When I heard that Muhammad Ali had died in Scottsdale, Arizona, at age 74, it was not just the thought of turn another page as is the case for me when many celebrities pass away. Ali was not just famous – he changed what it meant to be a celebrity. He not only became "celebrated" but helped define “being famous” by reinventing what it meant to be a popular figure who transcended his sport and, in doing so, changed sports and the world.
It is commonly told that Ali’s pathway to greatness started simply – someone stole his bicycle. After reporting it to a police officer, the cop told him that he had better learn to fight if he planned on getting his bike back. Feeling angry about the situation, Ali embarked on a mission to learn to fight to right the wrong in a search for justice.
How apropos that such an amazing story came out of a small one. Known as Cassius Clay at this time, to say the least, he learned how to fight indeed. Clay went to the Olympics and won a gold medal at 18 as a light heavyweight. This began public awareness of his greatness, of a talent that grew as he did in strength and size.
Getting taken under the wing of trainer Angelo Dundee, Ali would start impressing people with his in the ring prowess and out of the ring intelligence and wit. His propensity for creating little ditties about his opponents and himself endeared him to the press and the public, even though sometimes the rhymes he created denigrated and thus angered the person he would be facing in the ring.
Of course, what changed everything was his bout against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964. Liston was the grizzled ring veteran; Clay the shining young star with a big mouth. When it was all over, Clay was champion of the world and, when he shouted “I’m the greatest” afterwards, the phrase stuck and he would one day be deemed the greatest boxer of all time.
No one knows what would have happened if he had remained Cassius Clay, but what brought him even more exposure – and indeed more scrutiny, much of it negative – was when he dropped his “slave name” and became Muhammad Ali and embraced the Nation of Islam. This not only qualified him as a famous person with a distinctive name – it also set him “free” of the social constraints and expectations that he associated with being incongruously named for a white man from Kentucky.
This drastic change could also be seen to reflect the times in our nation – as the Vietnam War intensified and Ali declared himself a “conscientious objector” and refused to enter the military to fight a war he saw as unjust. At 25 years old with a 28-0 record and being on top of the sporting world, Ali was stripped of his boxing title and license and forced into an early “retirement” which featured him getting even more publicity and enduring legal trouble that could have included five years in prison.
During this time he took up public speaking, and a lone sportscaster named Howard Cosell respected him enough to use the boxer’s chosen name instead of Cassius Clay as the others did, mostly as a way to denigrate him as Ali saw it. Thus began a strange alliance between the flashy and intelligent boxer and the savvy Jewish broadcaster from Brooklyn who recognized Ali’s fight against persecution for his beliefs as akin to what the Jewish people had once suffered. Cosell’s interviews with Ali were always memorable and kept the boxer in the public consciousness.
Ali finally got justice – the thing that pushed him into boxing in the first place when his bike was stolen – when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor in 1970 and recognized his right to object to serving in the military based on his religious beliefs. Now he was able to fight again, but at 29 and after a long lay-off from training, Ali would be set-up for one of the biggest fights of his career – a comeback bout against the new heavyweight champ Joe Frazier.
As a kid I always heard my father, uncle, and grandfather talking about sports, and they loved watching “the fights” on TV and going to Madison Square Garden when they could. To say my Dad and uncle were ecstatic to get tickets to see Ali-Frazier is an understatement, and the buildup to the fight was intense and Ali did his best with all the pre-fight antics of teasing and goading that were now his trademark.
Dad always said that Ali-Frazier I (there would be two more including the Thrilla in Manila) was the greatest fight he had ever seen. The contrasts were amazing – Ali dancing around the ring, taunting the seemingly stationary Frazier, doing his best to “Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee” as was his catch phrase. In the end after 15 rounds Frazier persevered, knocking Ali down and winning by unanimous decision.
The next morning I read about the fight in the New York Daily News and saw the famous Bill Gallo “Zipper Mouth” cartoon of Ali, and when Dad came downstairs I showed it to him and he had a good laugh. Gallo would go on to draw more iconic cartoons of Ali, but this in my mind is the most memorable one of all.
There were the other big fights to come – The Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in Zaire and the Thrilla in Manila, and even the 1978 battle against Leon Spinks whom he fought twice – one time losing his title and then regaining it, making him a three-time heavyweight champion.
When he finally retired with a 56-5 record, The Greatest was indeed the best fighter anyone had ever seen, even with a few fights in the end best left forgotten. Calling Muhammad Ali a fighter is like calling the Pope a priest – it does nothing to recognize the man's true significance, his impact on not just his sport but all sports and the times in which he lived.
At the time of his retirement Muhammad Ali was the most recognizable man in the world, as famous as anyone had been or perhaps ever will be. He was bigger and more recognizable than the President of the United States and the Pope; he was bigger than the Beatles and any movie star. In many ways he was even larger than Muhammad Ali – essentially eclipsing himself in notoriety and becoming the embodiment of an ideal bigger than anything or anyone. He was something of an enigma too; a person who could be so violent in the ring had evolved into an icon for peace, for justice, and human integrity.
If Shakespeare had lived during this time, he would have had to write a play about Ali. His tragic figures such as Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth pale in comparison to Ali; and yes, Ali qualifies as a tragic figure, though not dying by the sword in the end yet having inherent greatness but also a tragic flaw nonetheless.
All tragic heroes have their flaws, and Ali’s was an undercurrent of viciousness that he could use against a perceived enemy or opponent. This could be seen in verbal attacks against Joe Frazier (calling him a gorilla) or physically when he removed supposed friend and ally Howard Cosell’s toupee on national TV. This meanness could have defined – or maybe destroyed him – but he overcame it through the aura of his personality, the playfulness that subsumed the darkness that sometimes threatened to overwhelm his established persona.
In later years all the punches absorbed had taken a toll, and his advanced Parkinson’s disease robbed him of the vitality that once permeated any room he entered. Still, Ali continued to be an ambassador for presidents, did charity work, and remained in the public consciousness as the iconic figure he was and always will be.
Ali’s oldest daughter Maryum has revealed that her father would sometimes ask her, “Will they remember me?” Considering the outpouring of love and affection and fond memories shared by everyone from President Obama to Paul McCartney to former opponent Larry Holmes, the obvious answer to that question is “Yes, and then some.”
Rest in peace, Muhammad Ali.
Photo credits: CNN