I became fascinated by Muhammad Ali in 1960. My father was a huge Olympics fan and the first one we watched together was the Rome Olympics. Ali’s style of punching and getting away from his opponents gracefully was unique. He was 18 when he won the light heavyweight Gold Medal. He quickly turned professional and won his fights as he grew in size and stature.
I remember watching him on the Steve Allen show in 1963. He was charming, funny and used poetry to describe his style. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” became one of his signature lines. On the Allen show, he promised that he would knock out the “ugly” bear Sonny Liston. And, in February 1964, he became the Heavyweight Champion of the World when Liston refused to get off his stool after the seventh round.
When Ali declared that he was joining the Nation of Islam after the fight and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali his career swerved from just being a boxer to becoming widely regarded as one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.
Considered to be on the best boxers of all time, Ali displayed courage in the ring and his stance against the Vietnam War cost him four years at the peak of his career. His famous fights against Joe Frazier were called the Fight of the Century and the Thrilla in Manilla. His Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman was watched by a record-setting one billion people.
After retiring from boxing in 1981, Ali focused on philanthropy and activism. He was chosen by Sports Illustrated as the Greatest Sportsman of the 20th century. Perhaps, his most famous image was from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Ali, shaking from Parkinson’s, lit the “flame” to the roar of the crowd and a worldwide audience of 3.5 billion people.
Ali’s life is so iconic, that Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon have directed a four part series on PBS-Channel 13 in NYC. It will begin Sunday 9/19 at 8 and continue on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. (Full disclosure-my son Ted Raviv is the editor of episode 3-The Rivalry-Ali and Frazier)
What sticks in your mind when you think about Ali?