Success and Failure: A Case Study of Muhammad Ali
Astrology is often used to forecast the likelihood of success or failure in various endeavors. This is usually done by attributing “good” results to certain planets and aspects and “bad” results to others. Traditionally, of course, Saturn and Mars are “bad” and Jupiter and Venus are “good”; trines and sextiles are thought to be “good” and squares and oppositions to be “bad” with conjunctions able to go either way. My experience with astrology is that this simplistic view of things is very far indeed from holding up in practice. I intend to use the chart of Muhammad Ali to illustrate what I mean. Ali is a good subject for this purpose because he has experienced a series of dramatic “successes” and “failures”. 1
I will concentrate mainly on eight major events in Ali’s life, four “successes” and four “failures”. I will make secondary references to other events in his life and also to other illustrative charts, particularly those of other sportsmen.
We have so far not faced the question of what constitutes a success and what constitutes a failure. To go into this question deeply is to find that it is a subtle one. Even in ordinary terms, the results of a particular event are often mixed. Consider for instance that even when Ali loses a championship fight, he makes a few million dollars. Conversely, he can win and still be devastated physically, as with the famous “Thriller in Manila” fight (discussed below). This is completely aside from the fact that there are other ways of defining success and failure than those ordinarily used. We will approach this question again later, but for the moment let us take the ordinary simplistic “worldly” way of looking at it and find out where that leads us. We will therefore consider that when Ali wins a fight, that is a success and that when he loses one, that is a failure.
Before we get underway, we need to fix on the set of astrological factors that we will consider in this study. Until recently, the main techniques that most astrologers used were transits and secondary progressions. Now there are many other techniques that are in vogue. I find that many of them have something to offer; however, one must draw the line somewhere or any study would quickly become unmanageable. In the present case, the only approach that I have added to the traditional set is that of solar arc directions. For those unfamiliar with this technique, it involves directing every planet and angle in the chart by exactly the same number of degrees and minutes that the Sun has progressed by the secondary method from its radical position (this is the “solar arc”). I find that the secondary Moon and to a lesser extent the secondary Sun and Mars are often prominent in association with major life events. However, the other secondary positions, especially those of the slower-moving planets, are relatively unimportant. In contrast, solar arc directions of the slower-moving planets are in fact not slow- moving at all, since they proceed at the same rate as the progressed Sun. Therefore the solar arc planets form more aspects and are often more useful than their secondary progressed counterparts.
If anyone has a pet technique which will give different results with this chart than those to which I have limited myself, I would be quite pleased to know about it. However, my experience is that usually adding a technique to the basic ones simply gives the same message in another form. Now, as the saying goes, lets get down to cases.
1. Ali wins title from Liston, Miami, 2/25/1964.
Several traditionally “good” aspects stand out immediately with this event. The first is progressed Sun conjunct Venus, 2 theoretically one of the best possible progressed aspects. Marriage under this aspect is common, and indeed Ali was married under it six months later. However, results are not always what would usually be considered “good” under this aspect. Compare, for instance, a case given by Priscilla Gilbert on page 29 of Accident Patterns: Steven Brooks, born 6:39 A.M., Mesa, Arizona, 12/11/58, was struck by a train and killed on 8/8/65, while under this same aspect. (This raises an interesting question, namely whether death should be considered “bad” or not. We will treat this question more fully later on.)
Next, we have another “good” aspect: transiting Jupiter and Venus both sextile Venus and progressed Sun trine Ascendant. Traditionally, this would indicate “good luck” and “success”, but Jupiter trines are not always enough. In fact, sometimes under a Jupiter trine there is a tendency to go overboard and take too may risks, with serious results. As an example, consider the case of O. J. Simpson (born 8:08 A.M. 7/9/47, San Francisco, CA, according to Contemporary Sidereal Horoscopes). On 11/8/70 O. J. had Jupiter and Venus by transit trine his Sun and conjunct radical Jupiter. What happened? He hurt his knee seriously and was out of action for the rest of the season.
