He fought the best of men
And proved his strength would not die
For every struggle that Joe survived,
For every dispute he endured, to rise
Joe will go down in history
as a model for champions to come
Joe Frazier was silent warrior,
Whom Ali silently admired.
One could not rise without the other.
There were two Ali boxing career. The first one would end in 1967, when he refused induction into the Army. That Ali had the speed of a welterweight and dominated the division. After he came back in 1970, Ali began his second career. Ali lost three and half years of his prime boxing career and he became a symbol for many on the left when he came back. For Ali, each fight represented his struggle against the government. Joe Frazier was the prime-target since he had the audacity to claim Ali’s title and for many of Ali’s fans, he represented the establishment. Joe Frazier was put in a no-win position not of his making. He just wanted to be a fighter and not a symbol but for many of Ali’s fans, Frazier became that symbol to transmit their hatred. Ali transferred some of his bitterness upon Frazier as well.
Ali and Frazier would wage three of the toughest heavyweight fights and their trilogy became legend. During their last bout, Ali told his corner that this was the closet to death that he came. And he admitted that he went too far in his poking fun at Frazier and realized that by their third fight, Frazier truly disliked him. Ali-Frazier trilogy sealed both men in the boxing history as great warriors. Author Thomas Hauser once stated that these three fights brought out the best in each men as fighters but their worst instinct as humans.
For Ali, his crowning moment came in beating George Foreman in Zaire. For Ali, fighting in Africa was his career coming full circle. He was in a country run by black men in a nation dominated by black people. The Foreman fight showed Ali at his tactical best. Foreman was eight years Ali junior and had already destroyed Joe Frazier and Ken Norton- two fighters that had beaten Ali once.
Ali won this fight on guile as much as skills and he allowed Foreman to punch himself out before knocking him out. He talked about how his friendship formed with his defeated foe over the years and that Foreman still calls him on occasion. Oh yea, he even bought a Foreman grill.
Does Ali have any regret, did he feel that he stayed one fight too long? Here Ali’s answer may surprise. He stated that he would not change anything about his career and that his final defeat to Trevor Berbick added closure. This fight convinced him that at the age of 40, there was nothing left. Nor does he blame Parkinson’s on his boxing.
He doesn’t regret saying no to the Army despite the cost. If Ali had been drafted in the Army, he would never had seen combat. He was assured that he would fight exhibitions and never really even need to carry a gun. He refused and chose possible jail instead of a easy stint in the Army.
Ali is at peace with himself and notes, “I have said that I am the greatest. In truth, only God is the Greatest.” Throughout the book and in particular the last third of this book, Ali talks about his faith. Ali observed, “One thing that has always amazed me is how many people question the existence of God. They are always searching for proof…why does disbelief come so naturally to us, while belief takes such effort?
Ali observed that if we are sick, we trust the doctor to heal us; if we need a lawyer, we have faith in the attorney knowledge of the law. Ali states, “Yet many people still question whether or not here is a greater power behind the creation of life.”
Ali belief in Islam has “taught me that living a clean life physically, mentally and spiritually elevates a person’s mind, enabling him to see the world in a new light.” Ali concludes that to harbor hated will only consume the individual. This explains his own maturity when it comes to faith as a man who had much to prove to a man who had accomplish much.
If you wanted to know how much America has changed, just look at Ali. In 1996, Ali lighted the Olympic torch and yet three decades earlier, many reviled his stance on Vietnam and his refusal to be inducted. America has made it peace with Ali and Ali has made his peace with America.