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Always The Greatest: Remembering Muhammad Ali


“I would like for them to say he took a few cups of love, he took one tablespoon of patience, one teaspoon of generosity, one pint of kindness; he took one quart of laughter; he took one pinch of concern. And, in the end, he mixed willingness with happiness, he added lots of faith, and he stirred it up well. Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime, and he served it to each and every deserving person he met.”

--Muhammad Ali, when asked what he would like people to think about him when he’s gone

Where does one even start when it comes to talking about what Ali meant? Look at that quote above. It’s an athlete who was arguably the best at what he did but he doesn’t even mention boxing. And, to me, that’s one of the elements that made Ali so special. Like a fighter in a ring dodging punches, he was impossible to define with simple descriptors. His influence may have been to illustrate to the world how multi-faceted public figures can be. They can be the greatest of all time at their profession, but they can also be powerful leaders in an anti-war movement, fundraisers for a fight against a cruel disease, civil and religious rights icons, and even playful poets. Ali’s impact is so hard to put into words because he was a man who refused to be simply defined. And he taught generations that they shouldn’t be put in boxes either. Fighters can be peaceful. Athletes can be poets. Men can be beautiful. And only one man can and ever will be Muhammad Ali.


Please don't misunderstand me. Not that I'm bragging, but I have in my lifetime met a lot of famous people. Comes with the job and my interests, but I can honestly say that only one time in my life was I truly intimidated by someone who was famous.

And that person was the one and only G.O.A.T.: Muhammad Ali

It happened many years ago, just shortly after he retired from boxing. Someone I know had gotten an invite for a fashion show for which he was a celebrity judge. Knowing how much he meant to me, my parents, and my grandfather, I decided that somehow I would get Ali to sign the program book for my grandfather and send it to him.

When I arrived for the show, I looked for him. There was Ali, larger than life. Nervously, I slowly approached him. What would he be like? Would he turn me away or ignore me? Would he crash my dreams of who he was?

As I got closer, Ali turned to ME, and extended his hand for a handshake. I shook his hand, and, with voice trembling, asked him if he could sign the program book for my grandfather. Of course he would. He took my pen and asked for me grandfather’s name, which was (no joke) Ebenezer. That made him chuckle, and he joked why didn't I ask for an autograph for myself as well. After he signed it, he put his hand on my shoulder and said "You tell Ebenezer I said 'Hello.'"

Somehow, with my legs shaking, I made it back to my seat and spent the rest of the evening watching him while he was watching the gorgeous models on the runway. But that's the effect he had on me and I assume most people.

For me, growing up, Ali was more than just a famous person, more than the greatest boxer of the past century. He was the living embodiment of black manhood—unbought, unafraid and true to himself.

He said and did what he believed without fear of consequence. He threw his Olympic boxing gold medal into the river in protest to the racism he experienced in this country and constantly spoke out against. He converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and was close friends with Malcolm X. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and refused to enter military service objecting to the war and the U.S. government foreign policies. And he did it all with courage, grace and even humor. He took on the establishment and the powers that be and always wound up victorious. He was like no other.

And that was the person I met that night and who I have admired my entire life. A man who lived his life the way he wanted to live—uncompromising and always truthful about what he said and believed.

He was, he is and he always will be The Greatest of All Time.


My absolute favorite memory of Muhammad Ali is a stray, quiet moment from the otherwise explosive documentary “Soul Power,” the musical counterpart to “When We Were Kings.” It's early morning on Day One of the music festival designed as a counterpart to Ali's legendary Rumble in the Jungle bout with George Foreman, in Kinshasa, Zaire. But right now Ali is just focusing on pouring at least five spoonfuls of sugar into his coffee. He radiates so much energy, you wonder why he needs the caffeine, or the sugar.

He turns and spots someone, his face lighting up. "Stokely Carmichael!" he shouts. The camera pulls back to reveal Kwame Toure, the civil rights icon who had changed his name from Stokely Carmichael and left America to become an official in the government of Guinea, walking up to the champ. "Don't you burn up nothing over here!" Ali says as they shake hands, both grinning like kids. He turns back to his breakfast companions, eyes gleaming, and takes a sip of his coffee with a spoon, staring down at it while clearly still savoring his own joke. Without even seeing Toure/Carmichael at this point, you just know that he is walking away beaming, too.

