Manny P. here…
Muhammad Ali was a magnificent heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality transcended sports, and captivated the world. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., a controversial and polarizing figure during his early career, Ali is now remembered for the skills he displayed in the ring, plus the values he exemplified outside of it: religious freedom, racial justice, and the triumph of principle over expedience. Ali transformed the role and image of the African American athlete in America by his embrace of racial pride and his willingness to antagonize the white establishment in doing so. He also embodied the savvy concept of self-worth.
Ali was one of the most recognized sports figures of the past 100 years, crowned Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated. In 1993, the Associated Press reported that Ali was tied with Babe Ruth as the most recognized athlete, out of over 800 dead or alive athletes, in America. Ali has been the subject of numerous books, films, and other creative works. He has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated on 37 different occasions, second only to Michael Jordan.
Muhammad remains the only lineal three-time world heavyweight champion; he won the title in 1964, 1974, and 1978. Nicknamed The Greatest, Ali was involved in several historic boxing matches. Notable among these were the first Sonny Liston fight, three with rival Joe Frazier, and one with George Foreman (memorably called The Rumble in the Jungle). Ali was named the second greatest fighter in boxing history by ESPN.com behind welterweight and middleweight, Sugar Ray Robinson. In 2007, ESPN listed Ali the #2 heavyweight of all time, behind Joe Louis. The brash boxer famously bragged: I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee…
In 1967, just three years after winning his initial heavyweight title, Ali refused to be conscripted into the military, citing his religious beliefs, and a personal opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges, and stripped of his boxing title. He did not fight again for nearly four years, losing a time of peak performance in an athlete’s career. Ali’s legal appeal worked its way up to the United States Supreme Court. In 1971, his conviction was overturned. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him a champion for the counter-culture generation. Ali inspired Martin Luther King Jr., who had been reluctant to address the Vietnam War for fear of alienating the Johnson Administration and its support of the Civil Rights agenda.
After he won the championship from Liston in 1964, the Nation of Islam agreed to recruit him as a member. Shortly after, leader Elijah Muhammad recorded a statement that Clay would be renamed Muhammad (worthy of all praises) Ali. Only a few journalists (notably Howard Cosell) accepted the new name at the time. Ali would proclaim: Cassius Clay is my slave name. Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X ended when the radical split with the Nation of Islam a couple of weeks after Ali joined. He later admitted that turning his back on Malcolm X was a mistake he regretted for most of his adult life. MUHAMMAD ALI —>
Ali had a cameo role in the 1962 film version of Requiem for a Heavyweight. During his exile, he starred in the short-lived Broadway musical Buck White. Ali appeared in the documentary film Black Rodeo riding both a horse and a bull. The film Freedom Road, made in 1978, featured Muhammad in a rare acting role as Gideon Jackson, an ex-slave in 1870s Virginia who gets elected to the Senate.
His autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story, written with Richard Durham, was published in 1975. In 1977, it was adapted into a film called The Greatest, in which Ali played himself, Ernest Borgnine played Angelo Dundee, and James Earl Jones played Malcolm X. The Greatest Love of All was written by composers Michael Masser and Linda Creed. It was the main theme of the 1977 film. The original version was performed by George Benson. Eight years later, the song became even more well-known for a cover version by Whitney Houston that eventually topped the charts.
When We Were Kings, a 1996 documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle boxing match, won an Academy Award. With Jodie Foster and Kevin Spacey wildly applauding, Foreman and Ali both hit the stage to help accept the statuette. And, the 2001 biopic Ali garnered an Oscar nod for Will Smith’s portrayal of the champion. The biographical film, directed by Michael Mann, centers on Ali from 1964-1974.
He famously met The Beatles during their first visit to the United States. In photos that would become legendary, the boxer is seen knocking the Fab Four down like dominoes, and standing over them sprawled out in the ring. His 1996 surprise appearance to light the torch at the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Olympics was considered one of the iconic television moments in sport’s history. Ali has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His star is the only one to be mounted on a vertical surface, out of deference to his request that his name not be walked upon.
In 2005, President George W. Bush presented the boxer with Medal of Freedom. Originally known as the Louisville Lip, Kentucky’s governor has ordered the flags at the statehouse to fly at half-staff in Ali’s honor. By every measurable account, he was a true gentleman, and a real champion in-and-out of the boxing ring.
On a personal note, I had the distinct honor to be the master of ceremonies at his 50th birthday party. Seven years into his diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, he quietly thanked me and shook my hand. I’ll never forget my opportunity to host this special Hollywood event.
Larger-than-life, Muhammad Ali was 74.
Until next time> “never forget”