“A friend asked me the other day to choose my favorite Muhammad Ali fight. “The Rumble in the Jungle,” I responded. I was thinking of all the rhymes that accompanied it, from “You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned? Wait till I whip George Foreman’s behind,” to the very phrase “rope-a-dope”, as he named the strategy he used to defeat a superior opponent in the heat of Kinshasa. It was an athletic event but it was also a linguistic one.Almost from the beginning of his career, when he was still called Cassius Clay, his rhymed couplets, like his punches, were brutal and blunt.
And his poems, like his opponents, suffered a beating. The press’s earliest nicknames for him, such as “Cash the Brash” and “the Louisville Lip,” derived from his deriding of opponents with poetic insults. When in the history of boxing have critics been so irked by a fighter’s use of language? A. J. Liebling called him “Mr. Swellhead Bigmouth Poet,” while John Ahern, writing in The Boston Globe in 1964, mocked his “vaudeville” verse as “homespun doggerel.” Time magazine, in a particularly nasty triple dig in 1967 over Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his embrace of the Nation of Islam and his name change, called him “Gaseous Cassius.
”But the same verse can strike one critic as doggerel and another as art, and not everyone missed the power — and the point — of Ali’s poetics. Even Ahern admitted that “the guy is a master at rhyming,” and The New Yorker editor and Ali biographer David Remnick would eulogize him as “a master of rhyming prediction and derision.” Perhaps Maya Angelou, whose own poetry is sometimes labeled doggerel, said it best: “It wasn’t only what he said and it wasn’t only how he said it; it was both of those things, and maybe there was a third thing in it, the spirit of Muhammad Ali, saying his poesies — ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’ I mean, as a poet, I like that! If he hadn’t put his name on it, I might have chosen to use that!” ”