Carmichael had been accused of inciting riots in Washington, D.C. right after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, just one of many attempts by the FBI and CIA to neutralize him.

So here he was, six years later, more of an African dignitary than the boyish American revolutionary Ali once knew, but the champ calls him by his birth name. That's like Toure calling Ali "Cassius Clay." In that simple choice of address, Ali evokes their shared history: When young Carmichael was fighting American apartheid and imperialism, Ali was in jail for standing up to the same evils.

What I love about this moment is how much intelligence is conveyed in one handshake, one impish smile and one sugary cup of coffee. Even if you don't know the history surrounding this wisp of a moment, Ali's embracing, teasing presence makes it universally relatable: two great men acknowledging each other in a casual, down-home way. Ali was a brilliant author in the genre of life itself.


I feel so fortunate that I grew up in the era when Muhammad Ali was an omnipresent cultural figure, a regular guest on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” where his banter, humor, improvised rhyme schemes, and gentle yet commanding presence (how did he pull off that combination so effortlessly?) were an onslaught of charm and personality. My love of boxing would come later. I knew he was famous for being a boxer (I picked up on that by osmosis), but what I mostly sensed—and we're talking at age 6, 7, 8—was that this was a good man, a special man. I knew he was funny and I understood his humor. Malcolm X once said of his protégé and friend, "Though a clown never imitates a wise man, the wise man can imitate a clown." I totally picked up on that. So many adults seemed incomprehensible to me and he came off as completely transparent. He wasn’t on my level. He was on EVERYONE’S level. Outside of being a boxer, outside of being a man of convictions, political courage, compassion, strength, he was also an entertainer and he took that seriously. He knew what people wanted from him, and he provided it with panache. That is old-school generosity and, unfortunately, a lost art.

There are scenes in Albert and David Maysles' extraordinary documentary footage of Ali training to fight Larry Holmes in 1980 (now resurrected as "Muhammad and Larry," an episode in ESPN's “30 for 30” series) where onlookers and fans (kids, old men, young women, teenage boys) push up against the ring, watching Ali spar with his trainer and other boxers. He had a magic about him. It came from the inside. Beyond his awe-inspiring athleticism and gorgeous 6’3” body, he had a glow that people wanted, needed. You can see it on their faces. What would it be like to be as confident as Ali? What would it be like to have his self-knowledge, humor, competitiveness, kindness? Maybe if people got close enough it would rub off, maybe Ali's secret would be revealed, the secret of what it is like to be a man who knows who he is, and is present in every moment. We all could use a little more of that.

It was later that I understood what he signified, what he had accomplished as a boxer, as well as the other well-known facts of his life: his actions during the Vietnam War, his name-change, his relationship with Malcolm X. But once I went back and watched footage of him in the ring, I was so struck by his light-footed dodging and weaving, such a startling thing to see in a man so big, so muscular. He made his opponent do all the work; he bided his time; he saved his strength with a dancer's grace. He was spectacular to watch.

Recently, I read Peter Guralnick's "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke," and Ali plays a huge part. He and Sam Cooke were dear friends. In March of 1964, they went into the studio together to record a song, "Hey, Hey, The Gang's All Here." A couple of days later, the two were interviewed via transatlantic connection by British boxing commentator Harry Carpenter. The mood is jovial and affectionate (Ali starts off by introducing Cooke, adding, "As you can see, he's like me, awful pretty.") The two sit close together, and there is such a strong thread of connection between the men that it is visible. The two of them sing the song together, a cappella, and it is one of the most charming, open and fearlessly free performances I have ever seen.

With all of the things Ali did in his life, it was this clip that I first thought of when I heard the news.


My sister and I were watching the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta with our father. I was enjoying the spectacle, masked figures waving their arms and groups of athletes marching in file under their flags. It came time for the final leg of the Olympic torch race. A woman jogged up the ramp and a man came forward at the top. And my father’s whoop of surprise nearly startled me off the couch. I read the chyron, the man was Muhammad Ali. As he bent to light the cauldron I kept looking at my father. He had walked closer to the little TV set and was crouching down like he wanted to crawl into it. He had a smile of pure delight and admiration. For all the times adults had told me “so and so” was a big deal, I understood clearly from my father’s body language that this time it was true.

