Sunday, June 05, 2016

Muhammad Ali was THE GREATEST

Younger readers know the name I’m sure, but do they really know the impact of Muhammad Ali? The former heavyweight champion passed away last Friday at 74.

There was quite simply no bigger celebrity in the world for many years than Muhammad Ali, or Cassius Clay (as he was originally known). He was indeed THE GREATEST. Sports Illustrated named him the “Sports Personality of the Century.” (Sorry Dennis Rodman)

Some of Ali's bouts were epic, almost mythical. The entire world stopped and watched or listened (many were just available on radio) when he fought.

But more than that was his personality. Outgoing, outspoken, outrageous, larger-than-life. He taunted his opponents and aggrandized himself. But he was such fun, and he had sooooo much talent to back up his boasts, that he completely captured the public’s imagination. The man had a flair in everything he did.  He described his approach as "I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee." 

Now we have superhero movies. Back then we had a real living breathing hero – Muhammad Ali.

The punches took their toll, as they always do. In later years he suffered with Parkinson’s Disease and mentally he just wasn’t the same.  We found it painful to watch but all preferred to remember him in his glory days -- handsome, witty, and kind (despite the ability to kill an elephant with one punch). 

I only saw him once in person. This must’ve been twenty years or more. I stopped in at a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant on Van Nuys Blvd. in the San Fernando Valley around 6:00 one weekday evening and there was the champ, sitting alone at the counter, wolfing down a Big Boy. What if God were one of us? It was almost surreal to see a living legend in such a casual mundane setting. I didn’t approach him. No one did. Everyone honored his privacy although he had to know that all eyes were on him. Today everyone in that restaurant would be snapping selfies.

I wish I could convey to those who don’t know just how big he was, how influential, how inspirational, how colorful, how important. Everyone wants to be in the spotlight these days, but back then you had to really earn it. You had to really accomplish something. Muhammad Ali stood high above the rest. I don’t think there will ever be another like him. Trust me, he was and forever will be THE GREATEST.


Unknown said...

I once shook his hand after a college speech he gave in 1973 in Pennsylvania.
He was.....and always will be.....THE GREATEST.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

He delivered. It's not boasting if he could do it. He did. I didn't appreciate until years later the magnitude of his sacrifice of having his championship honors taken away when he refused to be inducted. And, I realized later, he refused for all of the right reasons.

Dave Creek said...

Living here in Louisville, Ali's hometown, sightings of the Greatest were common. I almost said routine, but that was far from the truth. I was attending a science fiction convention in 1975 and Ali was at the same hotel, visiting his hometown. Surprised SF fans saw him get off an elevator in the lobby and managed to get autographs from Ali next to those of their genre heroes.

My family and I visited the Ali Center one Sunday on a whim since we were close by, and there he was! He was just sitting there, unable to speak much anymore, and he was available for anyone to take pictures with. I was offended that some people seemed to treat him as a prop, not speaking to him, just getting their pictures taken. I made sure to thank him for his time, even though he didn't seem to respond.

My wife has an autograph from him from a time he visited the school where she taught. He loved being around children, and sometimes would just show up at a school, unannounced, to perform magic tricks for the kids or give the whole school some ice cream. Sure, it disrupted the day's schedule, but what school would have something going on better than a visit from Muhammad Ali?

Stephen Marks said...

Nice words Ken. Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth, those are the two. Am I missing someone else, if so let me know cause I can't think of anybody. I guess for Canadians its Wayne Gretzky and for Japan that Sadaharu Oh home run guy but those guys didn't transcend their own countries or sports. Pele? Not in North America, a close third though. Jackie Robinson or Hank Aaron? They probably deserve to be up there but didn't quite make it. So I guess thats it. You blew it Tiger Woods.

Stoney said...

The last time I remember so much news coverage about the passing of a non-political figure was eighteen years ago, when Frank Sinatra died. There's a testament to impact!

1955david said...

Spot on. Very well said.

Doktor Frank Doe said...


mmryan314 said...

