Thanks to Will Smith and Michael Mann, Muhammad Ali is the talk of the town again -- like he was in Rome in 1960, Miami in 1964, nationwide in 1971, Zaire in 1974, and Atlanta in 1996.
We've never been able to take our eyes off him, and his history is our history. To spur your memories and renew your curiosity, here's an A-to-Z sampler of the man and the myth.
Ali, bomaye! Ali, bomaye! 60,000 Zairois chanted "Ali, kill him" as he stepped into the ring against the heavily favored George Foreman in 1974. The cheer was ringing evidence of Ali's international appeal, but it wasn't exactly spontaneous: During training sessions, Ali had coached fans and
onlookers to repeat the chant after him.
Bundini Brown. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" was Drew "Bundini" Brown's line first. The champ's motivating, lyricizing, philosophizing, spiritualizing, right-hand man in the early days, Brown eventually fell out of favor when he sold Ali's championship belt to a Harlem barber for $500.
|Muhammad Ali shocked the world by beating George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.|
Cassius Clay. He was Cassius Marcellus Clay when he "shook up the world" and beat Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964. The next morning, he announced his conversion to the Nation of Islam and soon after took the name Muhammad ("one worthy of praise") Ali (the name of a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad). Throughout the 1960s, the New York Times and others insisted on calling him "Clay." In 1967, boxer Ernie Terrell called him "Clay" and took the beating of his life for it
-- "What's my name," Ali shouted between blows, "what's my name?!"
Dundee, Angelo. In the fourth round of the first fight against Liston, Clay had ointment in his eyes and could barely see; Dundee wiped his face and pushed him back into the ring, saying, "This is the big one, Daddy." Twenty-six years later, he wouldn't let his fighter go out for the 11th round of his last fight, against Larry Holmes. "That's all. The ballgame's over," he said.
Earnie Shavers. September, 1977, Madison Square Garden. It should have been Ali's last fight. Shavers was the heaviest hitter in the business at the time and he pounded the 35-year-old champ badly in the 13th and 14th rounds. Ali got to his feet for the last round, somehow found the strength to fight back, and won the decision. The next day, Teddy Brenner, the matchmaker for the Garden, said he'd never put on another Ali fight.
|Ali was known as Cassius Clay when he stopped Sonny Liston in 1964.|
Frazier, Joe. Ali called him "The Gorilla" and an "Uncle Tom" before their 1975 fight in Manila. These days, still angry, Joe doesn't like to say Ali's name at all, referring to him only as "The Butterfly."
George Foreman. Before he sold no-fat grills, they say this pitchman could punch -- people weren't afraid he would beat Ali, they were afraid he would kill him. In "The Fight," Norman Mailer described big George working the heavy bag this way: "These were no ordinary swings. Each of these blows was enough to smash an average athlete's ribs; anybody with poor stomach muscles would have broken a spine. The bag developed a hollow as deep as his head.
Foreman's sweat formed a pattern of drops six feet in diameter on the floor: poom! and pom! and boom! ... bom! ... boom!"
Howard Cosell. Cosell supported Ali's decision not to serve in Vietnam, and boasted of the fact that he did until the day he died. Ali said he liked Cosell, but insisted the reporter would have been nothing without him.
Inoki, Antonio. In June, 1976, like Rocky and Thunderlips, Ali took on professional wrestler Inoki in what was called the "Martial Arts Championship of the World." It was a sham -- Ali threw six punches and Inoki repeatedly kicked the champ in the legs -- but it wasn't his strangest fight: The next
year, DC Comics put out a special comic book featuring Superman vs. Muhammad Ali in "The Most Spectacular Super-Hero Battle of All Time."
Joe Martin. The white Louisville cop who taught a 12-year-old Cassius Clay to box. Cassius was remarkably quick and always very composed, but, at first, he "didn't know a left hook from a kick in the ass," Martin said later.
|Joe Frazier, right, won the first of his three epic battles with Ali.|
King, Don. The 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, Zaire, was King's coming-out party. Big hair, Cheshire Cat grin, barely comprehensible sentences, African garb, and lots and lots of money.
Lipsyte, Robert. After Ali, writing about sports meant writing about race, politics and popular culture. Lipsyte, Dick Schaap and others made up the vanguard of that new journalism; they wrote, as Lipsyte put it, in an era in which athletes "began to liberate themselves from the phony roles and false
values imposed upon them by the owners and coaches, and journalists and fans."
Manila, The Thrilla In. Ali led early. Frazier came back in the middle rounds. But then it was Ali's turn again. "Ali dug deep down into whatever it is that he is about, and even his severest critics would have to admit that the man-boy had become finally a man. He began to catch Frazier with long
right hands, and blood trickled from Frazier's mouth," Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated. Ali finally won when Frazier's corner wouldn't let him
come out for the 15th round. When it was over, Frazier said, "Lawdy, lawdy he's great," and Ali called Frazier, "One helluva man."
