2016 has been a cruel year for heroes and the hearts of those who adored them. The latest addition to the ever-expanding in memoriam list is Muhammad Ali: boxer, humanitarian, champion, poet and legend. Ali was a different kind of sports figure. He perfected his physical craft while providing an endless verbal stream of clever self-promotion. He was his own ad agency, selling a product that billed itself “the greatest of all time." Though that title may be hotly debated, as it has been for decades in barbershops and bars, one thing is for sure: Professionally and personally, no sports figure mastered the art of the comeback better than Muhammad Ali. He survived fierce opponents like Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and the United States Draft Board. And though Parkinson’s Disease slowed him down and silenced him, he gave it a 30-year run for its money. To the end, he made us think he was unbeatable, that there would be a rally in the 15th round.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., Ali began his career in the ring as an impoverished Louisville teenager whose unorthodox boxing skills (according to his trainer, Angelo Dundee) won him numerous Golden Glove championships. After winning the Olympic gold medal in 1960, Ali turned pro. Four years later, he got his shot at the title against Sonny Liston, a man Ali called “a big ole ugly bear.” The bear was favored to win, because Ali’s skills were underestimated—and not for the last time. Seven rounds in, a battered Liston quit, giving Ali his first heavyweight title.
Ali fought as hard for his beliefs as he did for the heavyweight championship of the world, angering as many people as he inspired. He joined the Nation of Islam in 1964, ushering in a name change that many newspapers wouldn’t honor. In 1967, Ali himself refused to honor the U.S. Government’s mandatory conscription during the Vietnam War, famously stating “I ain’t got no quarrel with the VietCong.” It was unprecedented to see a figure this major and popular make what appeared to be career-ending moves, even more so when that figure was completely unfazed by their outcome. Stripped of his title, it would be nearly four years before Muhammad Ali would fight again.
Defying F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ali ushered in the second act of his American life by getting another shot at the title courtesy of Ali-Frazier I. Joe Frazier, Philadelphia born and tough as hell, would become as inextricably linked to Ali as Ashford was to Simpson or Ossie Davis was to Ruby Dee. They would battle twice more after Frazier’s defeat of Ali at the “Mecca of Boxing," Madison Square Garden, with Ali earning a 2-1 record. This is where yours truly enters the picture: Ali-Frazier III, the “Thrilla in Manila," was the first time I can remember seeing Ali fight.
Like many of the kids in my old ‘hood, I loved Muhammad Ali. I loved that he could fight, something any bullied kid would look up to, but my real reason for idolizing him was far less violent: Muhammad Ali ran his mouth. Whenever he was on my TV screen, whether it was with verbal sparring partner Howard Cosell or ranting against roaches in D-Con ads, Muhammad Ali sold woof tickets. But unlike most salesmen of said tickets, Ali could back them up. “I’m pretty!” he’d bellow unexpectedly, before dissing the features of his opponents. “Ain’t he ugly?” he’d ask of Joe Frazier, whom he also called “a gorilla.” He drove his challengers and their fans crazy, getting into their minds and spinning tall tales of his prowess that were actually kind of believable. “I’m so mean, I make medicine sick!” he once bragged. In the excellent documentary “When We Were Kings,” you can see Ali’s incessant chatter really get under the skin of his “Rumble in the Jungle” challenger, George Foreman.
But that braggadocio was part of the Muhammad Ali package, and while it was well-known and expected by the time I came along, it was quite controversial in the turbulent 1960’s. Here was a Black man blatantly defying the expected notions of quiet civility and modesty amongst Civil Rights Era White society. Clearly, he did not know “his place,” nor was he interested in learning where it was. Not only did he tell you he was “the Greatest," he proved it. He never shut up, even in the ring. I’m sure this is partially why his defeats were as satisfying to his detractors as they were devastating for us fans. His last major defeats, at the hands of former sparring partner Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, were particularly devastating, and convinced Ali to pack it in and retire.
One might consider irony at play in realizing that the Parkinson’s Disease that afflicted Ali took away his ability to speak with the fury he once did, but Ali saw it instead as a lesson. He became an even bigger humanitarian. When he showed up at the 1996 Olympics to light the torch, a rare public appearance since his diagnosis, viewers saw that not even the physical toll taken on his body could extinguish that old, mischievous glint in his eyes. He still wanted to tell us how great he still was; we already knew.
Since this is a movie site, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ali played himself in 1977’s "The Greatest," which I saw at the Newark Drive-In on a double feature with, of all things, "Rocky." I’ll get flak for this, but Will Smith was a better Ali in “Ali” than Ali was in the lackluster "The Greatest." The best thing to come from that movie was the song Jackson Heights’ own Randy Watson sang in "Coming to America," a movie that is, at more than one point, a bit of a love letter to Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali also had a Saturday morning cartoon and more documentaries made about him than most sports figures. One could run a film festival solely with movies about the man who was perhaps our most well-known American athlete.
I could go on, but I must admit I am overwhelmed with grief. My mother once told me that “you know you’re getting old when your heroes start to die.” 2016 has made me feel as old as Methuselah. As for Ali, the three-time champion could “handcuff lightning and throw thunder in jail,” but he couldn’t rope-a-dope Father Time. He was my childhood hero, and like my childhood, he is gone. Ali was 74. May he rest in peace.