Ali seemed to bridge generational, racial, and political gaps during his entire career. My parents hated Elvis, The Beatles, Motown music, and Democrats ( thank God I grew up and moved away). The loved Cassius/Mohammad however as did we all.

David Schwartz said...

Interesting you mention Bob's Big Boy as the place you saw Muhammad Ali. I also saw the Champ at a Bob's as well, although it was the one on Wilshire Boulevard, near Highland. It must have been 1982 or 1983 and he was at a table with a group of children. It might have been a birthday party, or perhaps him with his kids and their friends. As you mentioned, I was also struck by the normalcy of the setting juxtaposed with having one of the most famous people in the world a few tables away. I never approached him (what could I say that he hadn't heard a million times before), but it made a lasting impression. It's not often you're that close to a true legend.

AlaskaRay said...

You mean he became famous without leaking a sex video? How yesterday!


Breadbaker said...

Part of it, I think, is how much bigger boxing was then (I have no idea who the heavyweight champion of the world is right now; in the sixties, that was impossible unless you were a hermit).

And part of it is how intensely clever he was. He knew the right words to say to maximize publicity, and therefore ticket sales (most bouts were on closed-circuit television in movie theaters, so that was a key to the revenue stream in the days before pay-per-view).

Johnny Walker said...

As someone both too young and too not-American, where can I enjoy this man's life story. Did Will Smith's movie do him justice at all?

Michael said...

A minor or not so minor correction, except that everybody is saying it. Ali didn't have Parkinson's Disease, exactly. He suffered from Parkinsonism or Parkinson's Syndrome. He had a lot of the symptoms, but his resulted from a physical cause--the punishment he took as a boxer. Parkinson's Disease develops differently.

And yes, the greatest. And I read this story years ago in a wonderful book, Air Time, about CBS News, by Gary Paul Gates, who was a CBS news writer for many years. In the 1960s and 1970s, the CBS Evening News had a news writer and then editor named John Merriman (who died in the same plane crash in 1974 that killed the father of Stephen Colbert). As a news writer, Merriman wrote a story about the then-heavyweight champion and called him by the name he had announced he wanted to be called, Muhammad Ali. Walter Cronkite, who managed on the air to hide the fact that he was very liberal politically, changed it to Cassius Clay and told Merriman of his surprise that he had been taken in. Merriman replied--and he took nothing from Walter, who loved him for it--that it must be nice to be an anchorman and play God. The argument got heated and finally Walter said, I'm the anchor and it's Cassius Clay. If you remember, Cronkite sat in a horseshoe desk with a few people at desks around him. Those were his writers. From the moment the newscast began, Merriman sat with his arms folded, glaring at Walter. The commercial late in the newscast ended, Cronkite sighed, looked up, and said, "Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali ...." And that actually did a lot to get people to start accepting that he had chosen that name.

Anonymous said...

Johnny Walker -- I would start with the great documentary When We Were Kings. It's not a comprehensive doc, it focuses on one fight, but you won't get a better picture of who the real man was. The film ALI is decent, but it in no way compares to the real thing.

Max Clarke said...

When I was a kid, and we learned that he had changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, and then we learned he would not enter the armed forces, those were shocking events. Why would somebody give himself a new identity? Why would somebody NOT help America defeat the Communists of North Vietnam?

What I appreciated later as I grew up was the courage of that stand. He probably could have arranged a comfortable safe assignment in the Army, something that kept him out of harm’s way. Movie stars had done that in other wars. But Ali shut the door on that when he said he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong.

And then he had to live with the repercussions of being a conscientious objector...losing his title and his ability to pursue his profession, and becoming a pariah in the eyes of many Americans. Most people have never done so much and lost it so quickly. Most people have never had been pinned against the wall by the federal government and the national media.

What impresses me the most about Ali is that he came back from all that, somehow. Sports fans lost seeing him during those years at his prime, but his refusal to be sacrificed to Lyndon Johnson’s war is a lasting lesson of grace under pressure.

And in the end, time showed Ali was right.