Norton, Ken. He busted Ali's jaw in their first fight in 1973, lost a rematch six months later, and lost a controversial decision in their third fight in Yankee Stadium in 1976. Publicity for the third fight included a strange photograph of Norton chasing Ali across the stadium's outfield grass. Both
men are shirtless, laced up, in boxing trunks, and dress shoes -- but Norton has a disadvantage: He's wearing some serious heels.
Olympic torch lighting ceremony, Atlanta, 1996. Ali's appearance at the opening ceremonies was a surprise. With it, the transition from American outcast to American icon was complete.
Parkinson's Disease. A disorder of the brain characterized by shaking associated with damage to a part of the brain that controls muscle movement. When talking became increasingly difficult, Ali spent more and more time entertaining people with magic tricks: balls, coins, ropes, and a levitation illusion.
Quarrel with them Vietcong. "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong." He didn't mean it as a declaration at the time. He didn't know where Vietnam was on a map, and knew very little about the war.
Rope-a-dope. The ring for the Foreman fight was set up wrong: the floor was soft and slow, the ropes were loose. Ali had planned to dance and jab -- Dundee was sure that's what he'd do -- but decided he'd tire out too quickly that way. "In the first round," he later told Thomas Hauser, "I used more energy staying away from him than he used chasing me."
Sinatra, Frank. How big was Ali-Frazier I? There were more than 700 working press credentials issued for the March, 8, 1971, fight, and The Chairman of the Board, working as the exclusive photographer for Life magazine, had one of them. Frank shot the cover, Norman Mailer wrote the lead story.
Thyrolar. Before Ali's 1980 fight with Larry Holmes, Dr. Charles Williams, believing the champ suffered from a hypothyroid condition, prescribed Thyrolar. The drug causes an accelerated heart rate and affects the body's basic metabolism. By most accounts, Ali should never have been allowed to
fight under its influence. "I may have placed him in jeopardy inadvertently," Williams said in the New York Times after the fight.
|Don King made a name for himself when he promoted "The Rumble in the Jungle."|
Underwater. He has been on 35 Sports Illustrated covers. He might be the most-photographed person of all-time. Among the best photos ever taken of him are a series of underwater shots in a swimming pool in 1961. The enterprising young fighter told Life photographer Flip Schulke that he trained for fights by running and punching in the pool. It was a lie. The photos, however, are the Truth.
Verse. He revolutionized the weigh-in and the prefight press conference, waxing poetic about how he'd fight and when his opponent would fall. It was hardly high art, but it was charming and, in the beginning, his predictions were remarkably accurate. "He gave us all such good copy," Lipsyte said. "In a way, it seemed to be the journalistic equivalent of an easy lay."
When We Were Kings. 1996 Oscar-winning documentary of the 1974 Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire. It was originally intended to be a concert film, recording a prefight show with James Brown, B.B. King, The Spinners and Miriam Makeba. The filmmakers got more. Ali looks inspired and at home running with children on the roads outside Kinshasa, but sluggish in the sparring ring. Foreman is the very picture of confidence while training, but seems uncomfortable and
out-of-touch sitting for reporters' questions in patchwork blue denim overalls and a matching hat.
X, Malcolm. Malcolm championed the young Clay, and told him that his victory over Sonny Liston was prophesied. After he won the fight, Malcolm said, "Clay is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known, the man who will mean more to his people than any athlete before him." Later, when Malcolm split from the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, Clay rejected him and mocked his moves toward a more racially inclusive faith.
1-Y. After scoring a 78 on a 1964 Army IQ test -- "I said I was the greatest, not the smartest" -- Ali was classified 1-Y: "Not qualified under current standards for service in the armed forces." Two years later, as the war continued to escalate, the Army lowered its minimum score for service, and Ali was reclassified 1-A. In 1967, he refused induction as a Muslim and a conscientious objector -- "I have searched my conscience, and I find I cannot be true to my belief in my religion by accepting such a call" -- and was immediately stripped of his world championship title by the New York State Athletic Commission. He spent three years in boxing exile, often lecturing on college campuses about his views on life and asking students who the "real" heavyweight champion of the world was.
Zbigniew Pietrzykowski. After he defeated the Polish boxer for a light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, a Soviet reporter asked Clay how it felt to be denied service at restaurants back home because he was black. "Russian," he answered, "we got qualified men working on that problem. America is the greatest country in the world." Weeks later, after being called "Nigger" in a Louisville diner, he reportedly threw his medal in the Ohio River.
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his regular "Critical Mass" column for Page 2. The former managing editor of Sportsjones, Neel holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa.
|Although stricken by Parkinson's Disease, Ali lit the fire at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.||
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