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by William H. Benson

January 17, 2002

     The new movie Ali covers ten years of Muhammad Ali’s life–from February of 1964, when he defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title, until 1974, when he recaptured the crown by defeating George Foreman in Zaire.  Those ten years were pivotal ones for Ali and the nation.

     Nine days after the Sonny Liston fight Cassius Clay ceased to exist, and Muhammad Ali was born when he announced without apology that he was a member of Malcom X’s organization–The Nation of Islam.  In the months that followed he showed his vulnerability to the cult’s persuasion when he spouted off their rhetoric and their version of the Islam faith.  But then he soon revealed his strength and willpower when he walked away from Malcom X and cut him off.  Above all else, Muhammad Ali chose to be his own person.

     He refused to be drafted.  “The Viet Nam war is the white man telling the black man to go kill the yellow man,” he said.  This decision to take a political stand and oppose the war cost him much popularity.  Then, without a hearing or much discussion the Boxing Commission stripped him of his heavyweight title and took away his source of income, and so it cost him financially.  Only Martin Luther King, Jr., the Baptist minister and civil rights promoter, came to his defense and spoke out in his favor, that he had the right to refuse the draft.

     Religion and politics aside, Muhammad Ali understood the necessity of marketing himself differently than the typical silent and somber boxer.  Gorgeous George told him early on, “You can sell a lot more tickets being hated than being liked.”  He was a psychological fighter who knew how to taunt and berate and intimidate his opponents, predicting in which round he would win.  Everybody laughed, except his opponents who found him unnerving.  “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” and his “rope-a-dope” trick became his own trademarks.

     And then there was his strange relationship with Howard Cosell marked by a lot of banter back and forth.  They say it is lonely at the top of a profession, mainly because you quickly learn that you cannot trust anyone.  So, Ali and Cosell, two hyphenated Americans, one African and one Jewish, found each other.  Time magazine put it this way, “We don’t know exactly what he and Howard Cosell saw in each other; we just see him and the sportscaster playing their own mutually advantageous game while the rest of the media stumbled cluelessly in their wake.”

     In 1960 he won a gold medal at the Olympics in Rome, and thirty-six years later he carried the torch into the stadium to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta.  His redemption for all his past mistakes and miscues was complete.

     Idolized and yet scorned, admired and yet berated, loved and yet hated, Muhammad Ali mixed his own personal charm with a lightning fast wit to stand up against the harsh public criticism that he invariably created.

     Today at age sixty, Parkinson’s Disease, brought on by all the punches he took, has slowed his walk and slurred his speech, but his mind is as sharp as ever.  He passes out Islamic religious tracts to whomever he sees, and then, always the entertainer, he performs simple magic tricks.


     Now anybody can say, whenever they want to and in any context, “I am the greatest!”, but almost nobody ever says such an outrageous thing for fear of being criticized or laughted at.  It is only a very rare person–the one with enormous talent and superior strength and a deep inner will power who says and means it.  Muhammad Ali said those words, and if he was at first doubted, he has over the years converted many of those skeptics and doubters into genuine believers.   “I am the Champion!  I am the greatest!”