This person is important. This person matters.

It was an initial impression that would only be confirmed as I grew up to learn about Ali’s accomplishments and his political activism. How he had a faultless instinct for show business brio while at the same time not caring about making a white establishment comfortable with his abilities and the clear pride he took in them. 2016 has truly become a monster, gobbling up our icons, one after the other. At my worst, I worry the culture is losing people it can’t afford too. But I think a more universal truth is being revealed in these passings. Some people when they’re gone, you know you will not see their like again.


I have never been much of a follower of the sport of boxing—I recognize the amount of skill and strategy on display in a good match but when all is said and done, watching two guys getting their brains beaten into jelly has never been my idea of entertainment—but the greatness of Muhammed Ali was of a type that transcended the ring and touched people around the world. As an athlete, he was without comparison, and even those who did not care for boxing could not help but be impressed with his unheard-of combination of sheer ferocity and balletic grace. Outside the ring, he first impressed as perhaps the first truly media-savvy athlete of the modern age—at a time when most sports stars were expected to be both humble and monosyllabic, he would go off on flights of oral fancy that combined humor, braggadocio and sheer poetry in ways that were a joy to hear. Before long, he would use his gift of verbal dexterity to help demonstrate the courage of his convictions, first when he made the controversial conversion to Islam and then when he proclaimed himself a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam. Considering how universally beloved he would become in later years, it is startling to realize just how hated he was by a good percentage of the population for sticking to his beliefs, but rather than sell them short in order to make things easier for himself, he clung to them at enormous personal cost. That alone would be enough to earn him universal admiration but to then come back and regain everything that he had lost thanks to his incredible athletic prowess ensured his place in the pantheon of sports history. However, by using his fame, his power and, for as long as he could use it, his voice to try to make the world a better place by bringing people together, he truly lived up to his nickname, “The Greatest.”

Now he is gone and while that would be a sad and distressing event under any circumstances, it is even worse because he has left us during a time in which racial strife and hatred/mistrust of Muslims is making a distressing return. Will another Ali come along to help us see that there is another way beyond the path that we have been stumbling down as of late? Probably not—Ali was a true original and while many have tried to follow in his footsteps, it is doubtful that anyone will ever be able to truly fill them. However, if everyone who has been posting tributes to Ali and his legacy on Facebook and Twitter—even Donald Trump, who tweeted words of praise even though he only last December tweeted “Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?”—would actually practice a little bit of what Ali preached about peace and tolerance in real life instead of simply paying lip service to it via social media, we might not need another because that would be a far more tribute to the man and his legacy. 


Norman Mailer, no slouch in the ego department himself, eloquently argued that ego was a key component in the success story of Muhammad Ali. And while all professional writers are egocentric by definition, my own ego isn’t so big that I think I can in any way compete with the amazing writing about Muhammad Ali that’s come down through the years of his incredible life and career. Sure, I could tell you about how I looked at Ali in my ‘60s childhood and various “feels” associated with that but seriously, your time would be much better spent reading, for instance:

“Ego,” the essay by Norman Mailer, ostensibly about Ali/Frazier, anthologized in “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century,” edited by David Halberstam. It is one of the last six pieces in that book, all of which are about Ali and one of which is…

Murray Kempton’s seminal “The Champ And The Chump,” about Sonny Liston and the future Muhammad Ali. Kempton’s Manichean portrayal of the two men was arguably wrong-headed (and is refuted to an extent by Nick Tosches provocative biography “The Devil And Sonny Liston”), but it remained fixed in the culture for decades…

Mailer’s book “The Fight” about the Foreman/Ali battle in Zaire; an arguably “indulgent” book but also a remarkable dissection of machismo and racialism and, again, ego…

James Baldwin’s “An OpenLetter To My Sister, Angela Y. Davis” only mentions Ali in passing, but is essential reading for understanding the context of Muhammad Ali; and finally…

“Anti-Poetry Night,” by A.J. Liebling, a largely affectionate but occasionally bemused portrait of then-Cassius Clay in spring of 1963. It ends thusly: “Will he ever be heavyweight champion? Time will tell. Will he learn to punch harder? It is a question of time, too. Will he learn to fight inside? Time is all. A young man’s best friend is time.”