What I am getting at here is that if one really studies cases, it becomes clear before too long that (1) the good aspects are not always good enough, and/or (2) our definitions of good and bad astrologically speaking need to be modified. Thus, even though so far we have several “good” aspects connected with this event, this would not have been enough for us to have forecast victory for Ali.
Now, for the bad news. To balance off the good aspects, we also have a few that are often associated with great difficulty: First of all, the progressed Moon at 26 Scorpio 26 is exactly opposed to radical Uranus. This aspect seldom occurs without the life being stirred up dramatically in some way. It is often (though by no means always) associated with some kind of serious accident or violence. For instance, when Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, was shot on 3/6/78, he had progressed Moon at 4 Sagittarius 53 opposed to radical Uranus. (According to January ’79 American Astrology Flynt was born 9:10 P.M. 11/1/42 at Lakeville, Kentucky.) To make this aspect look even more dangerous, Ali had transiting Saturn at 26 Aquarius 54 at the time of the Liston fight, square to both radical Uranus and progressed Moon. (Mars by solar arc was at 25 Taurus 31, conjunct the same Uranus.) Finally, transiting Mars at 4 Pisces 35 was conjunct solar arc Moon at 4 Pisces 52 and square solar arc Midheaven at 4 Gemini 40. (My experience is that the solar arc MC is very important and is very often involved in major aspects at the time of important events in the life.)
So we have a set of aspects suggesting possible violence and difficulty to balance off those suggesting ease and good luck. Now, if the event had not yet occurred and we were trying to forecast the type of experience the native would be likely to have on this day, what would we say? I submit that one could pinpoint accurately certain tendencies and potentials, but that one could not forecast victory or defeat with any great degree of confidence.
2. Ali refuses induction and has boxing license and title taken away, 4/28/1967.
This is an example of a complex event, which is hard to classify as either a success or a failure. However, in terms of Ali’s boxing career, which is what we are focusing on here, losing the title has to be considered a setback.
The transits show Jupiter at 25 Cancer 40 and the Sun at 27 Aries 58, respectively opposed and square radical Sun; transiting Mars has just separated from a square to radical Sun. Is a Jupiter opposition to be considered a good or a bad aspect? An interesting question, on which there is a great deal of difference of opinion. Theoretically, the answer should depend in part on how Jupiter and the planet in question are aspected in the radical chart. In this case, the Sun and Jupiter are sesquisquare, but is this a good or a bad aspect? In fact, this theoretical rule only sometimes holds up in practice. In this case, it would be a good guess that Jupiter and Mars aspecting the radical Sun refer to Ali’s taking the initiative in a very risky manner. For the part of the event complex that involves the losing of the title, we will probably have to look elsewhere. We do have Saturn (authority?) transiting at 5 Aries 39, semi-square both Venus and Saturn (in the tenth house of career). We also have transiting Neptune at 23 Scorpio 40 square progressed Sun at 22 Aquarius 57, suggesting as one possibility the dissolution of something the ego has identified with. But there were other times in Ali’s life when both Saturn and Neptune by transit were involved in aspects of at least equal difficulty. At at least one of these times, namely the Liston fight (Event 1. above), he experienced a success. At that time also, Neptune by transit was square progressed Sun, and Saturn, as we saw, was square Uranus and progressed Moon.
The thesis I am starting to develop here is that each planet is multivalent in its symbolism and that it is usually impossible to predict from the chart exactly which of its several possible symbolic values will be dominant at a particular time. There may be certain tendencies for a particular planet involved in a particular aspect to go one way rather than another, but this is never more than a tendency, and one can always find many cases where it does not hold true. For instance, Saturn square progressed Moon can mean a lowering of energy, depression, or a fall of some kind, whether physical or symbolic; but it can also mean great responsibility and hard work, leading to success, as in the case of Event 1.
