This post is the first in our Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali Series guest edited by Andrew R.M. Smith. Muhammad Ali was a complex figure and he had a large influence beyond the United States. The goal of these posts is to explore various aspects of Ali’s life and reflect on his legacies, offering insight into understudied themes and periods.
By Bijan C. Bayne, Guest Contributor
Muhammad Ali is the most photographed person on earth, and one of the most widely chronicled On February 26, 1964, not many in the world would have forecast the eventual global reach of Cassius Marcellus Clay. It was the morning after his courageous upset of 8-1 favorite and heavyweight champ Sonny Liston. Liston represented everything Black America discouraged in its public figures. He was an ex-con. He was often targeted by police while driving, and sometimes defended himself with his hands. Liston’s celebrity made the NAACP, CORE and the Urban League cringe, during a period where we struggled to escape stereotypes of criminality and limited literacy. The sporting press painted Liston as a menacing brute without nuance or cheer. Esquire magazine once featured him on its cover dressed as Santa Claus, in an attempt at irony. Clay was presented, by contrast, as a gleeful, cocky clown. There was much more to Clay, who was already transforming coverage on all platforms. In the next decade he helped bridge racial media divides, spawned imitators, and assist careers.
Through journalists the world met the new champion. He was clean-cut. Handsome. Young. He also had kept a secret from mainstream media. Though the Black press had either known, or in some cases suspected it for two years, Cassius Clay was a member of the Nation. Out of respect for his career, and his all-important image, Black journalists generally sat on this information, leaving it to Clay to reveal it when ready. Oh how media has changed.
When Ali accepted Islam in 1962, the U.S. was less than two years removed from a presidential campaign during which tens of millions criticized or wrestled with the idea John F. Kennedy was Catholic. The heavyweight champ told the country to accept him and his faith. Dr. King and Ali are the two most important U.S. citizens of the 20th century, and Ali’s public stance against U.S. and personal involvement in Vietnam influenced King to openly protest it. Such beliefs made Ali the most hated figure in the country. It also made him the most widely examined. Authors, essayists and public intellectuals the likes of Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg, Joyce Carol Oates, Wilfrid Sheed, James Baldwin, George Plimpton and Eldridge Cleaver waxed literally about the athlete still in his mid-twenties. He became the topic of television specials, documentary films, a coveted public speaker, an actor in a Broadway play, a recording artist, and an ambassador of Western Islam. None of this would have been possible if he had not had such a command of media and its tools.
No athlete before or since has been more mindful or media or image. When Ali would defeat an opponent, as when he first upset Liston, the first people he would interact with were the media at ringside who had shortchanged him, belittled his chances, or later, painted him as ungrateful race hater. His first day as a champ, when he explained his name change, he addressed one sportswriter, “Cassius Clay is dead- you of all people should know that”
“Why me?” asked the columnist.
“It was you who said ‘Sonny Liston will kill Clay'”
Ali was cerebrally deft in defending himself against talk shows’ charges that he was a bigot and a Black supremacist whether the moderator or host was in England, Australia, or the U.S. He developed a public speaking style that was as measured, logical, and at ease at Harvard as it was at Howard University. Yet he realized what he was not formally educated at a higher level. Thus when critics pointed out the his military entrance exam was disqualifying low, he replied: “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest.” Often he turned the formal education of Howard Cosell or William F. Buckley, against them during interviews, in his unique, “You ought to know that’s bogus, you’re the one with the book learning” style. Few public figures have been so self-aware. He always pointed out contradictions in marketing and hype. When his faith was excoriated in the major daily newspapers by sports columnists such as Jimmy Cannon and Red Smith, he called that hypocritical, since he did not smoke, drink, swear, or (publicly) chase women- the epitome of a choirboy athlete as role model. Once again, he contrast himself with Liston, who had a criminal record, violent run-ins with law enforcement, and harassed and followed women while driving. He also noted that Liston had ties to organize crime. Part of understanding media requires a grasp of the goals of the host, producer or outlet. Ali was well aware when he was being patronized or lampooned by rude, self-absorbed talk show hosts such as Jerry Lewis, who like most in the U.S. in 1963, assumed Cassius Clay was nothing but a self-propagandized blowhard with limited fistic talents. When he embraced a version of Islam predicated on ethnic pride and self-reliance, he took care to assure the faith was not misrepresented. Ali corrected journalists who labeled the Nation of Islam “Black Muslims”, as adamantly as he corrected them regarding his new name.
Ali’s media presence changed network TV to the extent that Wide World of Sports producer Roone Arledge, who broadcast his fights and interviews, developed Monday Night Football, then headed ABC News, and created Nightline.
In 1960 ABC had 100 affiliate stations in the country. By 1969 it had 1,000. Consider that ABC canceled the pop culture TV hit of the ’60s, Batman, due to production costs, in March 1968, less than a year after the gods of boxing stripped him of his title and you get a sense of Ali’s importance to ABC’s bottom line.
During a career which spanned the years fictionalized on Mad Men, Muhammad Ali worked a media cycle like no one before or since. Behind the baby face lived a mind calculating home audience sizes, the blood lust of ticket buyers paying to see him lose or injured, predisposed spin, the new slow-motion instant replays, poetic sound bites, and photo ops so endless that he became the most famous person on earth. His savvy grew with the electronic age. At a college campus anti-war address during his exile, he admonished the crowd to repeat the name of the “real champion,” lest the camera person not capture it the first time. In addition to ABC’s controversial Howard Cosell, sports journalists, essayists, photographers and painters from coast to coast monetized Ali’s singular appeal. He became one of the first international athletic brands.
