Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali: Truth, Justice, And The African-American Way

In 1978, Ali defeated the Man of Steel. But that doesn't make him the black Superman.

I was around 12 when some distant relative, knowing I was the only family member who would appreciate them, sent me a box full of comic books. None were in good enough condition to sell, which was unfortunate considering it was largely a collection of Action Comics from the '50s. The haul also included the 1978 supersize comic Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. I'm not a huge fan of DC Comics. While Marvel comics were born from stories about relatable superheroes — the perpetually broke Spider-Man, the ostracized X-Men, the alcoholic Tony Stark — DC was always about gods. Most of their characters weren't human, and the ones who were, like Batman, were so unbelievably wealthy that their lives were foreign and unattainable.

Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, has always represented "truth, justice, and the American way." The power of whiteness is such that two Jewish creators who invented Superman to combat the Nazis in comic books saw their hero, little by little, morphed into a Christlike figure (he even dies in 1992's The Death of Superman and is resurrected soon after, a plot point also borrowed for Batman v Superman) that represents all the shit Francis Scott Key wrote into the national anthem. Superman is an alien from another planet, and yet he somehow manages to look like the paragon of a white, working-class American male. He has an alien-as-hell name, Kal-El, the one he was born with, but his image allowed him to pass as Clark Kent, an unassuming white male. The recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice questioned Superman's ability to be judge and jury on a global scale thanks to his extreme abilities, which is really more of a metaphor for whiteness than most people realize. The ability to go anywhere at will with the knowledge that no one can stop you is the very thesis of white supremacy, and Superman represents that thesis come to life, like white supremacy's very own Kim Cattrall in Mannequin. (Or the ivory statue in the Pygmalion myth, I guess, if you prefer a pretentious analogy.)

And here’s the thing: I doubt Ali really fucked with Superman either. He questioned the pervasiveness of whiteness, spoke adamantly against white privilege, and when he watched Rocky II with Roger Ebert in 1979, he told Ebert he knew Apollo Creed would lose the fight, "For the black man to come out superior would be against America's teachings. I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan, and Rocky." Superman is of course no different than these pillars of whiteness, so you have to wonder why Ali would let DC Comics use his image in Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. That is, until you read it. Ali kicks Superman's ass.

Ali turned himself into the black Superman. He called himself the greatest. He rejected his birth name Cassius Clay. He rejected Christianity and turned to Islam. His motto might as well have been "truth, justice, and the African-American way." In pitting Ali against Superman, DC Comics was more than just cashing in on their most popular character stepping into the ring with the world heavyweight champion (in fact, by the time the comic was released, Ali had lost the title to Leon Spinks) — they were unwittingly letting blackness do battle with whiteness. The story itself is mostly ridiculous: an alien race comes to Earth and wants to challenge its greatest champion. When Ali and Superman both volunteer as tribute, they have to fight one another for the honor to fight for Earth. They fight on a planet that orbits a red sun and Superman is stripped of his powers. He spars with Ali in a fair fight and, as I said before, Ali kicks his ass.

The mantra "twice as good to get half as much" is one black achievers have heard far too often. You have to be stronger than your white counterparts. Ali, because he's a trained fighter, decimates Superman in the ring. His skill comes from training, from pushing himself to be the best — Superman's skill is a privilege he was born into. When you're white, there's always an extra ability to put your opponent asunder, whether it be through racist use of the Mann Act against boxer Jack Johnson or stripping Ali of his title for a refusal to participate in the Vietnam War. When Ali was the world heavyweight champion, Rocky Balboa ruled the box office and the Academy Awards because boxing demanded an unassailable white face. Superman was molded into the purview of all things white, but when stripped to his core he became putty in the hands of America's greatest fighter — a man who worked hard to become a champion, not one who was imbued with their nobility by the sun that rotates the Earth.

To claim that Ali "transcended race and sports," as the Los Angeles Times did, is wrong as hell (note: white people have to transcend racism). To "transcend race" is some fake form of ascension created by white people to whitewash black heroes and make them palatable for white audiences, like pretending all Martin Luther King Jr. ever did was sing "we shall overcome." The gods of the DC Comics pantheon are still mostly white and so are the faces that rule over America. No black person has yet to transcend those barriers, not even our first black president Barack Obama, who will likely remain an anomaly in American history for the immediate future.

Cut back to me. Imagine you are a young, black achiever. You reach into a box full of some relative’s old comics to find that the world's most powerful white man can be defeated by Muhammad Ali. You learn that when you take away the smoke and mirrors, Superman is nothing more than the Wizard of Oz hiding behind his curtain. It's a truly radical thing to place into a comic book, and could've very nearly toppled the Superman ethos. "Could have" is the key phrase here, however.

Far too radical a thing, it seems. Because as much as you might remember Ali beating Superman, the comic itself ends with Ali declaring to his opponent, "Superman, WE are the greatest!" As a kid, reading that, it made me smile. Superman and Ali were friends. Their scrap was just playground make-believe during recess. But now, reading it back, it's some bullshit. Ali kicked his ass — why'd he have to pat Superman on the back like that? It's not surprising that this story reaffirms the status quo — a Marvel comic might have let Superman lose. But this is a story about a god, and as Greek mythology taught us, the house always wins. To date, it's still a powerful Superman story. He wasn't beat by some alien and he wasn't beat by impossible billionaire Bruce Wayne. He was beat by a black human. I'll never call Ali the black Superman, much as people want to grant him that title. I can see the comparisons and what they represent to both of the societies they reflect — but Ali worked for his prowess. It wasn't granted to him by some stroke of birth and the sun of a foreign planet. He wasn't the bastion of American superiority. In his death, some have attempted to sanitize him. Make Ali a black Superman who can be the perfect model of American's acceptable black male: the fighter, the good steward for his country. But Ali fought for his people, not America's myth. To America, Superman is someone they can make theirs. But Ali is not so easily controlled, not so easily molded into America's perfect image. He's as far from Superman as you can get. And when he bests him in the ring so handily, the myth of white American exceptionalism has never rang so hollow. Superman was able to hide as Clark Kent amid a sea of white men. Ali was never able to hide, and what’s more important, he didn't want to be hidden. He rejected Cassius Clay; he refused to be America's docile Clark Kent. Instead, he chose a name that sounded foreign on American tongues, and he became Muhammad Ali. He was no Superman — he was fine being Kal-El.