On March 26, 1976, the great Muhammad Ali spent a half-hour in the company of George Herman, Peter Bonaventre, and Fred Graham on CBS’ Face the Nation—the starkest takeaway may be how much has changed.
In our hyper-partisan times, you wouldn’t necessarily expect a prominent African-American athlete to aspire to be a “black Henry Kissinger” or to single out a Republican administration—referring to Ford—as the only one that he has really liked (“I like President Ford and his administration”), all the while disavowing any expertise in political matters.
It’s an astonishing thing to watch Ali’s stoic face as he listens to Fred Graham idiotically inquire, “Is there ever gonna be another ‘Great White Hope,’ a white heavyweight that’s gonna come in and whip all of you black heavyweights?” Interestingly, Ali largely accepts the premise of the question, discussing the great white boxers of the past and agreeing that there aren’t very many around. Of course, to our 2013 ears, the whole idea of pining for a white hero to come along seems reprehensible and also oddly aggressive in freely owning up to the psychological need of white people to have a white champ. The whole thing seems more than a little silly today.
They discuss Ali’s upcoming bout with legendary sumo wrestler Antonio Inoki in June of the same year in Tokyo. That was a very interesting fight—after truly massive hype, it was something of a fizzle, ending in a frustrating 3-3 draw, and Ali suffered some serious leg injuries during the fight, which some have seen as a precursor to modern mixed martial arts. (Ali may have had the last laugh, however: Inoki announced in 2012 that he had converted to Islam 22 years earlier.)
Speaking of injuries, in light of Ali’s struggle with Parkinson’s, it’s heartbreaking to hear him describe a series of jaw fractures, some nerve problems, and a “busted eardrum” that have resulted from his fighting career. In addition, completely unaware that his boxing would eventually lead to Parkinson’s, Ali warns youngsters not to go into boxing in stark terms (even while claiming that baseball is more dangerous): “I think boxing is dangerous. Any man been hit in the head—the brain’s a delicate thing, I think it should be well protected. ... I would advise nobody to box. If they get hit too much, ... it’s too dangerous.”
Amusingly, Ali admits that he’d kinda like to have back that Olympic gold medal he threw into the river way back when.
Towards the end of the program, Ali furnishes a rather ringing endorsement of the United States of America: “I’ll say this: We have a lot of moral problems in America, but America’s the greatest country in the world. I been throughout the world. The best schooling system, the best education system, the medical system, the highways, the cars, the airplanes, the television shows, and this is why—but morally, we need to be uplifted” before going on to praise Wallace D. Muhammad, the son of Elijah Muhammad who disbanded the original Nation of Islam of his father and moved the church into a much more mainstream direction (it sure is interesting to hear Ali disavow all that “white devil” stuff…...).