Don K. said...

Very nice testament, Ken. Ali indeed transcended our normal lives. He was the icon that made other so-called icons speechless, gawking fans. He taught us, whether or not people were listening, how to live, how to be confident and how to face the end. How to die. he did everything unapologetically on his own terms and in the process, endeared himself to everyone not only because he lived in the moment, but he did it all was showing us his many flaws, too. He was one of us, but really he was none of us, because he was The Greatest.

A good documentary featuring Ali himself is When We Were Kings. It was released in 1996 and features his 1974 fight against George Foreman, the fight Ali dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle. It was 22 years in the making and won an Academy Award for best documentary.

Sparks said...

For Johnny Walker, I recommend the biography by Thomas Hauser.

Mike Barer said...

Once upon a time, a family would sit in front on the screen to watch boxing. Once, boxing was as popular as baseball, basketball and football. When Ali retired, he took the sport with him.

VP81955 said...

Muhammad Ali was the anti-corporate Michael Jordan. He stood for ideals, not logos.

Jeff Maxwell said...

Great thoughts, Ken.

I'm really fuzzy about the year, but I think Nixon was in Century City for some reason, and there was a large antiwar demonstration in a park across the street from Fox. I walked over to be in the mix. Right in the middle of the fracas was a beat up old pickup with wooden slats for sides. One man stood alone in the back of the truck looking down on the demonstrators. It was Ali. I grabbed a newspaper from a trash can, walked over to the truck, looked up at him and asked if he would sign my paper. He nodded, and I climbed up the side of the truck and handed him the paper. At that moment, I realized I was a moron with no pen. I apologized and started to climb down, but he grabbed my arm, pulled out a pen and signed the paper. He could have just let me go away, but he was Ali. I thanked him profusely as he shook my hand. He had a big hand.

I floated away with the newspaper in awe. Awe like that has not happened since. I'm really not a big autograph guy, but I regret his disappeared over the years. Ali knew who he was and lived that truth everyday. And it inspired all of us. Much like Seth Rogen.

Carol said...

He lived in my hometown of Cherry Hill NJ for a bit in the early 70's. People tell stories of how he would, if one actually rang his doorbell, answer it, let the people in, answer questions, and sign autographs.

I was there yesterday with my friend and we drove past his house (it's for sale now, for $700,000 if anyone's interested) and I was almost surprised there weren't flowers or something placed in front of it.

As a little girl in the 70's I had zero interest in boxing, but I knew who he was. A true icon.

Unknown said...

And don't forget that he fought Superman:

thirteen said...

I remember Ali's Life magazine cover from 1964, right after he first became heavyweight champion. It's here:

Some of the letters that followed were virulently racist. How dare Life put a handsome, sweating, triumphant black man on its cover? How terrible! What was Life thinking? And what about the children?

Ali was fighting a lot more than Sonny Liston in those days.

Anonymous said...

My take on Ali would be different and in fact it would not be so much about Ali - it would be about Frazier.
Ali was to a certain extent, a product of the time - his fight with Liston was less than three months after the JFK assassination - like the Beatles he was the right person when the country was seeking a hero, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. And the country was changing ( I just watched The Thrill of It All on TCM done three months before the assassination with James Garner and Doris Day - the archetype Southern California suburban comedy, you couldn’t imagine it a year or two later

We didn’t know it yet but Ali was the hero - and Ali always had to be the hero , whcih meant there had to be a villain.
BTW- on the subject of fighting in retrospect we should have seen Ali had a good chance to beat Liston- he was younger, faster, taller and quicker - and more honest. But perhaps we were still in the pre JFK assassination mindset about fighters like we were about music. (As a fighter my take is that Ali was not the best heavyweight, I’d go with Louis. Nor the best pound for pound, I’d have to say Sugar Ray Robinson but he was right up there and I say that with the knowledge he missed the crucial three and a half years.