The upcoming ESPN epic documentary about O.J. Simpson, "Made in America," promotes a very interesting reflection about the role of an idol when it comes to politics and race issues. Although he became a very successful athlete in a time that would make his African-American heritage incredibly important if put to political use, Simpson never saw a reason for "risking" his position and his fame by speaking out against the terrible injustices the African-American community was (and still is) suffering in a daily basis.

Well, that's one of the key things that differentiate an O.J. Simpson from a Muhammad Ali.

If Simpson was an incredibly talent artist, Ali was Mozart. His genius made a sport based on brutality become a form of Art. His taunts were performance art in its most compelling, his moves on the ring were Gene Kelly-level dancing, his strength and resilience were just plain inspiring. It takes a special form of brilliance, self-confidence and craziness to put yourself in the corner of the ring, extend your arms to the sides, bracing the ropes, and to face an opponent with an exposed face, using merely your agility to avoid a barrage of 21 punches by...dodging.

And still, if he was unique as a boxer, it was his convictions and his character that made him a legend. The conviction to refuse to go to war in the name of what was basically a power play with ulterior political and economic motives; the conviction to use his fame and influence to help his community against the same system that wouldn't hesitate in sending African-American boys to die in Asia and wouldn't lift a finger to stop them from dying in America; the conviction to go to jail for what he believed.

THAT's what makes a true champion.

And the fact he beat Superman himself and also an alien boxer, saving the Earth in process, doesn't hurt.


I've studied his matches over and over again. The books about him. The movies. Why: because even though he was hated hated hated, he persisted with force and love. For this Muslim kid from the South Side of Chicago, who has so often prayed in his mosque on 47th street, who shook his hands at Eid prayers decades ago, he was sometimes the only reminder that even in the face of the most vicious, most ignorant hate, you persist and you win. Then he was revered. Ultimately, he was adored. Now, I am heartbroken. But, the fight continues.


Muhammad Ali wholly or partly inspired many fictions featuring Ali or Ali-like characters, but none were as interesting as Ali himself, or for that matter, any randomly chosen still photograph of Ali. In one sense, it was inspiring to see the mainstream, which was understandably preoccupied with stories about people who looked more or less like the people making film and TV shows, becoming fascinated with Ali and wrestling with the implications of Ali's athletic genius, intellect, artistic temperament, and worldwide popularity.

But it wasn't until Michael Mann's excellent, still underrated “Ali” came along in 2001--twenty years after Ali had retired from boxing and begun to stammer and shake from Parkinsons'-related problems-- that any scripted film could deal with Ali as Ali, rather than as a half-metaphorical being reflecting white attitudes about race back at them, in a kind of cinematic referendum on enlightenment. The 1970 film “The Great White Hope,” which starred James Earl Jones as a black boxing champ in the 1920 who was bedeviled by racism and his own pride, was the first. Although ostensibly the character was based on Jack Johnson, a likewise militant figure who dominated the sport forty years before Ali/Cassius Clay came on the scene, it was also a reaction to Ali's defiant individuality, political radicalism and unapologetic blackness. Ali would play himself in a mostly regrettable 1978 biopic, and become the subject of innumerable documentaries, the best of which is “When We Were Kings,” about Ali's 1974 comeback fight against George Foreman in Zaire. Ali's embrace of his African heritage is treated as the psychic fuel that enabled him to triumph over Foreman, an aloof-seeming fighter that Zaire-based fans saw as a representative of colonial white values. Mann's film, a more atmospheric, mythic take on the post-draft-board period of the fighter's life, draws much of its power from re-creating key moments from “When We Were Kings.” The emotional high point is Ali (played by Will Smith in perhaps his greatest screen performance) jogging through shantytown streets as he's cheered on by local residents and tailed by adoring children.

