The world doesn’t get to choose the destinations of its most colorful, important characters. It is tempting to think that the world would have found him no matter what, but it was our shared good fortune that Muhammad Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942. He did the rest, not by himself but in a way no one else could have done it.
History never remembers people for what they had, only what they gave. Nothing of any importance is worth keeping score, yet it all counts. Perhaps we owe the Louisville thief who stole a 12-year-old Cassius Clay’s bike a great debt for sending a scared young boy to the gym and putting him on the path to our consciousness, but it was Ali alone who earned a place in our hearts. We had Ali as a hero in the ring for 21 years of his adult life, and even after his passing it’s difficult to put into words just how great a gift this was.
We discover our heroes there on the world’s stage, and then we watch them move through time. If they hang around long enough, something inevitably happens along the journey, first to theirs and soon ours, and our perspective irrevocably changes. Our heroes are made into strangers with the passage of years; our childhoods are another country. Our heroes eventually slow down, like everyone else, and almost cease to move through time; time uncontrollably moves through them.
We live in an age when no children will ever again enter a museum and ever look upon a masterpiece without first asking how much it cost. Muhammad Ali was never something so trivial as a brand; he was a great spirit. We remember great spirits on the basis of what they’re worth according to a different, more lasting scale of measure.
Thomas Hauser, author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times
“One of my trips out to interview Ali for the book at his home, there was a wonderful series on PBS called Eyes On the Prize, which was a six-part documentary on the civil rights movement. They chose six civil rights leaders and did an hour on each. And they were doing a second series of six more people and they wanted Ali to be one of the subjects. They wanted to come out and interview him. They sent him VHS tapes of the first six episodes so Ali could understand what the series was about. So each night, Ali and his wife, Howard Bingham (his photographer and best friend) and I watched a different tape. At one point Ali turned to us and said, ‘What did I do that they want me to be in this show with all these great people like Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X?’ Because he really didn’t understand how important he was? He knew people loved him and that they crowded around, but he really didn’t get how important he was.
“He should’ve been one of the guys that got out okay. Obviously that never happened. After I finished the book we’d worked on together, Lonnie (Ali’s wife) was reading Muhammad a quote from Alex Wallau in which Wallau said that he believed, even if Ali knew how he’d end up physically, he would choose to live his life exactly the same way. Even if he could do it all over again. And right then, Ali stood up straight in his chair and said, ‘You bet I would.’
“Ali followed the classic arc of tragic Greek heroes. Look at the different stages of Greek heroism. One, a hero is endowed with arête, which is excellence and the attributes that make him great. Which obviously Ali had these almost supernatural physical gifts––strength, speed, stamina and a seeming imperviousness to pain. Then the hero gives in to hubris. Which is a mixture of overconfidence and pride, leading to the belief that he’s invincible and immune to the pitfalls that destroy other men. ‘I’m young. I’m fast. I’m handsome. I can’t possibly be beat!’ Then a nemesis is sent by the gods to threaten the hero’s destruction. It’s Achilles versus Hector or Ali versus Joe Frazier. And then, even when the hero triumphs over his nemesis, the seeds of his destruction have been sewn. And then finally there’s the demise and the inability of the hero to see his own fate until it’s too late. I mean, that’s the arc of virtually every Greek tragedy and that’s Ali.
“The first fight that I attended was the year I graduated from law school. I was clerking for a federal judge and I read that Muhammad Ali was going to fight Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden. I wrote in for tickets, which was how you did it in those days, and I got two mezzanine seats for the first Ali-Frazier fight at the Garden. So, that was quite a night. People ask me if that’s the most electricity I ever saw in a fight. That’s the most electricity anyone ever saw in a fight. Maybe Louis-Schmeling II would have been the same. The world stopped for Ali-Frazier I, as it did for Louis-Schmeling II, but the world was better wired for Ali-Frazier. Let’s not forget that Ali isn’t just the most charismatic human being I’ve ever seen in my life, he’s number one, two, and three.
“To me the saddest thing is that what Ali was has been lost. For my generation there were certain cultural touchstones. Three of them occurred during this incredibly short period of time. On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. The Beatles come over to America and are on the Ed Sullivan show. When they were on the Ed Sullivan show you had more people watching that than had ever watched the same thing in history up to that time. You had 70 million people watching the same thing at the same time. And then a couple days after that Cassius Clay knocks out Sonny Liston. And those three events put together are when the 60s began. They started in that three-month period. And after Kennedy’s assassination of course you have the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy. The war in Vietnam is spinning out of control. Muhammad Ali was in the center of all that.
