Muhammad Ali and the lyricism of self-love
If The Champ transcended anything, it wasn’t race, it was language
Why would a tall, muscular, fierce fighter like Muhammad Ali, a man whose image epitomizes masculine iconography, take so much pleasure in describing himself as “pretty,” a word generally reserved for all things girly?
Because he could.
“You look at me, I’m loaded with confidence,” Ali said in one of his many famed press conferences. “I can’t be beat! I had 180 amateur fights, 22 professional fights, and I’m pretty as a girl!” Muhammad Ali was The Greatest and he made sure that we knew it. And he was oh, so pretty.
“Will’s pretty for a young man — but I’m even prettier for an old man,” Ali said of his biopic doppelgänger, actor Will Smith. “When I was his age, I was twice as pretty.”
“It would have been much more boring, much more mundane, if he said he was handsome,” said Stanford University linguistics professor John Rickford. “Precisely because he’s so confident in his manhood, he can use words that might normally be used for girls.”
Pretty, in its conventional usage, conveys a specific, girlish sort of pulchritude, like the one we associate with Maria in the 1961 film version of West Side Story. Maria, enjoying the headrush of new love, swirls around donning all manner of exaggerated female frippery in the form of tulle and frilly hats. Her speech is clearly enunciated so we get the full effect of “pre-TTY and wi-TTY and gaaaay!”
Ali was not known for subverting traditional gender norms, but by 1964, though, at 22 years old and full of I-told-you-sos after beating Sonny Liston, Ali had taken the word and made it his own, giving it an entirely different sort of rhythm. That stemmed from a larger tradition of black braggadocio, always delivered with bit of a wink and a smile, a tradition where being creative and inventive about language is rewarded. That same tradition continues throughout hip-hop, and reappears in Bruno Mars’ nouveau funk jam Uptown Funk, where he belts, “Got Chucks on with Saint Laurent / Gotta kiss myself, I’m so pretty!”
“It was striking to many people outside of black America because … it embodies this bragging tradition that’s the opposite of what you’re supposed to do,” Rickford said. “People who grew up with this tradition would expect it, appreciate it … The very fact that pretty is an honor more for women than for men would make it a more innovative use. I was talking about it with my wife. She said, ‘Yeah, yeah, pretty makes him more handsome than handsome would.’”
“I told ye,” Ali said to reporters after the Liston fight. “I told ye. I just played with him. I whipped him so bad and wasn’t that good? And look at me — I’m still pretty.”
It’s not just that Ali was bragging about his looks. A “pretty boy” can refer to a foppish man whose clothes and hands remain unsullied because he has no economic need to engage in the kind of hard labor that would result in callouses or mussed-up clothes. In the case of Kappa Alpha Psi, the black fraternity that’s become synonymous with the pretty boy label, it’s a little different.
“I’d guess that it comes as an evolution of being playboys,” said Lawrence Ross, author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities, which came out in 2000. “The use of canes by fraternities — all fraternities used them at one time — was the sign of a gentleman, and you’d often see pledges wearing a top hat and carrying a cane. In the early 1970s, you see the evolution of hand signs, and the first Kappa hand sign consisted of them holding up their middle three fingers. That would evolve into the Playboy bunny sign.”
With Ali, there was another wrinkle — he was doing extraordinary physical labor and he managed to remain relatively untouched while doing so, which just added to his mythos.“My face is so pretty,” he proclaimed, “you don’t see a scar, which proves I’m the king of the ring by far.”
Ali, like the subject of Love Man, the song Otis Redding recorded in 1967, on an album of the same name and released posthumously in 1969, had a good time enjoying the rewards of that prettiness too. Sings Redding:
Six feet one, weigh two hundred and ten / Long hair, pretty fair skin / Long legs and I’m outta sight / There ain’t no doubt I’m gonna take you out / ‘Cause I’m a love man
“It’s not as poetic as Muhammad Ali,” Rickford quipped. “They should have let him write some of these lyrics.” We’ll table the business of unpacking the quite brown-skinned Redding’s conflation of fair skin with prettiness, but Ali was a Love Man, if ever there was one.
Later in the song, Redding sings, Which one of you girls want me to hold you? / Which one of you girls want me to kiss you? / Which one of you girls want me to take you out? / Go on I got you, gonna knock you all night / ‘Cause, baby, I’m a love man.
In a conversation with Slate’s Stefan Fatsis, New York Times Magazine writer Richard Lipsyte recalled a particular moment from 1975 when he wrote about Ali putting all that pretty to work:
His sexual exploits I think were beyond legend. I couldn’t understand how Ali could have so many sexual dalliances in the same day. The screenwriter Ring Lardner, who wrote the screenplay based on his book The Greatest, explained that Ali … felt that it was really important that he could at least give some sort of service to as many women as possible. To him, it was like giving autographs. The particular time that you’re talking about, he brought three women into this trailer, sent two out, a few minutes later the trailer began to shake. … It’s not as if I was the only one in the world who saw it. It was a public event. So I wrote it. … The story’s title, which I did not write, was “King of All Kings.”
So now it’s six months later, and I understand that Ali’s not going to talk to me, but I’m sent down to do a piece on Ali on set for The Greatest. … So I go on the set, and the first thing I hear is this yell: “Bob!” And it’s Ali running over to me. He gives me a big hug and he smiles and he said, “King of all kings. Boy, you got that right.”
There’s a wonderful moment in Bill Siegel’s 2013 documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali where Ali is captured in his boxing robe, talking to Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., after defeating Jerry Quarry in Atlanta on Oct. 26, 1970.
King, who was 43 at the time, can barely contain herself. She takes his hand and looks up at him, beaming like a schoolgirl with a crush and said, “I want to say that you’re not only our champion in the boxing area but you’re also a champion of justice and peace and human dignity. Thank you.” The Prettiest had grown women forgetting themselves and batting eyelashes, King and singer Diana Ross included. Both were filmed giving Ali discreet once-overs. Could you blame them?
It makes sense then, that Ali would be so enamored with Prince. After news of his death at age 74 broke Friday, fans and admirers began to share tributes to Ali. A photo of an elderly Ali reaching out to touch Prince’s hair was particularly popular.
Prince: "Muhammad Ali was my hero. If he asked me to do anything I'm down with that. I'd even have mowed his lawn!" pic.twitter.com/oOSeL8ylXt
— Prince Museum (@PrinceMuseum) June 4, 2016
It was easy to see Prince as pretty. He was slight in stature, he had these gorgeous androgynous features, his deep investment in his appearance was obvious — just look at his dedication to wearing high-heeled shoes — all things we typically associate with women. But what happened? Pretty recognized pretty, in all its forms.
In his 2004 memoir, The Soul of a Butterfly, this is what Ali wrote in the chapter entitled How I Would Like to be Remembered:
I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love. And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.
There’s no chance of anyone forgetting just how pretty Ali was. Not because we have an endless trove of photographic reminders — which we do — but because Ali’s kind of pretty was more than skin-deep. That won’t ever fade.