3. Ali loses title fight to Frazier, 3/8/1971, New York.
Here we have a striking solar arc aspect: solar arc MC conjunct Jupiter. This is a classic aspect for success, but in this case apparently not so. In addition, we have the radical grand trine in earth activated with transiting Pluto at 26 Virgo 39 trine Sun in the 6th and Uranus in the 10th. Transiting Jupiter at 6 Sagittarius 8 and Neptune at 3 Sagittarius 4 are trine radical Pluto and square progressed Moon at 6 Pisces 15. (At least Jupiter is square progressed Moon; Neptune may be out of orb.) Transiting Uranus at 12 Libra 31 is closely trine radical Moon and Mercury.
On the possibly difficult side, we have transiting Mars at 28 Sagittarius 0 square Neptune, and transiting Saturn at 17 Taurus 59 square Ascendant. It is interesting that Ebertin predicted that Ali would lose this fight on the basis of the fact that Mars and Pluto by transit would aspect Neptune. He considered Neptune to be Ali’s “weak point” since it is sesquisquare the Mars/Uranus midpoint at 14 Taurus 46. (See Transits by Reinhold Ebertin, page 129.) To begin with, it is a bit far-fetched to suppose that a single midpoint aspect would carry the day to such an extent, but in addition one has to ask why Ali defeated Frazier in a return match on 1/28/74 with transiting Saturn at 28 Gemini 35, square to the same “weak point”. (Transiting Mars was at 14 Taurus 38!) Finally, we have progressed Sun at 26 Aquarius 51 square Uranus. Does this promise defeat when transiting Saturn at exactly the same point was associated with victory with Event 1?
Again, as usual, we have a mixed bag of “good” and “bad” aspects. If anything, the good aspects here outweigh the bad, yet he lost the fight.
4. Ali loses to Ken Norton and breaks jaw, 3/31/73, San Diego.
The most obvious transit here is Mars at 3 Aquarius 47 square Mars radical, with Mars and Jupiter (at 6 Aquarius 58) both opposed to Pluto. This could be difficult, but does it necessarily promise defeat? We will see below that Ali regained his title from Spinks in 1978 with transiting Jupiter square Mars and transiting Mars square the Sun, a similar situation. In addition, we have exactly the same aspect in George Foreman’s chart (born 1/10/49 at 9:15 P.M., Marshall, Texas, according to 2001 Horoscopes) when he defeated Joe Roman on 9/1/73: transiting Mars at 6 Taurus 53 was square radical Mars at 5 Aquarius 2. We also see transiting Saturn at 15 Gemini 35 conjunct solar arc MC at 13 Gemini 52 in Ali’s chart at the time of this event. This could symbolize a fall from a career pinnacle, but interestingly enough George Foreman also had this aspect in his fight with Joe Roman and he won (transiting Saturn at 2 Cancer 54 conjunct solar arc MC at 1 Cancer 35).
5. Ali regains title from George Foreman, 10/30/1974, Kinshasa.
Here we have the interesting situation that neither progressed Moon (23 Aries 32), progressed Sun (0 Pisces 32), nor solar arc MC (15 Gemini 28) forms a major aspect. We do have transiting Neptune at 8 Sagittarius 9 sesquisquare progressed Moon and transiting Jupiter at 8 Pisces 1 semisquare progressed Moon. How much of an effect will this have, and will it be good or bad? Hard to say. On the transit front, we have transiting Mars at 1 Scorpio 13 and Venus at 4 Scorpio 23 opposed radical Mars and transiting Uranus at 28 Libra 39 square Sun. These transits would be considered difficult by most; yet Ali won. The sole “good” aspect, really, is transiting Mars trine progressed Sun, which hardly seems enough to balance off the “bad”.
