Before we discuss how Muhammad Ali might have inspired Donald Trump, let's remember who first inspired Cassius Clay.
A teenage Clay famously fashioned his act after a white professional wrestler named Gorgeous George, who taunted the crowd about how "pretty" he was, and dared his opponent to muss his precious blond curls. Later, Muhammad Ali would say he noticed how much attention Gorgeous George got from being a loudmouth villain—and how much money it made him.
Ali went darker, drumming up interest in seeing him get his block knocked off, by first describing his opponents as bums and later giving many of them more specific nicknames. Sonny Liston was the "Big Ugly Bear," Floyd Patterson was the "The Rabbit," Ernie Terrell was "Uncle Tom," George Chuvalo was "The Washerwoman," George Foreman was "The Mummy," and when it came to Joe Frazier, it was "gonna be a thrilla and a chilla when I get that gorilla in Manilla."
People who love Ali dismiss most of that as creative fight promotion, and forgive the clear excesses on account of, how do you know where the line is if you don't cross it every once in awhile?
Ali was also a ridiculous womanizer who actually manipulated his second wife into arranging dates for him, telling her that doing so would make her greater than all other wives. She was 19 at the time.
Ali was a narcissist who could not get enough attention. He was great to everyone he ever met on the street, after once meeting Sugar Ray Robinson in New York and being snubbed. "I was so hurt," he later said. "If Sugar Ray only knew how much I'd loved him and how long I'd followed him maybe he wouldn't have done that. I said to myself right then, 'If I ever get great and famous and people want my autograph and wait all day to see me, I'm sure goin' to treat 'em different.'"
His problem turned out to be, he could never enough of 'em. Once during Ali's exile from boxing, he showed up two hours early for a speaking appearance in Chicago. "To pass the time," writes Jonathan Eig in Ali: A Life, "he wandered along the sidewalk, trying to attract attention. 'I'm looking for a fight!' he barked to anyone in earshot. 'Who's the baddest man around here?'" An Esquire writer who was with Ali that day was saddened: "Ali seemed at a loss. A national magazine writer was accompanying him, recording his every word and every action, and it was not enough to sate his ego. With two hours to kill before his next audience could be assembled, he was incapable of enjoying a quiet moment of introspection, incapable of trying to get to know the man who'd been accompanying him around town all day."
As a talker, Ali was constant. As a thinker, he was contradictory. His stated reasons for refusing induction into the military for Vietnam were mostly admirable, but they were ever-changing. In general, Ali's arguments were more ethos and pathos than logos. And the few ideas he stuck with were understandable as a revelation of 1960s black pride, but borderline monstrous to the modern ear. For instance, he argued against racial integration in general, and interracial marriage specifically. "Every intelligent person wants his child to look like him," he said. "Listen, no woman on this whole earth, not even a black woman in Muslim countries, can please me and cook for me and socialize and talked to me like my American black woman. No woman, and last is a white woman, can really identify with my feelings and the way I act and the way I talk."
And lest you think Ali was a perfectly righteous defender of African Americans: When he moved to Philadelphia in 1970, he lived in a white neighborhood, and when he was challenged about it by some college students at a lecture, he said, "Do you want me to buy a home in the ghetto? Why do I want to live in a rat bin and have a rat bite my child?"
Though I learned some of these specifics from Eig's book, I've known these things about Ali all along. I compile this litany of shabbiness not to convince you not to admire Ali, or to explain to myself how I still do.
But rather to answer the question that so many of us find ourselves asking one another these days: What kind of person could admire an exaggerating, narcissistic racist bully who thinks with his tongue and navigates with his cock?
Let's sit with these similarities between Muhammad Ali and Donald Trump, and between us and them.
And in tomorrow's conclusion, I'll explore the hate these men have both inspired—and the also the love.