A superstar before the word meant anything
As much as any man or woman of his time — and far more than any mere sports celebrity — Muhammad Ali would come to understand what it takes to be a superstar well before the term really meant anything.
There was the controversy and the polarisation: In the silent-majority construct of the 1960s, his heyday, he was a “draft dodger”; a convert to a strange religion, the Nation of Islam; a racial separatist who called white people “devils.” Ali made enemies when he crystallised his opposition to the Vietnam War by refusing Army induction in 1967. “Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” he said. “No Vietcong ever called me ‘n****r'.” As an angry young man, Ali was beloved by the counterculture, reviled by almost everyone else.
There were the legendary athletic feats: Ali — then known as Cassius Clay, his “slave name,” he later called it — upset the heavily favoured champion, Sonny Liston, for his first professional boxing title in 1964.
He was 22, the youngest heavyweight champion ever at that time. Robbed of his best years in the ring as a result of a nearly four-year legal battle over his draft status that exiled him from boxing, he was stripped of his title, winning it back twice more, the last time somewhat miraculously as a broken-down, past-his-prime plugger in 1978.
There was, too, an abundance of charisma and media savvy: Ali talked like a street poet, with the patter and swagger of a proto-rapper. At a time when African-American athletes were expected to play and stay silent, Ali openly courted the television camera, unapologetically placing himself and his racial pride before it. In this he was greatly enabled by another outsider, a Jewish sportswriter turned broadcaster from Brooklyn named Howard Cosell. Ali's best lines were not just memorable — “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” — but often fantastic.
“I've done something new for this fight,” he announced before the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman.
“I done wrestled with an alligator. I done tussled with a whale, handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick. I'm so mean I make medicine sick.”
He was “pretty” too, as he bragged. Yes, so pretty in the ring that his speed and dazzle helped him defeat bigger, more powerful punchers such as Liston, Foreman and Floyd Patterson. And so pretty outside of it that Andy Warhol made art out of his face (just as he did with Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis). The remarkable thing about Ali's smooth, unmarked features was that they remained that way, despite the length and savagery of his career: 61 professional fights over 20 years, and more than 100 amateur bouts before that.
There are many iconic photos. Neil Leifer's shot of a grimacing Ali standing over a fallen Liston during their second bout is perhaps the most famous, but almost none of them illustrate the brutal toll that boxing took on him. (Ali had Parkinson's disease, which was probably caused by head trauma.) Ali might be the only man in history who was more handsome than the actor who portrayed him: Will Smith in the 2001 Ali.
For all his self-possession and wit, however, Ali could be cruel and unsparing. Although his taunts were part of the shtick that helped build interest in his fights — and were a harbinger of the trash talk that now routinely precedes and follows contemporary sports events — his denunciations of his greatest opponent, Joe Frazier, were shocking and unkind. He called Frazier “a gorilla,” “the white man's champion” and “an Uncle Tom,” the latter insult prompted by Frazier's support from a syndicate of white investors.
Frazier, a humble and hardworking boxer, found this both bewildering and infuriating. He surely deserved better. During Ali's exile from boxing, Frazier, who had assumed Ali's vacated heavyweight title, had contributed to Ali's legal defence and had given money to him and his family. During a joint interview with Cosell on ABC's Wide World of Sports, the two men briefly tussled after Ali called Frazier “ignorant.” Ali could never bring himself to fully acknowledge his lionhearted opponent. After Ali won the 1975 “Thrilla in Manila,” he called Frazier “the greatest fighter of all-times, next to me.”
I grew up watching Ali on television. I watched him in the flesh only once, and only briefly, but it was an electrifying experience. A few years after retiring from the ring in 1981, Ali took an interest in youth sports, sponsoring an annual track meet in Southern California. I attended this event, but Ali did not show up for most of it. And then, as day began to slip into twilight, a buzz went around: he was on his way. Some minutes later, a limousine pulled into a corner of the stadium. Ali emerged, waving and playfully shadowboxing. All activity ceased as Ali strode across the infield, taking a seat in the stands at the head of the track. It was as if Caesar himself had entered the Colosseum, minus the chariots and clarions.
By then, Ali's superstardom had been transformed. All of the dangerous edges of the angry young man had been sanded away by time. He was no longer the avatar of racial disharmony or an outspoken critic of his country's war. Time had turned him into a symbol of endurance, reconciliation, struggle and triumph. President Jimmy Carter had embraced him. President Ronald Reagan had given him a tour of the Oval Office. In a few more years, the world would applaud as he lit the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
No one hated Ali anymore. He once called himself The Greatest. But he had become something more: not just a great piece of American history, but a great American.
Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter