The recent passing of Muhammad Ali moved me to pull out this moldy oldie. It certainly wasn't the first time that the fictional Man of Steel had adventures with real-life celebrities, but it may well be the worst from any standpoint-- though as usual, my focus is upon the inconsummation of any mythopoeic elements in the story.
As I asserted in the preceding essay, both sports-figures and superheroes excite the adulation of their fans through the action of the "participation mystique," despite the fact that the first group are real human beings and the second are not. That said, to some extent the "Muhammad Ali" of the comic book is by default an unreal fictional creation, not least because he lives in the same world as Superman and various other DC Comics characters. Thus when I speak of the Ali in the comic book, I'll distinguish this character from his real model by using the term "TD-Ali." "TD" is short for my term "template deviation," connoting that the character referenced is a deviation from some original template-- whether that template is a living person or a fictional precursor.
There are differing stories about how the project was initiated. This online essay offers the possibility that the proposal may have come either from DC editor Julie Schwartz or from Real-Ali's promoter Don King. I tend to favor the latter hypothesis. Though fictional Superman had been a "celebrity" for a longer time than the famous boxer, the dominant orientation of the story is to extol the heroism of TD-Ali over that of the Kryptonian, even though TD-Ali only exists within the context of Superman's world.
Of course, it's equally possible that the comics-creators gave disproportionate attention to the heroism of TD-Ali simply because (a) they didn't want to produce anything that Real-Ali's business managers might reject, or (b) they themselves didn't really respect "unreal" superheroes in comparison to "real" sports-figures. In addition, because Real-Ali was one of the world's most famous Afro-American celebrities, the raconteurs certainly didn't want to do anything that might reflect badly on their depiction of such a celebrity. Curiously, though Joe Kubert did an early cover for the project and Denny O'Neil is credited with the "original story," Neal Adams is credited with both penciling and "adapting" O'Neil's script-- which apparently means that Adams provided the dialogue and the specific plot-developments.
The plot was exceedingly tired even in 1978. A race of alien warriors-- given the underwhelming name of "the Scrubb"-- come to Earth. They view humankind as a threat, but instead of simply eradicating Earth right away, their representative "Rat'lar" explains that the Scrubb want to prove themselves superior to Earth-people in the eyes of all other sentient beings: "by showing our standard bearer is the greatest." The first potential gladiator Rat'lar approaches is TD-Ali, though the alien doesn't explicitly say that he's chosen the boxer to be the representative of Earth in the coming obligatory tournament. Superman happens along and argues that he ought to be the one to defend Earth-- and this leads to the paper-thin rationale for Superman to fight TD-Ali for pride of place.
I recall a contemporary reviewer asking if TD-Ali had lost his mind, believing that he could "whup" an alien hero with the power to push planets around. The only rationale for this scene is that Adams must have believed it was important to present Ali as supremely confident of his pugilistic skills, not to mention his talent for "trash-talk." Rat'Lar then asserts that the difference of opinion should be decided by putting the two candidates on an equal footing, and though he doesn't say so specifically, this logically implies that Superman isn't going to be allowed to use his super-powers in the main event either.
Once super-powers are taken out of the equation, one might think that Superman would at least consider bowing out of the contest. But again, in order to extol the superiority of TD-Ali, Superman not only sticks to his guns, he receives training from TD-Ali in the manly art.
I can well believe that Denny O'Neil was responsible for this idea. Several years earlier, O'Neil presided over the scripts of the "New Wonder Woman," in which Diana Price lost her super-powers, and immediately also lost whatever fighting-skills she'd acquired as an Amazon heroine, necessitating that she be re-trained in Asian martial arts. Here too, we see the presumption that once Superman hasn't got his powers, he's just a muscular stumble-bum who must be trained by a superior fighter.
Perhaps as a concession of sorts, Superman's training by his future opponent is interrupted, so that the Man of Steel never gets the full benefit of TD-Ali's instruction. This leads to an inevitable orgy of violence in which Superman is battered into insensibility by the experienced boxer.
And, following that, TD-Ali manages to outpunch a super-strong alien fighter in the main event, with no logic beyond the level of "if you believe in boxers suddenly turning into superheroes, clap your hands."
Admittedly, Superman is given a few face-saving heroic tasks in the jumbled story-line, so that he doesn't come off as a total loser. And perhaps no one should expect much of this sort of cheese, hyped on the cover as "the fight to save Earth from STAR WARRIORS." But certainly the myth of Superman was not well served by this farrago. And if it was even possible to propound a myth for any fictionalized version of Real-Muhammad Ali, it certainly couldn't be done by this sort of feebly imagined celebrity ass-kissing.