6. Ali defeats Frazier in “Thriller in Manila”, 9/30/1975.
Though Ali won this fight, he described it afterwards as “like death”. Both fighters were extended to the limit and both took tremendous punishment. The first thing we notice is that Ali had progressed Moon at 4 Taurus 48 conjunct Mars. This aspect is common at times when some kind of violence is done to the body. I have seen it occur several times at the time of suicide (see for example C.E.O. Carter’s Symbolic Directions, page 54), also at the time of a miscarriage. Interestingly, Aldo Moro (born 9/23/1916, 9:00 A.M., Maglie, Italy, according to Gauquelin) was kidnapped under this aspect on 3/16/78. Again, this underlines the fact that astrological symbolism is multivalent and that it is difficult to predict the exact way in which a particular type of symbolism is going to work out. On 9/30/75, at the time of the event in question, there was a spectacular transiting square between Saturn at 1 Leo 9 and Uranus at 1 Scorpio 13, respectively square and opposed to Ali’s radical Mars. (Also, respectively semisquare and sesquisquare solar arc MC at 16 Gemini 23.) Progressed Mars at 21 Taurus 31 is conjunct Saturn and square Venus, an aspect which would be considered “evil” by some.
At the same time, transiting Uranus is trine progressed Sun at 1 Pisces 27 and transiting Jupiter is approximately where it was at the time he won the title from Liston 12 years before, 21 Aries 23. But again, if anything, the “bad” aspects here outweigh the “good”, and again he won.
7. Ali loses title to Leon Spinks, 2/16/78, Las Vegas.
Transiting Saturn on this date was at 27 Leo 2 square radical Uranus, apparently a difficult aspect; yet we recall that Ali first won the title from Liston with Saturn at 27 Aquarius, 14 years before. We also have progressed Sun at 3 Pisces 51 square progressed Moon at 3 Gemini 21; the only transit to these points is Venus at 4 Pisces 30. Transiting Neptune at 18 Sagittarius 3 is opposed to solar arc MC at 18 Gemini 47. This aspect would be considered by some to be adverse to the career. Yet George Foreman won the heavyweight title from Joe Frazier on 1/22/73 with transiting Neptune at 6 Sagittarius 52 opposed radical MC at 6 Gemini 32. It must be conceded that whereas certain defeat could not be predicted from these transits and progressions, there is indeed a notable absence of “good” aspects. Of course, very much the same thing could be said for the Foreman fight (Event 5), which Ali won.
8. Ali regains title from Spinks, 9/15/78, New Orleans.
Here we have a classic mark of success with progressed Moon at 10 Gemini 13 conjunct Jupiter. Of course we remember that with solar arc MC at this same spot in 1971, Ali lost to Frazier (Event 3).
But we also have a number of squares and oppositions, all of which can suggest accident or injury: transiting Uranus at 13 Scorpio 40 opposed to MC and square Moon and Mercury; transiting Mars at 27 Libra 33 square Sun and sesquisquare Jupiter; transiting Jupiter at 2 Leo 1 square Mars. Transiting Uranus square Moon can be especially dangerous, and numerous cases could be adduced when serious accidents or violence occurred under this aspect. To mention only one, when Aldo Moro was killed on 5/9/78 transiting Uranus was at 14 Scorpio 14 square radical Moon at 13 Leo 59 (also conjunct progressed Moon at 12 Scorpio 14!). The other two aspects happened to occur simultaneously also in the chart of Kareem Abdul Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers (born 4/16/47 at 6:30 P.M., New York, according to 2001 Horoscopes) on 10/19/77, the day when he broke his hand by punching Kent Benson and was fined by the league for it. He had transiting Jupiter at 6 Cancer 7 square radical Mars at 3 Aries 55 and transiting Mars at 27 Cancer 1 square radical Sun at 26 Aries 7. It is interesting that this pair of aspects shows up in two situations which both have to do with fighting. In Ali’s case, that is precisely what was expected of him; in Jabbar’s it was beyond the rules. But why was Jabbar’s experience a kind of failure and Ali’s a success?