Dave Kindred said, ‘You know Ali is either the most complex person I ever met or the most simple and I can’t figure out which.’ He had the prettiest smile there ever was. You’ve seen the pictures and the videos and when Ali smiled that smile lit up the world. And that smile captured his spirit. It was everything."
Jim Lampley, Hall of Fame broadcaster for HBO
“I was 11 when I watched him in the Rome Olympics in 1960. I was immediately enthralled. I fell in love with everything about Cassius Marcellus Clay. I was a white kid from a tiny Southern town, Hendersonville, North Carolina, raised at the height of the civil rights movement to be on the right side of the civil rights movement. The notion of a black athlete who wore a slave name and who taunted the white establishment while wearing that name was enormously exciting and attractive to me as a kid. I wanted him to succeed and I wanted him to embarrass the white establishment. I wanted him to be a part of the forward progress that civil rights would ultimately yield.
“From the beginning I followed his professional career from newspaper accounts until some o f the fights appeared on television. I watched him get knocked down by Sonny Banks. That was a scary moment. I watched him have a very close fight, hard to score with Doug Jones. That was disturbing. Then, in late 1963, there was the announcement when he was going to fight Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. I’d moved to Miami two years before, in 1961, living in a standard middle class tract house community, far from Miami Beach. I immediately began saving lawn mowing and carwash money and probably got a little help from my mother and wound up buying a ticket. In my memory, that ticket was $150. On the night of the fight my mother drove me the 25 miles or so from where we lived to Miami Beach.
“When the fight was over and I came out it was overwhelmingly exciting. By that point, everyone in my neighborhood who knew me, was aware of my passion for Cassius Clay and that I was rooting for him to win the fight. Almost all of them hated his brashness, hated his lip, and the great irony was that they rooted for the ex-con Sonny Liston because they were dismayed by what Cassius Clay was. I came home and I climbed up on the tile roof of our tract house and stood up there in the neighborhood late at night yelling, ‘We shook up the world! He’s the greatest!’ I was trying to wake up all the neighbors until my mother calmed me down and told me, ‘We still have to live here. Get back in the house.’
“Two days later, I was faced with the psychic challenge of having to deal with my hero who now said he was a Muslim. I didn’t really know what that was. He said his name was not Cassius Clay anymore, but Muhammad Ali. That was a long struggle. I want to say it took maybe a year to emotionally accommodate the change. I learned something from it. I learned that true individual freedom means that a man has a right to be who he wants to be. As much as I may have been as invested in and passionate about his identity as Cassius Marcellus Clay, he if wanted to be Muhammad Ali, it was my job to respect that as a human being and to allow him to pursue his own identity as he saw fit. Before any of my friends called him Muhammad Ali, I called him Muhammad Ali. I was angry at people like Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell who continued to call him Clay. I was angry at newspaper editors and reporters who did the same.
“I don’t think I had a fully formed view of the Vietnam war. My mother had been married to two WWII bomber pilots. She was probably struggling with her own attitude toward it at the moment when he made his stand and refused induction into the armed forces. That was another learning experience, another moment of personal growth. I had to think hard and I came to the same conclusion that Ali was fronting about not having any gripe against the Vietcong. I became a passionate anti-war believer from the middle to the late 60s. When Ali came back and was finally allowed to fight Frazier I was heartbroken and crushed that he lost the fight and got knocked down. But it didn’t do anything to interfere with my love for him. Didn’t make me want to root for Joe Frazier. I couldn’t wait for the rematch.
“I got to work on network television in the mid-70s. I began my career as a broadcaster as the result of an enormous stroke of luck. I won a talent hunt in 1974. As the decade went on I became more and more entrenched in ABC Sports. So on the night that Ali fought Larry Holmes I was in a very exclusive, well-populated party in an executive suite at the ABC building in New York City watching the closed circuit telecast of the fight.
“So, I was there with a bunch of ABC executives along with a number of other people, including some from the entertainment world. Around the eighth or ninth round or tenth round, somewhere along there, when the result was 100 percent clear and the beat down was escalating and it was sickening and painful to watch the beating Holmes was putting on Ali I felt a poke in my rib cage and I looked over to my right and standing right next to me was Mick Jagger. We knew each other a little and he leaned over to me and said, ‘Lamps, do you know what we’re watching?’ ‘No, Mick, what are we watching?’ He said, ‘It’s the end of our youth.’ To this day, it’s the greatest boxing commentating I ever heard. It was so true. If you were from that generation. If you were me at that moment. If you were Mick at that moment. It was a clear demarcation. It was the end of a romance, it was the end of our youth.
