Long before there was, “The Great One”, there was, “The Greatest”. An iconic figure who was arguably one of the most revered and recognizable athletes the sports world (and the world) has ever known. Why, exactly, was that? What was it that has made Muhammad Ali such an enduring and beloved figure? And why did we believe him when he proclaimed he was, “The Greatest of All Time”? There is much to consider.
First and foremost, he had true talent in the ring. Outside of it, he was just as memorable. Even as Ali first burst upon the scene in 1960 as an 18-year old Gold Gloves Champ and Olympic prospect, he already possessed charisma and outspokenness along with the skills to back it all up. He would soon elevate heavyweight boxing to new heights – not just with his fists but his wit and uncanny skills at self-promotion. He didn’t just box, he would, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” while also employing the “rope-a-dope”. And, his fights were not mere fights, they were the “Thrilla in Manilla” and the “Rumble in the Jungle.” They all lived up to the hype too, spotlighted further by his constant tongue-in-cheek(?) foil, Howard Cosell of ABC Sports.
Moreover, as Rolling Stone noted this week in a piece by Tim Grierson, Muhammad Ali was also the master of multi-media – and not just your typical magazine covers and sports shows. Very early on (in 1969), Ali appeared in the Broadway musical, “Buck White”. He would go on to release a children’s album (1976) and appear in: an animated cartoon series (1977), a comic book opposite Superman (1978) and in an episode of “Diff’rent Strokes (1979). Biopic movies (in 1977 and 2001) helped fuel the legendary fire.
Perhaps most of all, Ali stood up for what he believed in, without fail nor apology. Born Cassius Clay, he would object to the Vietnam War and being drafted into it, embraced Islam, changed his name and weathered the firestorm that ensued. He always believed in himself and encouraged others to do likewise. It was his ‘brand’ and who he was: The face he called ‘pretty’. The mouth he used to call-out his opponents. The moves those opponents could never seem to figure out. When they all worked in unison, it was pure poetry in motion. Today, those memories are still indelibly and pleasantly etched – in our minds and in history – and there they will remain.