Commentary

Why are we still fascinated by Muhammad Ali?

More than 25 years after his final appearance in the ring, Muhammad Ali remains both an American sporting legend and a pop-culture icon.

Originally Published: August 19, 2008
By William Dettloff | Special to ESPN.com

Muhammad AliWEREK/Imago/Icon SMILethal with his fists and sharp with his tongue, Muhammad Ali carved his place into the public's mind.
Few athletes in the history of modern sport can claim to have been, at the apex of their celebrity, known to the masses not just in their native land, but worldwide. Fewer still can boast of enjoying a similar standing almost 30 years after the last time they performed, and almost 40 years from that time when the world was at their feet.

Muhammad Ali is such an athlete.

It seems incomprehensible today that a mere boxer could command such worldwide fame that, a quarter-century after his final appearance in a prize ring, his image remains one of the most recognizable on the planet. Ali's does. Still.

In 2006, 25 years after an ordinary heavyweight named Trevor Berbick pummeled him into a final, dreadful retirement in the Bahamas, CKX, an entertainment licensing firm, paid Ali $50 million in cash for an 80 percent stake in his name and likeness.

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Ali
Icon SMIIn his prime, Ali knew what to say and what to do at exactly the right times.
In 1999, Sports Illustrated named Ali the "Athlete of the Century." So did the BBC and GQ magazine. In 1996 he lit the torch at the Atlanta Olympics, his body quaking from the debilitating physical effects of Parkinson's syndrome, from which he has suffered since the early 1980s, and which eventually stole away perhaps the most instantly recognizable voice of the modern sporting era.

He has not managed to successfully put together a clear and easily intelligible speech in front of the major press in years, but in 2005 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award. In 2007, Ali received an honorary doctorate of humanities at Princeton University's 260th graduation ceremony. In 2001, Will Smith played the title role in the feature film, "Ali."

Clearly Ali retains a singularly strong hold, not only on the American sporting culture, but on the popular culture at large in much of the industrialized world, even after such a period of time has passed that reduces other mythic sports heroes to relics recalled only when dark milestones are reached.

The question that begs asking: Why? Why do we remain so captivated by Ali?

To some, the answer is simple.

"Because, when he was younger, he was the most charismatic and famous person of his time," said ESPN.com contributor Thomas Hauser, the author of "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times," an oral history considered by most the definitive Ali biography.

It is saying quite a lot, considering Ali's prime coincided with the primes of some of the 20th century's most influential figures in politics, music, art and literature. One could make the argument that the times made Ali as much as he made them, that the fiery defiance he brought to race relations, religion and politics wouldn't have been possible at an earlier time and would have appeared unseemly, contrived, or inappropriate later.

Indeed, in his extraordinary book, "Ghosts of Manila," the late Mark Kram Sr. argued, at times persuasively, that Ali was not only just an athlete, as opposed to an important socio-political figure, but one of questionable intelligence and conviction.

"Current hagiographers have tied themselves in knots trying to elevate Ali into a heroic, defiant catalyst of the anti-war movement, a beacon of black independence," wrote Kram. "It's a legacy that evolves from the intellectually loose sixties, from those who were in school then and now write romance history."

In another passage, Kram expounded. "Seldom has a public figure of such superficial depth been more wrongly perceived -- by the right and the left." And later on, "[Ali was] no more a social force than Frank Sinatra. The politically fashionable clung to his racial invective as if it were the wisdom of a seer. Today, such are the times, he would be looked upon as a contaminant, a chronic user of hate language and a sexual profligate."

If Kram was right, then it is all the more remarkable that Ali's cultural presence is what it is today, that his supporters have so successfully and for so long managed to convince the rest of us of his social and cultural merit. If it was their job to create a legend, and to make that legend last, they have performed superbly. Kids who weren't born yet when Ali lost to Larry Holmes in 1980 know who he is and what he did, even if they don't know the details.

"There are a handful of iconic figures who transcend their field so even if people didn't know them and weren't around when they were, the stories and the folklore are such that they span generations," said Showtime's Al Bernstein, who covered Ali's pitiable, 10-round KO loss to Holmes in Las Vegas.

"Everyone over 45 years of age or so would talk about him, talk about having seen him fight or hearing him, and so everyone under 30 has heard about him," Bernstein said. "He endures."

There is considerable support for the idea that Ali's illness, the Parkinson's, the very demon that has silenced him, has simultaneously abetted his remarkable cultural stamina, has helped his legend endure.

"The illness might have contributed to Ali's mystique," said Hauser. "And certainly, it has made him a sympathetic figure; also, perhaps, more respected for the way he has battled it. But I don't think it has made him more loved."

Bernstein agrees and goes farther.

"There's no question that the illness made him more sympathetic," he said. "Some people I know will never accept him because of his politics. They will never forgive him. But many people whose politics dictate that they shouldn't forgive Ali have [forgiven him] because of his illness. The illness is a big part of it."

There is another school of thought that holds that Ali's inability to communicate well has helped him because it has saved him from himself, from a personality and mind that appear to some to have remained mired in a different era.

At the Washington, D.C. premiere of "Ali" in 2001, Ali took the microphone and, in a strained whisper, laced the crowd with off-color ethnic jokes that, according to the Washington Post's Lloyd Grove, Ali's wife, Lonnie, tried to stop him from telling. He plowed on, to mixed reaction.

Another branch to this argument, one that Kram might argue, is that a person who cannot communicate cannot reveal himself a fool. Ali's relative silence has allowed his disciples to brand him the iconic figure they want and believe him to be rather than the ordinary, flawed soul he is. If he could today communicate the way he did in the 1960s, the thinking goes, he would quickly fall out of favor, his superficiality revealed.

"[That's] nuts," said HBO's Larry Merchant, who covered Ali throughout his career when Merchant was a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and, later, the New York Post.

"The notion that an Ali in his 60s would be the same as an Ali in his 20s is a reach, because we all change," he said. "Athletes are remembered for what they did in their primes on and off the field. Nobody would care today what Ali had to say about international relations, and it doesn't matter. What matters is what he did and said out of the ring."

The critical point for many is Ali's refusal to be inducted into the United States military during the war in Vietnam, a move that cost him millions at the time, but in the end earned him much more.

"He came to be respected even by those who were offended by him," said Merchant. "They came to respect him because he gave up three years of his prime. What other athlete -- what other anyone -- would do that?

"I think there is a general sense among even those who don't know the specifics that he was someone who was beautiful and great and risked everything on principle -- and turned out to be right."

Certainly, there are worse things to be remembered for than that.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like the Pros" with Joe Frazier.