“I was in the stadium when he lit the torch in Atlanta. All the way along with Ali I had to mark and deal with all the continued disillusions as well as the triumphs and the joys. I had to deal with the notion of the most powerful and communicative social reform icon of my youth selling his naming rights to corporate America for tens of millions of dollars. That’s yet another one of those reversals for which I learned something. Not something I necessarily wanted to learn.
“Boxing is the cruelest and most accurate metaphor for life among all sports. There’s no amount of majesty or elevation that protects you. Ali is the perfect example of that… he was the most famous man in the world for all his accomplishments and none of that protected him from the downside of the business. This was the great genius artist of American sports. Nobody else ever like him. Constructing his own reality, altering the perceptions of hundreds of millions of people about basic values of life, war and peace, god and man, things of that nature. No package like that ever comes simple.
“They’re all labyrinthine, and his labyrinth is one of the most compelling, confusing, disturbing and exciting of them all. He took too many chances and risks. His whole life was about risk taking. That’s what boxing is about. When boxing appeals to the public it’s because the public relates to the power, charisma and the mystique of the risk the fighters are willing to take. Ali took risks with everything he did in his life. Part of the crime of the three and a half years of exile was that it robbed him of the elements which made him so uniquely beautiful. It left him as something more like a conventional prize fighter. There was a kind of elevation in in it in the way that he proved he could be the everyman fighter better than anyone at that too. Who took a better punch in the history of the sport?
“Only in boxing do you lose a little bit every time you win. White-collar workers treat themselves to the comfortable notion that you don’t have to give up your body to make a living. In blue-collar world, a much bigger, broader world, you give up your body to make a living every single day. Fighters are the ultimate blue-collar workers. The same way people who string electrical power lines do, the same way people who work in mines do, wash windows on tall buildings. They take a risk every day. I’ve called thousands of fights and I still can’t watch one without thinking, ‘How do men do this?’
Freddie Roach Hall of Fame and 7-time Boxing Writers Association of America Trainer of the Year
“Ali walked into my gym 10 years ago. It was the best day we ever had. He walked in here and asked if he could work out. I was gonna call some people and let them know he was here. Decided not to. Whoever was here was here and they had a day to last their whole life. He hit the bag and the tremors went away. When he stopped, they came back. We watched him shadowbox with his daughter.”
Leon Gast Oscar-winning Director of When We Were Kings
“If it wasn’t for Ali—I can’t even imagine it. Ali allowed me into his life and his world. If it wasn’t for him… And whatever people say about Don King, King had very much to do with it. It was one incident really. King wanted to see some other stuff that I did and that’s 1973 maybe. I shot 16mm film and I was renting an office on 53rd or 54th street and I had a space somewhere that did commercials. I said to King if you walk over to my edit room I can show you some stuff. So he came over. I was working on a Hell’s Angels film. It was called Hell’s Angels Forever. Those fuckers knocked me out twice while I made the movie. Anyway. So King came over and he looked at what I’d done. He brought somebody with him. I don’t remember who that was anymore. I’m old and my memory is shot. I showed him and then he spoke to his friend and then he spoke to Hank Schwartz, his partner in that fight, and he says, ‘Anybody that can work with these crazy motherfuckers can work with this here.’
“Ali was a rebel but was the spirit of a time and changed a lot of people’s thoughts. Ali, next to Jesus Christ, was the most generous man ever. Just his kindness. People inundated him with their problems––almost all financial. Bob Arum said a long time ago, ‘If you gave Ali 50 dollars on 49th Street, by the time he got to 48th Street he wouldn’t have a penny left. He just, you know, gave away money.
“I was with Ali in Deer Lake [Michigan, site of his training camp] and flew over with him to Manilla. I was in Ali’s corner, holding a boom. We never slept. Don King has all that footage. 40 rolls of 16mm tape. Neil Leifer, a friend of mine, went looking for it in Cleveland and he couldn’t find it. It’s still gotta be there. Or maybe not. Maybe it all got dumped.
“The last time I saw Ali and his wife he couldn’t stand. That was nothing new. He couldn’t speak. But I whispered in his ear, “Do you remember when we arrived in Zaire and the guys hanging onto the walls screaming, ‘Ali BOMAYE!’ He reacted. His expression changed. I took a few photos with him and my wife embracing him. He was still beautiful. God, I love that man.”