Magazine article Newsweek

Muhammad Ali Was a Colossus of Sports and Culture; Muhammad Ali Lived an American Life Unlike Any Other

Magazine article Newsweek

Muhammad Ali Was a Colossus of Sports and Culture; Muhammad Ali Lived an American Life Unlike Any Other

Article excerpt

Byline: John Walters

On the morning of September 6, 1960, Cassius Clay was having breakfast with a few buddies inside the Olympic Village in Rome. The night before, Clay, 18, had defeated 25-year-old Ziggy Pietrzykowski of Poland in the light-heavyweight boxing gold medal match, igniting the flame of his magnificent pugilistic career. As Clay sat in the dining hall with a few members of the U.S. contingent, heavyweight world champion Floyd Patterson entered the room.

"Watch this," Clay told his friends, and then, as recounted in Rome 1960 by David Maraniss, he grabbed a knife and fork and leaped on the table. "I'm having you next!" the brash teenager bellowed at the heavyweight champ as everyone, including Patterson, burst into laughter. "I'm having you for dinner!"

Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, died in Phoenix on Friday, June 3, at age 74 of respiratory illness and complications related to Parkinson's disease. Some kings wear crowns. The Greatest simply wore a heavyweight championship belt.

Few athletes have been as dominant in their chosen sport: Ali was a three-time heavyweight champ whose career spanned three decades. He had a 55-2 record before losing three of his final four bouts, ill-advised fights he accepted long after he should have made his egress from the ring. Of those first two blemishes on his career record, though, losses to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, Ali would find redemption by later beating each of those men--twice. (He beat Patterson too, five years after he stood atop that table.)

Boxing was his occupation, but Ali was a colossus of culture. He was by far the most charismatic athlete of the 20th century: passionate and ebullient, articulate and garrulous, self-absorbed but self-aware. He was undaunted by the stature of his opponents or by the divisive racial years during which he entered his prime. At a time when leaders of the civil rights movement were marching peacefully, locking arms and singing "We Shall Overcome," Ali was standing defiantly over the prone figures of boxers he'd dispatched and unapologetically proclaiming, "I am the Greatest of all time!"


He was introduced to America during those 1960 Summer Olympics, in the waning hours of the Eisenhower era, a time when athletic vainglory was intensely frowned upon, particularly if it emanated from a "Negro" athlete. Ali repeatedly declared that he was pretty--and he was. He said he was gonna "whup" whomever he fought--and he did. As early as 1964, before his first heavyweight title bout, versus Sonny Liston, he proclaimed himself "the Greatest." And he was.

Outspoken and untamable, Ali rocked everyone who dared meet him inside the ring--he won his first 31 pro bouts before succumbing to Frazier in 1971--and anyone who dared to do so outside it. He was equally at ease releasing a flurry of jabs with his fists or his tongue.

Listen to Ali, armed with only a high school diploma, in 1967, as he refused induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and went toe to toe with a group of white college students: "I'm not gonna help nobody get something my Negroes don't have. If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die right now, right here, fightin' you. If I'm gonna die. You my enemy. My enemy's the white people, not the Viet Cong--. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won't even stand up for me here at home."

(Ali was also, as an aside, the nation's first rap star. Soon after turning pro by signing with a consortium of white millionaires from his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, Ali explained, "They got the complexions and connections to give me good directions." He described his MO in a couplet, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," and later in his career branded his bouts with a flourish, e. …

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