It is an interesting fact that on several occasions (including this event and Events 5 and 6) “difficult” Uranus aspects have been good to Ali, whereas in several cases he has not fared well under Uranus trines (Events 3 and 4). More evidence that no aspect is universally good or universally bad.
I have tried to show that an attempt to predict the outcome of Muhammad Ali’s fights on the basis of the classical theory of “good” and “bad” aspects and planets simply would not have worked. I have, however, failed so far to discuss one significant aspect of the classical theory, namely that a “bad” aspect by planet A transiting or planet A progressed to planet B radical may not be so bad after all unless A and B are aspected “badly” in the radical chart. Conversely, a bad aspect by transit or progression between two planets which are badly aspected in the radical chart would be expected to be particularly bad. It must be admitted that sometimes these old “rules” hold true, but there are so many exceptions that to call them “rules” is to stretch things considerably. This is amply illustrated in the present case:
Mars is square the Sun in the radical chart and yet with transiting Mars square the Sun, Ali regained his title from Spinks. Similarly, Uranus is square Venus in the radical chart and yet with transiting Uranus at 22 Leo 47 opposite radical Venus on 9/5/60, Ali became Olympic champion. Again, Saturn is square Venus in the radical chart, yet on 6/20/70 with transiting Saturn at 18 Taurus 3 square radical Venus, his jail sentence for draft refusal was reversed by the Supreme Court. A final example from George Foremen’s chart is even more striking: The radical chart shows Uranus at 27 Gemini 39 in the 10th House opposed to Venus at 27 Sagittarius 13, presumably boding ill for his career. Yet on 6/23/69 with transiting Uranus at 0 Libra 0, square radical Venus, he won his first professional fight. (It is also interesting to note that Foreman successfully defended his title against Ken Norton on 3/26/74 with transiting Saturn at 28 Gemini 28 conjunct his 10th House Uranus and opposed Venus. Many would read this as “evil” for the career; nevertheless, he won the fight.)
It is time to come to the heart of the whole question we have been examining. The real truth is this: no planet or aspect is ever bad in itself, and no planet or aspect necessarily leads to bad results. Rather, each planet or aspect can be associated with a whole set of possible conditions which conform to its basic symbolism. Certain planets and aspects do in fact have a tendency to be associated with conditions which are more difficult and stressful than usual. However, once we have said this, there are two qualifying points which we must keep in mind: First, we are speaking here of a tendency and not a certain rule. And second, there is nothing necessarily bad about difficult and stressful conditions. The Romans had a saying, “per aspera ad astra”: through difficulties we reach the stars. Or, in the words of Meher Baba, “Difficulties give us the opportunity to prove our greatness by overcoming them.” It is an interesting fact that the charts of successful people are often full of “difficult” aspects, whereas a person with several trines but no squares or oppositions has a tendency to sit back on his or her laurels and thereby miss many opportunities.
There is one thing certain about squares and oppositions (and often conjunctions): they force issues and usually force action in one way or another. Often things are forced in a direction which goes counter to our narrow preconceptions of what would be best. Often also, we just don’t want to budge from wherever we’re sitting. But these aspects (particularly with Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, or Pluto involved) will simply not let us continue to cling to attachments which we should be giving up. Sextiles and trines, on the other hand, generally represent conditions where we can take it or leave it and where (especially with trines) there is a certain amount that we can take without making any effort.
Everything in life ultimately depends on one’s attitude. Someone with a “difficult” chart who meets the challenge of life’s difficulties in a positive manner is very likely to be a success. In Ali’s case, he embarked on a career which by its very nature is full of an unusual amount of stress and difficulty. It would be surprising, therefore, if we did not find many difficult aspects in force at the time of his major fights, whether victories or defeats. What we would never know in advance is how he would meet the challenge of these difficulties. This depends on qualities of mind and soul that cannot be read from a chart. We should also realize that Ali’s case is really not that different from those of the rest of us. We all go through stress and strife on our own stage in our own way. We have just as much power as did Ali to bring “success” out of “difficult” aspects.
