What Muhammad Ali taught me about writing
Something strange happened to me on Friday night. I grabbed a T-shirt off a shelf and headed for bed, turned on ESPN and then drifted off. I awoke at about 12:30 a.m. and realized the television was still on. As I reached for the remote, I heard and then saw the news. Muhammad Ali was dead at the age of 74.
It was only in the bathroom mirror that I realized the T-shirt I was wearing bore the famous image of Ali standing over the prone figure of Sonny Liston at their controversial fight in Lewiston, Maine. The legend over the photo on my shirt said “The Greatest.”
It made me recall some professional and personal connections, however tenuous, I had with the man whose athletic prowess and political actions shook up the world.
On the professional side, I always admired Ali as a verbal performer, a pre-rap rapper whose improvisational skills, especially with his foil Howard Cosell — along with his delivery of rhymes written by his friend and trainer Drew Bundini Brown — made him so fun to watch.
It was Brown who is said to be the author of a poetic couplet that Ali turned into one of the great catchphrases in the history of sports:
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,
Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.
That second line turned out to be redundant and expendable. The first line is fixed in American athletic myth and popular culture.
In those days, boxers fell into two categories: sluggers or dancers. Ali would not be contained. He could knock you out, or dazzle you with the Ali shuffle.
Here’s a professional secret: Writing teachers are always looking for “mentor texts,” examples of language that not only reveal their meaning, but also their means of execution. Once we find an elegant example of rhetoric, we may never let it go.
So it is for me with “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Using my X-ray reading glasses, I examined what made that line work, as expressed in my book “How to Write Short”:
The balanced move is best exemplified by a famous catchphrase spoken by Muhammad Ali as a young boxer: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." This compound sentence (made up of two equally important main clauses) balances like a seesaw on the pivot of that comma and gains extra strength from its parallel structure, equal syntactical units to express meaning of equal weight. The mirror images go like this: imperative verb, preposition, article, noun. Even with all these, the two halves aren’t precisely equal. The difference between butterfly and bee – the first word long and lyrical, the second short and sharp – creates both rhythm and contrast. Ali is both the beauty and the beast.
Balance, sentence structure, verb forms, emphatic word order, parallelism, even the history of the English language (Anglo Saxon meets Norman French) are working their magic in this iconic line, coming from a man who was sometimes disparaged as the Louisville Lip.
Let me conclude with this personal anecdote. My grandfather Peter Marino worked for many years for the New York State Athletic Commission as a boxing inspector. Between World War II and Vietnam, you could see him sitting stone-faced at ringside of Madison Square Garden, watching fights to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. He checked the gloves of hundreds of fighters, including, I would bet, Ali. He once introduced me to one of the most famous heavyweight fighters of the 20th century, Max Baer, who knew him affectionately as Pete.
Not long ago at an autograph signing, I met Angelo Dundee, Ali’s famous trainer. I had just enough time to tell him that my grandfather used to work the fights at MSG. “You’re Pete Marino’s grandson?” he said with a warm smile. “I knew him!”
Dundee died not long after that. And now Ali has joined him.