I’ve sadly written way too many RIP posts this year. It seems 2016 hasn’t been kind to many of the greats in entertainment. Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay, truly transcended his role as the Greatest Heavyweight Boxing Champion of All Time. His stance against the Vietnam War and subsequent stripping of his title for refusing to enter the draft on religious grounds (he converted to Islam shortly after winning his first title) made him a divisive character during the tumultuous 1960’s and cost him three prime years of his career. He came back and won the championship twice and, love him or hate him, no one could deny his skills in the ring or the strength of his convictions.
Ali was a flamboyant showman in a sport full of monosyllabic bruisers. He made outlandish predictions (“Count on me, he won’t last three”), spouted poetry (“I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”), and claimed he was “so pretty”. He admitted he got this from Gorgeous George, the pro wrestling superstar whose get-ups and knack for talking smack electrified television audiences in the late 40s/early 50s. George, like Ali, was “the man you love to hate”, and like most things he did, Muhammad Ali took this style to the next level.
TV and Ali were made for each other. Most of his big bouts were shown on the small screen, before the days of pay-per-view. His interviews on ABC’S WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS with Howard Cosell were the stuff of legends, the two men interacting like a modern-day Abbott & Costello. Ali made Cosell’s career, and the caustic tongued broadcaster knew it. Here’s Howard “telling it like it is” at Ali’s 50th birthday celebration:
But it wasn’t just sports on the tube where Ali shined. He was all over TV during the 60s and 70s, a hot commodity on the talk and variety show circuits. The Greatest appeared with some of TV’s greatest: Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, Dinah Shore, Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Sonny & Cher, even The Captain & Tennille. He did guest shots on the detective drama VEGA$ and the Gary Coleman sitcom DIFF’RENT STROKES. He starred in the mini-series FREEDOM ROAD, starring as a slave who becomes a senator, alongside Kris Kristofferson. And he received the highest honor of all by starring in a Saturday morning cartoon series, I AM THE GREATEST: THE ADVENTURES OF MUHAMMAD ALI:
There were far too many documentaries on the man to go over, but he did perform in two feature films. The first was 1962’s REQUIUM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, the Rod Serling scripted saga of Mountain Rivera, an aging boxer who’s past his prime. The other, 1977’s THE GREATEST, found Ali playing himself in a biopic with Hollywood heavyweights like Ernest Borgnine, Robert Duvall, Ben Johnson, and James Earl Jones. The movie’s okay as a curio, but Ali was much better in the boxing ring than the acting ring. Better to watch is 2001’s ALI, with Will Smith in the title role.
Acting prowess aside, I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt Muhammad Ali was the greatest boxer I’ve ever seen. Remember him as the brash, flashy fighter with hands like lightning who did indeed “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. Rest in peace, champ. You’ve earned it.