He fought the law, and won.
He fought Liston and Frazier and Foreman and Terrell, the U.S. government and Malcolm X. He changed religions, renounced his name and dodged the draft.
He taunted, teased, boasted and bragged. He showboated, showed off, swapped shots with Cosell, rhymed and joked and rhymed again.
And he was hated. Oh, how he was hated.
“We tend to forget that,” says Aminah McCloud, who teaches religion at DePaul University. “When he fought Joe Frazier back in 1971, it was not just white America that hated him. African-Americans didn’t like him, for his bluster, for his changing religions.”
But now, 20 years after his retirement and more than a decade since Parkinson’s all but silenced him, the former Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali, finds himself revered, a beloved American icon and still one of the most recognized faces on earth.
He was named “Athlete of the Century” by Sports Illustrated. Biographers from Norman Mailer (The Fight) to David Remnick (King of the World) have had to resist the urge to idolize him. He’s the subject of the hit Michael Mann/Will Smith movie version of the best 10 years of his life, Ali. He got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last week.
And Wednesday night at 9 on CBS, the nation will get to celebrate his 60th birthday with him.
“He’s probably more important now than he’s ever been,” says George Schlatter, the veteran TV producer (Laugh-In) who has known Ali for years, who produced Ali’s 50th birthday TV celebration and who is producing the 60th birthday show for CBS. “I think the world has come to realize that one person can make a difference, whether it’s a fireman or a fighter.”
From a pariah, hated for his religion (Islam), for resisting the draft, fighting the government, for his bragging and a general inability to do anything quietly, Ali has become someone most Americans can get moist-eyed over when he lights an Olympic torch or appears on TV. How did that happen?
“As he gets older, he becomes this beloved figure who stood on his principles and faced the consequences and still didn’t just roll over and die,” says McCloud.
“I think much of the adoration since has been . . . for his courage and consistency, and a kind of collective apology,” says sportscaster Keith Olbermann, who just took over the ABC radio commentary show that longtime Ali friend Howard Cosell used to do. “And I think Ali benefited from, oddly enough, Watergate.
“As we began to realize that government could be used against individuals,” Olbermann says, Americans came to see that efforts to draft Ali years past the normal draft age were a form of persecution.
“Fighting the draft board made him transcend his sport,” Schlatter says, of Ali’s 1967 decision to refuse induction into the Army. “He didn’t run. He stood up for his beliefs. The U.S. Supreme Court backed him up. He was right. That makes him a hero. It just took the country a long time to catch up with that.”
The draft fight is when Giancarlo Esposito first became a fan. Esposito, who plays Cassius Clay Sr. in Ali, was a child actor when he met the young Ali, on the streets of New York.
“I ran into him, I must’ve been about 10, as he was holding this impromptu rap session at the corner of 50th Street and Broadway,” Esposito says. “He was talking to people on the street, telling them why he was fighting the draft. I looked at this guy and asked my mom, `Why won’t he go to war?’ And she explained, `Because he doesn’t want to go and kill other people.’ It wasn’t until years later, after he’d finally been allowed back into the ring, that I realized who it was that I’d met, and what he’d come to symbolize. . . . He’s a man of principles, someone who stood up for his beliefs.”
And if the rest of the country has finally found common ground with Ali, it’s not because Ali moved.
“I don’t think we love him because he’s made amends,” McCloud says. “We’ve come around to him because we realize that he stood on some of the principles on which the country was built. One can stand up, resist the majority, and win.”
And there’s also an element of pity too. Schlatter won’t be able to have “The Greatest” speak at his CBS birthday tribute, because the Parkinson’s has so slowed and slurred his speech that he would look terrible on TV.
“We feel sorry for him, I guess,” McCloud says. “We remember him before the Parkinson’s.”
Ali has also undergone quite a bit of image burnishing over the years. The Parkinson’s has meant that he isn’t on TV, hawking roach poison (as he once did). Documentary films such as When We Were Kings capture him at his most charismatic, in the early 1970s. And print interviews, such as one he did for Sports Illustrated when Ali came out, are generally flattering pieces written by fans.
The movie Ali is quite careful about the less heroic aspects of Ali’s life and career. We don’t see him beating the ancient Archie Moore (who was 49, at the time) to earn his shot at Sonny Liston. The movie makes Liston an obvious villain, giving credence to unsubstantiated claims that he had a substance put on his gloves to blind the challenger, Clay, in their first fight. And Ali doesn’t discuss the controversial “phantom punch” rematch in which Liston is alleged to have taken a dive, giving Ali that tainted fight in the first round.
Not much “honor” at that.
Ali’s womanizing is touched on in the film, but only in the most chaste terms.
And the film ignores Ali’s loss to Ken Norton in 1973, and ends before his often bizarre late 1970s fights, including an exhibition match against a sumo wrestler, and fights that he seemed to lose but somehow managed to win thanks to questionable judging.
His post-Parkinson’s public life has been largely laudatory tributes to his charity work. Schlatter puts a $1 billion figure on the ex-fighter’s contributions to various groups, including the Muhammad Ali Center in Ali’s native Louisville, Ky.
And while he remains a joker, “as sharp as he ever was,” Schlatter says, his Parkinson’s hasn’t kept Ali from occasionally embarrassing himself. He’s long been the benign face of the controversial Nation of Islam, the church founded by Elijah Muhammad, now led by Louis Farrakhan. The Parkinson’s means that Ali can’t finesse wisecracks that come off as racist or anti-Semitic (such as at a recent appearance in Washington, D.C.) with his old self-mocking twinkle.
And Ali’s public statements after Sept. 11 had a tolerance and understanding earned through advancing years. The militance left him long ago.
But none of that changes what he represents.
“Growing up, he was the only thing I could watch, the only black hero,” says Freddie Filmore, an Orlando resident who showed up at the film’s opening on Christmas Day.
“He challenged American religion and culture at the height of the civil rights movement,” says Michael Bryant, another Orlando fan. “To me, he just represented `change.’ ”
“When he refuses the draft, because he states that `I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong,’ he caused a lot of people in the African-American community to think,” McCloud says. “Young African-American men had seen the armed forces as a way out of poverty. Ali changed that mindset.”
As a high-profile draft resister, Ali affected white America’s attitudes toward the war as well. Schlatter remembers not just the draft fight, but the way Ali carried himself during it, as being something that impressed him.
Bryant notes that many other athletes followed Ali down the Islamic name-change road, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Ahmad Rashad. But after Sept. 11, one has to wonder, “Will we see more?”
And while the TV special, with its emphasis on both athletes and stars of the movie will probably serve to drum up more interest in Will Smith’s film, the movie allows the man the courtesy of being inscrutable. For all his jawing, Ali has kept his counsel about what drove him to make the seemingly impulsive decisions that mark his life. Schlatter believes that is as it should be.
“One thing you could see about him, from the moment he entered the public stage, that here was a man who believed in himself, in his country and in his ability to make a difference here,” Schlatter says. “Sure, there were people who hated him. But he was a hero to a lot of people, right from the very start.”