Having come of age a few decades after Muhammad Ali’s prime, for a long time I only knew him by a motley assortment of details from his life outside of the boxing ring: His conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, his religious belief and humanitarian efforts, his youthful, fiery wit and his quieter, post-Parkinson’s persona.
Of course, I knew he was a legendary boxer — a world heavyweight champion three times over, I would later learn — but I had no idea why. It wasn’t until I came across the following description that the actual substance of his fighting career was brought home for me. I was reading about something in boxing called ‘the tales of the tape’, a series of physical measurements used to identify so-called naturals, things like a fighter’s reach, fist size, chest expansion, and weight:
‘Muhammad Ali failed these measurements. He was not a natural. He had great speed but he didn’t have the classical moves. In fact, he boxed all wrong. He didn’t block punches with his arms and elbows. He punched in rallies like an amateur. He kept his jaw exposed. He piled back his torso to evade the impact of punches, which Jose Torres said was “like someone in the middle of a train track trying to avoid being hit by an oncoming train, not by moving to one side of the track, but by running backwards.”’
What Ali did have in spades, however, was intelligence. Using brains, not brawn, ‘he sized up his opponent and went for his mental jugular’. In the lead-up to fighting Sonny Liston — who was considered a natural — Ali spoke to everyone he could who knew Liston or had been around him. He read every interview with Liston he could get his hands on. Then he lay in bed and thought about everything he had learned, piecing together a mental picture of the man and how his mind worked. From here Ali decided to ‘go crazy’ before the fight, saying ‘Liston had to believe that I was crazy. That I was capable of doing anything. He couldn’t see nothing to me at all but mouth and that’s all I wanted him to see.’ Ali famously called Liston a ‘big ugly bear’ and declared that ‘after I beat him I’m gonna donate him to the zoo’ (a ballsy threat under any circumstances, but especially when you consider Liston’s phenomenal physical prowess and his ties to organised crime). Ali and Liston met each other twice in the ring, once in 1964 and again a year later in ’65, in two of the most anticipated and legendary fights in sporting history. Ali won both times.
As I learned more about Ali, the assorted bullet points from his life began to coalesce into a fuller picture of a much-admired man. In no time at all, I came to share that same admiration. While m reading about Ali and looking at photographs from the prime of his life, it wasn’t just his character and achievements that struck me, it was his sense of style.
I’ve found I can spend hours looking at the clothes that athletes wear. To scroll through the tunnel fits of any NBA game is to see some of the most creative, outlandish, and — inevitably — expensive outfits you’re likely to encounter anywhere outside of an actual catwalk or red carpet. And the old guys weren’t much different. Picture those nearly-naval-baring necklines of Wilt Chamberlain or the fur coats and silk-banded hats of Walt Frazier in his prime. The same was true in the boxing world. Fighters like Joe Frazier and George Foreman were typically decked out to the nines in lavish coats, jaunty headgear, and those wide ’70s collars that just kept on going.
Strikingly, given the ostentatious mould of his peers, Ali’s personal style was remarkably restrained. Throughout his life, Ali favoured simple polos and button-ups, plainly-cut jackets, and impressively retrained lapels, regardless of the decade. He also wore a lot of black and generally favoured muted tones. On a trip to London in the early ’60s, he turned to Harry Helman on Savile Row, a tailor who had previously outfitted Prince Philip — the conservative choice, in other words. It’s hardly what you would expect from a man famed for his outsized personality and sharp wit. The Louisville Lip should surely have a loud wardrobe to match. But, as George Plimpton aptly put it, ‘Ali always delighted in sidestepping people’s expectations’ and his clothing choices did just that.
Instead of taking inspiration in matters of dress from his fellow boxers, Ali rather looked to men like Malcolm X and Gordon Parks. In fact, it’s because of Parks that he went to Helman on Savile Row in the first place. Having seen the photographer wearing one of his suits and inquiring about the details, Ali said: ‘I’m ordering six just like it, in different colours. I’m a gentleman now, I have to look like one.’
Parks also had this to say about Ali’s clothing choices:
‘He always presented himself in this smart, clean way, both to distance himself from the heritage of boxing, which had been pretty sleazy up to then, with its links to organised crime, and also because he saw himself as an aspirational figure to young, disenfranchised black kids. He wanted to present himself as the opposite of a thug, and his well-cut suits and the attention to detail in his dress was a crucial element in that image.’
His faith was part of it too. In accordance with the rectitude of the Nation of Islam, Ali was mindful of his appearance. As Stuart Husband wrote over at Mr Porter, ‘The Nation’s credo of probity influenced Mr Ali in matters of bearing as well as presentation’.
Look at photos of Ali in the ’60s, however, and you will find that restrained didn’t mean characterless by any means. There’s the tasteful jewellery (the occasion signet ring and his Cartier Tank, for example), the wayfarer sunglasses, and even a rare flourish here and there: a bowler hat worn on Broadway, or a rhinestone robe that was a gift from Elvis.
The results were a clean, simple, but still idiosyncratic wardrobe that is every bit as timeless as his career in the ring. What’s more, the relative simplicity of his garments only served to highlight his physical prowess (regardless of what the tales of the tape tell you). Never is this more clear than when Ali is clad in his simple heather sweats or his satin fighting gear. His 6’3’’ bearing and fighter’s frame meant that The Greatest’s attire inside and out of the ring always underscored his natural elegance, meaning he rarely looked anything other than capital ‘G’ Great.
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