When he passed away Friday evening (June 3), obituary writers the world over found themselves as the sudden opponent in Muhammad Ali’s last epic battle. How could anyone possibly encapsulate the athletic, military, racial and religious influence of this man’s amazing life? Without overstating things, Ali might just be the most difficult obituary of any modern figure.
Of course, it’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words — and since video is many pictures crammed together, perhaps that can do a better job than prose ever could. With that in mind, below are 6 diverse clips of Ali footage — taken separately, each is entertaining and informative; watched in succession, however, they give you a taste of the complex mix of humor, intelligence and physical intimidation that was Ali.
Ali vs. Cosell
In the late ’60s, Howard Cosell represented everyone’s father — old and gruff, a bit out of touch, an awkward toupee on his head, but loveable in a Regis kinda way. Ali was the polar opposite — a LeBron-like athlete who hung around with the coolest celebrities on the planet, but was seen by many as a scary figure because of his anti-Vietnam, pro-Islam comments and the color of his skin.
In an unlikely friendship that spanned more than a decade, Cosell won over Cassius Clay by being the first broadcaster to call him “Muhammad Ali” as he wished. The men crafted a fun faux-rivalry that had them testing each other’s quick wits and boxing acumen — and as both Ali and Cosell enjoyed the benefits of newfound mainstream accessibility, even non-boxing fans knew that if they saw Howard and the champ on TV together, they needed to stop and watch the magic.
Rope a Dope
If you want to see the true measure of Ali’s athleticism, look no further than the clip below. Heading into his 1974 fight against George Foreman, the boxer created a move called “Rope-a-Dope,” in which he played possum and allowed an opponent to throw punch after punch, exhausting himself as Ali dodged and then eventually returned fire on the weakened man.
Without throwing a single punch, watch how Ali thoroughly destroys his opponent — both physically and mentally — in the ring.
He still had it
In an excellent 1996 “60 Minutes” segment, correspondent Ed Bradley brought the world up to speed on Muhammad’s physically-taxing, spiritually-transcendant state of being after his Parkinson’s had taken hold. But the real magic occurs at 9:55 in the clip below, when Bradley and Ali’s family sit down for a meal.
The champ goes lifeless, as if he’s fallen asleep — a side effect, perhaps, from his age and physical limitations. Getting a look of sadness on his face, Bradley taps Ali but finds him non-responsive. “It’s like narcolepsy,” his wife explains. “Sometimes he starts throwing punches at people.”
Suddenly, the left fist that once decimated opponents in the rings fires up towards Bradley’s face. In a moment of clarity, Ali once again has his moves — and the grin of a practical joker.
A living cartoon
The man formerly known as Cassius Clay was the sort of larger-than-life personality that had he been invented for a TV show, he’d seem unrealistic. Which is why he was perfect for children’s fare — not only in a memorable “Diff’rent Strokes” appearance, but also in material like the short-lived 1977 animated series “I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali.”
Of course, this being ’70s kiddie-targeted TV, those adventures included Muhammad Ali going into outer space, hunting down werewolves and traveling to “Volcano Island.” But the fact that Ali provided his own voice and played along showed a side too rarely found in athletes today: A willingness to be a proud role model and playmate to the next generation.
Standing alongside Lou Gherig’s speech as the most powerful sports goodbye of all time, Muhammad Ali’s top-secret appearance at the 1996 Olympics opening ceremony had people around the world in tears. Here was the greatest sports hero the world had ever seen, crippled by Parkinson’s Disease, grappling to control the shaky hands that had once been the apparatus for his greatest triumphs.
A 1960 gold medal winner (he threw it in a river to protest American racism), even Bill Clinton had misty eyes while Ali lit the torch — kicking off the games and making one of his final public appearances before the disease rendered him unable to perform such tasks. Even as his body failed him, Ali remained “The Greatest.”
When We Were Kings
This 1996 documentary about the “Rumble in the Jungle” match is considered among the best ever made, and won a well-deserved Academy Award testifying to that fact.
“I’m so mean, I make medicine sick!” was just one of the endless array of taunts and trash talk (many of them in rhyme) that came out of the champ’s mouth — and he always had the muscle to back them up. “Kings” captures Ali at his peak, crafting a persona that would win over the people of Zaire long before he ever threw a punch at his opponent Foreman.
Every entertainingly ego-driven athlete in the years since (Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Kobe Bryant) owes him a debt of gratitude — as does every fan who continues to enjoy the show.