The first three “Rocky” movies were partly about white anxiety over the certainty that they'd eventually be displaced from the center of American life and culture. The underdog is a working class white man. The champ, Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed, is a complacent rich black man whose taunting patter and quicksilver moves were modeled on Ali's. (Ali talked about what Stallone's script and Weathers' performance took from him while watchingRocky II with Roger Ebert.) The “Rocky” version of Ali is, of course, almost entirely divorced from any larger political context, so that he becomes a purely physical threat, an obstacle for Rocky to overcome as he tries to prove he's somebody. (Stallone wrote the script after seeing a white fighter, Chuck Wepner, aka "The Bayonne Bleeder," go fifteen rounds against Ali in 1975, a loss that was seen as a victory for the indomitable spirit of the underdog.) And while "black-vs.-white" is a subtext in the first film, as well as the sequels, skin color is rarely remarked upon in dialogue—the better to universalize Rocky as a working stiff just trying to take his best shot at an impossible dream, and make it possible for viewers of any background to imprint their own experience on him and identify with him (and millions did—the first three Rockys are sensationally effective films).

In the third film, Rocky has become Apollo in Rocky I, coasting along on the fumes of his rematch victory in Rocky II and growing soft; the Ali stand-in helps him defeat a frighteningly confrontational black challenger, Mr. T's Clubber Lang, who sees Rocky as a chump, not a champ. And so, through the magic of writer-filmmaker-star Sylvester Stallone's populist alchemy, we see a universalized version of a humbled, empathetic Ali helping a white boxer beat a white-paranoia-fueled image of Ali's radical, confrontational 1960s self—a snarling fast-talking up-from-nothing usurper, telling white America right to its face that it its dominant position was earned through luck and trickery, not merit or divine right. In the fourth “Rocky,” the Ali character dies fighting an emblem of Communist aggression. He sacrifices himself on the altar of the very beliefs that the real Ali gave up boxing to oppose, when he refused induction into the Vietnam War. "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" Ali asked in 1968. In the same year, 1985, that Stallone killed off the Ali character in his fourth Rocky installment, his other great character, the former Green Beret Rambo, re-fought and won the Vietnam War in “Rambo II,” machine-gunning bushels of Vietnamese soldiers (who were caricatured like "Japs" in a World War II war movie) and Soviet advisers (the Rambo films' stand-ins for Nazis).

The Rocky films are nigh-irresistible entertainment, beloved by an international cross-section of fans. But there's no denying the wish fulfillment aspect of a white boxer rising to the top after nearly twenty years of the sport being dominated by African-American boxers, the greatest of whom, Ali, was also a polarizing figure, a man who stood in opposition to nearly every political value that Stallone, as a movie star and auteur, reinforced in his screenplays. The Rocky movies change the spelling of Ali's last name, taking away the "i" and adding an "ly."

It wasn't until Ryan Coogler, an African-American filmmaker, took over the franchise with last year's superb “Creed” that the Apollo/Ali character was given his rightful due. Among other things, we learn that Rocky and Apollo's legendary third match, which happened at the end of “Rocky III” after Apollo taught Rocky how to fight with rhythm and soul (i.e., like a black man)—ended with another loss for Rocky. The film's handling of this moment exudes humility: when Apollo's illegitimate son Adonis "Donny" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) asks who won that third match, Rocky replies, quietly and with a touch of wonder, "He did," as if the idea of any other outcome is so absurd that he's surprised to hear the question.

Donny, too, is haunted by the image and impact of Creed/Ali, who hangs over every frame of the film, infusing it with his spirit. He shadow-boxes against projected footage of his father, emulating his moves and drawing strength from his image, and during the final fight, he gets up during a ten-count when the champ's image rushes into his barely-conscious mind. It's as if a spirit has taken over his body—as if Apollo/Ali has become his unseen second coach. The film's acceptance of a non-white boxer's dominance of the sport feels like a long-delayed corrective to a scenario that was a fantasy all the way back in 1976. Rocky resists helping Donny at first but soon relents and is as selfless in his devotion to his late friend's son as Apollo was to him in “Rocky III.”  The most politically resonant shot in the entire film isn't from a fight or a training montage, though those are brilliantly realized, but in a long tracking shot following Donny and Rocky into the ring en route to the final showdown. On the back of Donny's robe it says "Creed." On the back of Rocky's it says "Creed's Team." The entire film, and especially Rocky, are rooting for a black man's success. Ali made that possible decades earlier; it just took Hollywood forty years to catch up.

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