The Time Muhammad Ali Two-Pieced Superman
As a 14-year-old Black boy in the Bronx, I knew anything was possible once I read that comic book
I’m not going to bore you with Muhammad Ali’s legendary exploits, because for decades, journalists have regaled his every documented breath, his defiance of systemic oppression, and his magnetic belief in his abilities. Instead, I’ll share the perspective of a young Black boy in the Bronx during the ’70s, trying to find his place in the world when Ali came on the scene.
He was the first Black man I had ever seen get up on television and declare that he was “The Greatest.” There wasn’t a caveat in his inflection. There wasn’t a touch of mockery, only the crystal clear belief in his self-worth and ability. Until that moment, I didn’t know such self-assuredness was allowed.
When I was growing up, Ali was the hero my friends and I aspired to become. The man, the conviction, and the willingness to go to jail for his beliefs and to sacrifice everything for his principles made him as legendary as Superman — with the added benefit of being real enough to touch. His was the name chanted in the barbershop while I waited to get my hair cut, the older men speaking with a reverence reserved for religious figures. His was the name spoken at the doors of the church before we went in to pay homage to a faceless and often-depicted White Jesus.
Although Ali was legendary in my household, my family was devoutly Christian and frowned upon pride. They instilled humility before God, and as a result, the idea of being proud of my A+ grades wasn’t encouraged. Speaking on it would have been the greatest sin. Adding insult to injury, Superman and the comics I enjoyed were considered a form of idolatry when I grew up — the worship of false gods, as it were.
But when this giant-sized comic showing Superman and Muhammad Ali together on the same cover — the icon of all things American, and the hero of Black America — I was speechless, and did everything in my power to acquire it. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was published by DC Comics in 1978; the 72-page book featured the Man of Steel teaming up with the former heavyweight boxing champion to defeat an alien invasion of Earth.
In the end, Superman loses. But he lost to the greatest boxer that had ever put on a pair of gloves. And I was cool with it; if my favorite hero was going to lose a fight, he should lose it to my other favorite hero.
Did I feel shame reading my comics? You betcha. But in my 14-year-old mind, I knew this event meant something. Ali meant something to me and every Black person I knew. When I wasn’t escaping in my comic books, I hid my abilities in school and pretended to be less so that I would experience less scorn from my White classmates. As I attempted to shrink myself in the classroom, I would think about Ali and wonder what he would do.
The Champ would never take anybody’s condescending shit — not even Superman’s. I was 14, witnessing my two greatest idols in disagreement on the page, the fate of the world in the balance. Whose side was I on?
In the end, Superman loses. But he lost to the greatest boxer who had ever put on a pair of gloves. And I was cool with it; if my favorite hero were going to lose a fight, he should lose it to my other favorite hero. No matter how I feel about DC Comics on a day-to-day basis, this particular volley remains with me. The publishers were aware of the message they sent with an Ali victory, with images of Superman being taken away on a stretcher. Ali’s win showed that you could beat the System. You could stand with giants. You don’t have to take guff from anyone. Not even Superman.
Eventually, Ali’s star faded from grace. Time takes that from all of us. But in his day, he was a supernova. The number of lives he affected will never be known, but we are all the better for his existence. It’s easy for people to want to believe that Ali “transcended race.” That’s bullshit. Ali was unapologetically Black. “Transcending race” is just a coded phrase implying that someone was almost good enough to be considered White. When I read it, I know whoever wrote it doesn’t respect the man or the legacy. You can miss me with that.
Muhammad Ali did not transcend race; he reminded us all that Blackness is not a crime, and being Black doesn’t mean we have to hide. He taught us we could transcend the bullshit — that in our own corner of the universe we, too, could truly be The Greatest.