Cosell used him, the Black Muslims used him, Malcolm X used him, even the Government used him with their prosecution.
Someties he let himself be used. I’m not sure if it is true the NOI wanted him to fight After the last Frazier fight against doctor’s orders and that really cost him - but he probably would have done it anyway.
Sometimes he could be cruel and callous. Some of the stuff the NOI made him say is terrible and I doubt he believed it.
but he loved the public. and he understood celebrity better than anyone.

As I said he needed villains - Liston, Terrell, the government, white people (for a while), Frazier Foreman, Spinks, Norton,etc. Until he was too ill and became a natural hero.
Of those Frazier was treated the worst.

the Frazier Ali rivalry might be the best sports rivalry of the 20th century - boxing equivalent of Yankees/Red Sox, Cubs/Cardinals. Yale/Harvard. Lakers/Celtics
But on this one Altho Ali is the public hero he is the private villain. Frazier grew up much poorer than Ali (Ali was lower midlle class in an integrated Louisville, Frazier was dirt poor in rural South Carolina.
Frazier helped Ali when the Government froze him out as part of their campaign to destroy him. Frazier was not an Uncle Tom - he was a working class guy who respected his background.
Not quite the fighter Ali was- but not far off, and in terms of punishment he gave better than he got when he fought Ali.
And Ali never reconciled with him. Frazier never made Ali kind of money and never had his entourage.
Frazier really did hit slabs of meat and run up the stairs of Philadelphia - and remained there to open a gym for boxers.
And they give the statue to a sawed off mediocre actor. It should be Joe Frazier up there- and to a large extent it isn’t because of Ali.

Ali and Babe Ruth were the two greatest sorts celebrities of the 20th century - without question.
But now you are seeing a sanitized story hijacked by many people like Al Sharpton who have an agenda

MikeN said...

Are there any black leaders today opposed to interracial marriage like Ali was?

McAlvie said...

What always strikes me when I remember Ali at his peak was that he was so larger than life, and yet he always seemed conscious of his status as a role model. Heaven help me, I'm starting to sound like an old geezer; but I do think that even prize fighters had more class back then. Oh, I know he had a lot of flaws, too; but he went on to use his celebrity status to do a lot of good. And a lot of the flaws, well we would see them as flaws today; but it has to be remembered that the world was a very, very different place in the 70s.

Anonymous said...

Here's Ali when he went back to Ireland to rediscover his roots:

Ali was arguably the greatest mixed-race boxer of all time.

Jahn Ghalt said...


Judging by complexion and their self-identification I had a "black" foster child whose maternal grandmother was "white".

I once recounted a statement from Nicholas Wade's The Dawn of Man that DNA "parsing" (of Y-chromosomes and certain mitochondria) had determined to a high degree of confidence that all humans presently alive are descended from a single "Chromosomal Adam" who lived about 50,000 years ago and a "Mitochondrial Eve" who lived about 150,000 years ago.

Said another way all the lines of Adam's brothers and Eve's sisters have died out.

Grandma chewed on this awhile and remarked in her very dry fashion: "so we're all black".

Ali may have had much more recent Irish roots, but since Wade and Grandma, the idea of race has become both genetically determinable yet more diffuse.

Unknown said...

Joe Dimaggio. That is another icon in sports. Ali came to my Chicago high school to help promote some politician. Didn't know who the politician was, still don't, but REALLY enjoyed the visit. Amazing man. Funny how he is now praised for his anti-war stance, but Jane Fonda is still the enemy because of false stories.

Anonymous said...

Jane Fonda is still the enemy because of false stories.

Jane Fonda took pictures with the NVA sitting on a gun turret pretending to shoot down American planes.
At the time she was only a couple of miles from the Hanoi Hilton, where American pilots had been tortured for years.
She claims she was duped.
An actress from a theatrical family being duped by cameras.
BTW- after the Americans left, she has yet to mention the boat people (150,000), Khmer Rouge or Cambodian genocide (2 million dead). She was busy in Malibu making California Suite and Fun With Dick and Jane.
She's also dissed many of the people who called her out.
All that is true and it's enough for me.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks for the recommendations!