When Muham­mad Ali took on Superman

Lesotho Times - - Entertainment -

LON­DON — The year is 1978 and Muham­mad Ali is about to take on the most pow­er­ful man on Earth. In the au­di­ence is a stel­lar cast - ev­ery­one from The Beatles to Pele to Andy Warhol to Bat­man. Muham­mad Ali is in the box­ing ring with Superman.

The iconic cover of Superman vs Muham­mad Ali has be­come one of the most shared im­ages on so­cial media since the death of the box­ing leg­end, but the tale of how it came to be re­veals a lot about Muham­mad Ali’s America.

“When young comic book artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shus­ter took their cre­ation Superman, ini­tially drawn as a vil­lain, to DC Comics they had no idea that within three months, the tales of the su­per­hero would sell a mil­lion copies. America wanted Su­per­heroes,” artist Neal Adams, who drew the iconic cover and co-wrote the story, told BBC Trend­ing.

Cut to few decades later when Julius (Julie) Schwartz, an edi­tor of DC Comics, pitched a new story idea.

“One day at a meet­ing, Julie said: ‘ Why don’t we have Superman fight Muham­mad Ali?’“says Adams. “We all said: ‘you’re crazy!’ but Julie felt that a real-life hero fight­ing a fan­tasy hero would be some­thing spe­cial.”

The comic’s plot was that an alien race called the Scrub wanted to pit their cham­pion against the great­est fighter on Earth. If he lost, Earth would be de­stroyed. Superman was a likely choice but Ali sug­gested he would be a bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tive, as a hu­man rather than an ex­ile from the planet Kryp­ton. So the two en­tered a qual­i­fy­ing bout.

In the real world, Muham­mad Ali’s prow­ess in the ring had been proved many times, (although at the time of pub­li­ca­tion, in Fe­bru­ary 1978, Leon Spinks was the world heavy­weight cham­pion; Ali went on to re­gain the ti­tle in Septem­ber of that year). But Ali was not con­sid­ered a hero by all in America.

Ali had made clear his stance as a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor to the Viet­nam War. He had been con­victed of draft eva­sion on 28 June 1967, for re­fus­ing in­duc­tion into the army. In re­al­ity, Ali could have been a poster boy for the US Army, and it was un­likely that he would have been made to phys­i­cally step on to a bat­tle­field. But Ali didn’t want a “sweet­heart deal”. He de­clared that he “had no quar­rel with the Vi­et­cong”. The re­marks, which were made a year be­fore the first sig­nif­i­cant anti-viet­nam protests, were es­pe­cially con­tro­ver­sial at the time, con­sid­er­ing he had con­verted to Is­lam.

And although that was al­most a decade ear­lier than the comic’s re­lease, the de­ci­sion made by DC Comics for Ali to fight the most pow­er­ful white superman in myth was still a par­tic­u­larly dar­ing act for the time, says Adams.

“DC Comics had a lot of lib­eral New York young Jewish men work­ing for them at the time, who un­der­stood prej­u­dice,” says Adams. “And to de­pict Ali as on par with a white myth­i­cal Superman, was a sub­tle po­lit­i­cal act,” says Adams. “The pen is might­ier than the sword.”

The process of col­lab­o­rat­ing with Ali’s team over his im­age came with some chal­lenges. They ini­tially weren’t happy with the first cover as drawn by DC’S Joe Ku­bert, find­ing it too “crude”, says Adams. He was drafted in to “soften” Ku­bert’s ini­tial vi­sion. Adams’s cover won the ap­proval of Ali’s team.

There have been ru­mours that Ali in­sisted that a plot point was in­cluded where he learned Superman’s true iden­tity (Clark Kent). Adams says that if this con­ver­sa­tion hap­pened, he was not privy to it.

How­ever, Ali did make one re­quest. He had fully em­braced the re­li­gion of Is­lam, and he wanted the DC Comics team to fly to Chicago to get the seal of ap­proval of his spir­i­tual leader Eli­jah Muham­mad.

When Ali beat Leon Spinks in News Or­leans on 15 Septem­ber 1978 to re­gain the world heavy­weight box­ing ti­tle, he en­cour­aged the world at his press con­fer­ence to buy Superman v. Muham­mad Ali. They duly obliged. “The comic would be pub­lished in ev­ery free coun­try in the world,” says Adams.

“It meant so much to so many peo­ple,” Adams says. “To this day, I have African Amer­i­cans come up to me at comic book con­ven­tions with their old weath­ered copy of Superman vs Muham­mad Ali for me to sign. It’s still ex­tremely emo­tional.”

Adams told us that that he wasn’t close to Ali, although he did hear that the boxer loved the comic and would proudly show his friends his own copy when they vis­ited his home. But the mo­ment that stands out for Adams was the press con­fer­ence af­ter Ali beat Spinks in New Or­leans.

“I fought my way through the crowd to Ali’s side for a pho­to­graph,” Adams says, “I put my hand on his shoul­der and it felt like stone. He ra­di­ated power and strength.” — BBC

THE iconic cover of Superman vs Muham­mad ali has be­come one of the most shared im­ages on so­cial media since the death of the box­ing leg­end.

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