Carlo Rotella grew up on Chicago’s South Side. His native-son meets hometown-boy-makes-good panache is evident in the essays he writes, several of which are gathered in his recent collection Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories. At times lyrical, engaged with its subjects as a take-home assignment on interpersonal craft, and always formidably on-point in the swings it takes at our inimitably fallible humanity, Rotella’s writing is immediately recognizable, as branded to the writer as to the cities, personages, complaints, and edification he elucidates. Who else would mix fencing clubs with the middle-aged white baby boomer homes of the blues, cigar-smoking CEOs of Focus Features with child-rearing crime writers, Homer with Muhammad Ali? Even his accompanying playlist for the internet blog Largehearted Boy is charged with the same frisson: you can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the William DeVaughn out of the boy. His prose is “crisp,” as the outlets say, and the connections he makes jostle and reify our own naked encounters with the world. We’re lucky enough to run one of the essays published in the book—a riff on boxing, the Iliad, the comp-lit trafficking of a tagline, and Mr. Muhammad Ali—below. Here’s hoping you enjoy it as much as we do.
“The Greatest” by Carlo Rotella
Recently (as these things are measured), and after almost three milelnnia of not imitating Muhammad Ali, a Greek boxer named Epeus started saying, “I am the greatest.”
Epeus is a character in Homer’s Iliad; he makes a brief appearance toward the poem’s end, in book 23, during the funeral games for Patroclus. His moment at center stage begins when the bereaved Achilles proposes a boxing match, offering a prize mule to the winner and a two-handed cup to the loser. Epeus stands up to lay his hand on the mule, telling the assembled host that somebody else will have to settle for the cup. He freely admits he’s not much of a soldier, but he claims to be the best boxer around, predicts extravagant suffering for his opponent—”I’ll open his face and crack his ribs,” in one translation—and suggests that the opponent’s seconds stay close by to carry out the loser.
“Huge but compact, clever with his fists,” Epeus so effectively radiates competence that the rest of the Greek army, including many of the Iliad‘s most illustrious god-descended heroes, stand around scuffling in the dirt in discouraged silence until a minor hero named Euryalos takes them off the hook by accepting the challenge. Naive, dumb, or brave, Euryalos gamely mixes it up with Epeus, who knocks his block off. Although the various translations disagree about the exact nature of the knockout punch—some call it an uppercut and others a hook, while most are content to say in less precise language that Epeus smote the hell out of him—they all agree that Epeus sees an opening in the other man’s guard and ends the fight in a hurry. In my favorite rendering, Euryalos goes down “the way a leaping fish / falls backward in the offshore sea when north wind / ruffles it down a beach littered with seawrack: / black waves hide him.” It is the Iliad, after all, so he can’t just fall over.
In two recent translations of the Iliad—Martin Hammond’s excellent prose version of 1987 and Robert Fagles’s celebrated “modern English Homer” version of 1990—Epeus in his prefight boast says, “I am the greatest.” Neither translator has him add “of all time,” as Ali usually did, but “I am the greatest” has since the 1960s been one of Ali’s trademarked bits of the English language. (Another is that catamaran of a simile, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” which Homer would have appreciated.) Because Ali repeated his poetic formulas with such Homeric regularity, anyone who has heard Ali say “I am the greatest” often enough—and there was a time when most of the English-speaking world fell into that category—will hear his mildly hysterical but still Kentucky-soft voice coming from the mouth of Epeus.
It may be startling to notice that Homer has been made to execute a flawless Ali Shuffle in the mist of his own poetic footwork, but bear in mind that the original footwork resembles Ali’s in the first place. Fagles described it as an “ideal coincidence of popular usage and Homer’s language.” He told me, “I wouldn’t have done it if I had to drag the phrase in by the hind legs, but ‘I am the greatest’ comes so close to the Greek.” The effect, he concluded, was only to add resonance and depth to the original.
“I am the greatest” does not turn up in translations of the Iliad done prior to the rise of Ali in the 1960s. In George Chapman’s seventeenth-century translation, Epeus delivers a lilting “at cuffes I bost me best.” Alexander Pope’s eighteenth-century version has Epeus saying, “th’ undoubted victor I.” In William Cullen Bryant’s American Iliad of the nineteenth century, Epeus is matter-of-fact: “In combat with the cestus … I claim to be the best man here.” Robert Fitzgerald’s often colloquial translation of 1974, done well into the age of Ali, does not use the phrase either—his folksy Epeus weights in iwth “I’m best, I don’t mind saying”—so we must conclude that Ali’s effect on Homer has been uneven at best.
It is an uneven effect but a measurable one, so that we are obliged to ask what it might mean that Epeus—a character in a book—has fallen under Ali’s influence in recent years. When we call the Iliad a classic, we mean, among other things, that it is a living literature constantly given new resonances by the succession of historical moments in which it is read. It makes sense that Ali, who rose to worldwide prominence as television sports and news came into their own, has inflected our retelling of Homer’s boxing match. And the next line of Epeus’s speech—”I am the greatest … So what if I’m not a world-class man of war?”—now raises echoes of Ali’s famous refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War.
An expert punch, like a well-turned phrase, can take on a life of its own. Ali has given us plenty of both: punches like the near-invisible “anchor punch” that ended the second Liston fight so abruptly, or the series of punches that started Foreman on his long trip to the canvas in Kinshasa, his armor clashing around him; phrases like “I am the greatest,” “Float like a butterfly … ,” and “I got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” They come down the years to us and with us, kept fresh in popular memory, on videotape, in common speech and the talk of aficionados, and, strangely enough, in book 23 of the Iliad. The punches and phrases will outlive their author; they already have outlived his youth and vigor. As Muhammad Ali’s mouth and hands, once so insistently eloquent, slow down and eventually fall silent in the public forum, we are left to conjure with his handiwork and his words. They, and therefore Ali himself, enjoy the second life in popular memory that the Greek heroes held so dear.