This brings us back to the question we raised at the very beginning: how do we define “success” and “failure”? The question is a critical one because how each astrologer answers it has a great deal of influence on how he or she counsels clients. The fact is it doesn’t make a bit of difference whether we succeed in life in the usual “worldly” terms. We are here to learn spiritual maturity and for no other reason. Spiritual “muscles” are often best developed through struggle and strife and sometimes especially through the forced wrenching away from attachments that comes through failure. It is sometimes literally true that, in the words of one of Bob Dylan’s songs, “there’s no success like failure.” Now, it is part of the astrologer’s duty to his or her client to help him “play the game” of worldly success by pointing out times when the astrological “tides” are moving particularly strongly in his favor. But this should be done within an overall context which points beyond success or failure in terms of external life goals and puts the deeper emphasis on what the chart suggests about the key lessons that this particular soul has come into this life to learn. This must be done discreetly because unless the astrologer is also a spiritual master (an exceedingly rare occurrence), there is a certain line that s/he must not cross in this type of counseling; but it must be done nevertheless.
It sometimes seems to me that I spend half of my time in interpretive sessions trying to disabuse people of something they read in a book or heard from some so-called astrologer about a certain “bad” aspect in their chart. If an astrologer follows no other rule, s/he should follow the one of avoiding the planting of negative suggestions. People are tremendously impressionable and can carry these suggestions around as very heavy burdens. I have often seen people breathe a sigh of relief to discover that some “evil” aspect which cast a cloud over their whole life was no such thing at all.
The last thing we need to recognize to put the question of success and failure in the proper perspective is that for each of us this life is but a small chapter in an existence that stretches billions of years into the past and into the indefinite future. My teacher has always maintained that Western man has seriously distorted his perspective by failing to recognize the truth of reincarnation. It is not absolutely necessary to believe in reincarnation, although it is a fact and recognition of it as a fact helps one considerably in making sense about things. It is necessary, however, to recognize that there is some kind of pre-existence and post-existence; otherwise one will simply not see the present interlude in its proper perspective. If we can see existence as a continuous learning process which began before this life and will continue after, then we can see the circumstances and events of this brief interlude in a very different light. The astrologer who counsels with this in mind rather than emphasizing only immediate external success, performs a much greater service.
One type of life event which immediately appears in a different light from this perspective is that of death. In fact death is always good because it makes possible the next stage of learning for the soul. This is attested to by the fact that people often have some very “good” aspects at the time of death. We have an example of this in the case of Adlai Stevenson (born 2/5/1900 according to 2001 Horoscopes), who died on 7/14/65 with transiting Jupiter trine his radical Sun.
In conclusion, I have tried to show that predicting success and failure in ordinary terms according to the theory of good and bad planets and aspects simply does not work. Furthermore, if existence is seen as the process of learning spiritual maturity, beginning long before the present life and continuing long after, then success and failure in ordinary terms is simply not that important anyway. In fact, it is frequently the case that within the broader perspective we are talking about “there’s no success like failure.” Unless astrologers keep all this in mind, they will often lead people seriously astray.
1. According to Jose Torres in his biography of Ali, Sting Like a Bee, Ali was born at 6:35 P.M. as Cassius Marcellus Clay on 1/17/1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. This time is closely confirmed by James T. Hayes, who has the time of 6:30 P.M. from Carolyn Dodson, who had it directly from his Mother. I have used 6:35 P.M.
2. I allow a 3 degree orb for transiting aspects and for the progressed Moon, although most aspects at the time of major life events are within 1 or 2 degrees of exactness. I allow 1 degree for all progressed aspects other than the progressed Moon and 1 degree for all solar arc directions. Some day we may have a better theory of aspect orbs, but for now these rough rules seen to work pretty well.