In 1963 when Cassius Clay was in New York City to fight Doug Jones, he noted in interviews that the timing of the bout was bad, due to a city newspaper strike. How many athletes of that era are quoted about a disruption in media? Ali also guested on the highly popular Tonight Show hosted by Jack Paar (Johnny Carson’s predecessor). On Tonight, the heavyweight contender recited poetry about himself, while accompanied by Liberace on piano. During periodic television appearances, Clay played his hosts like a virtuoso violinist. He predicted the rounds in which he would knock out opponents, read poetry, and ad-libbed quips in retort to the hosts’ references to his braggadocio, his hype, and his larger-than-life persona. By 1962, he was cast in the opening scene of the Rod Serling film Requiem for a Heavyweight, two years before he was champion.
In addition, Clay served as a cultural bridge between the Black community and mainstream media during the Civil Rights era. He explained to journalists that while Sonny Liston was fearsome to them, he was a symbolic, vulnerable (“ugly bear”) bully to him. He hinted that people examine Liston underneath the archetype, the “Bigger Thomas”. While caricaturing Liston as a bear, he yet humanized him as vincible. At the Clay-Liston I weigh-in, this cultural gap was most evident. When the challenger sauntered in, carrying a walking stick, flanked by Sugar Ray Robinson, and his own entourage, boasting and “woofing” about what he would do to Liston, the press gathered in Miami noted his increased heart rate of 120, and assumed Clay was petrified of Liston. They published bulletins that he had fled to the airport. But in the Black community, selling “woof tickets”, trash talking, and disparaging an opponent to get in their heads, psychological warfare, was de rigeur. Commonplace.
Muhammad Ali understood new media. Slow motion debuted on national televised U.S. sport during the November 1963 Army-Navy football game. Shortly thereafter, in the studios of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the weekly Sports Center of his era, when analysts asked him to review his bouts or knockouts in slow motion, he ribbed, “I guess you have to see it in slow motion, I’m so fast in real life”. He borrowed some of his hype habits from the 1950’s tv wrestler Gorgeous George. George was a grappler more celebrated for his big mouth and his wavy Liberace locks than his acumen inside the ring. A teenage Clay observed that when George bragged endlessly about how he would humiliate his opponent, to the extent he would crawl across the ring and kiss his feet if he lost, he incorporated that into his own spiel. He did this because as many fans would pay to see someone defeated, as to see them at all. Very few athletes in a sport that was not choreographed, sensed this. Ali understood it before he was 20.
His preoccupation with image informed Ali’s spiritual, political and business decisions. One reason why he refused induction to serve in Viet Nam, even in Special Services (perhaps boxing exhibitions for the troops, as Joe Louis had done) was that athletes were such outsized celebrities and role models in Black America. If Ali served, it was tantamount to endorsement of U.S.military intervention in Southeast Asia. That message would influence the most likely draftees- young black urban men. Ali would be used. He chose being persecuted as an example of Black defiance, over being exploited as a model of compliance and conformity. This all took place before the pacifist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke publicly against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. It also influenced it.
When fight announcers such as Howard Cosell and Don Dunphy cornered him for immediate post-fight interviews, Ali always took the opportunity to prop Elijah Muhammad or worldwide satellite or closed circuit tv. He credited the teachings of the Nation of Islam for his confidence and discipline. Sometimes he even encouraged viewers to purchase the Nation’s own media arm, Muhammad Speaks. In the heat of the battle, he was ever media savvy. He made those moments about more than himself. In disability, as in faith, his ethos was “This is who I am, I am not hiding”. With Parkinson’s, he made public appearances and interacted with the press to help represent others with the illness, still thinking big picture.
Ali took care to memorize writers’ names, value their time, and understand their various niches and inclinations. He made Howard Cosell a household name, and reminded him of it on national tv. His training camp, his religion, his family, his home, were all open books. When Elijah Muhammad explained to him that an Islamic name would make him an international figure beyond athletic circles, he got that too. His mind was as swift as his hands and feet. No one twisted his words, and no photo-op was missed. Ali knew the media needed him as much as he needed media. His poems and predictions were the ideal length for nightly news sound bytes, long before cable news or 140 character limits.
In an era when most prizefighters traveled by jet, the Ali entourage toured in a bus, whose side was emblazoned with the bright lettering The World’s Most Colorful Fighter. When it concerned publicity, Ali thought of everything. He was a one person public relations firm. When op-eds labeled him unpatriotic, cowardly, spoiled, or misguided by Muslim leaders for not serving in the military, Ali took reporters point-by-point through the historic mistreatment of his people, the bias and futility of the U.S. war efforts in Southeast Asia, the hypocrisy of his draft status mysteriously being updated, and explained how his tax rate made him more valuable to the Department of Defense outside the armed services than inside: “They take enough taxes out of what I make for each fight, to build two bomber planes.” The athlete columnists cast as an unwitting tool of a Black separatist cult, was no dupe, even when the Nation adopted a more orthodox version of the faith in the mid-1970’s. The notion that “the Muslims” only wanted him because of his international stature, was belied by the fact he quietly converted three years before he was champion, and was impressed with the tenets of the group as a high school student, even writing a paper about them after a trip to Chicago for the national Golden Gloves tournament, when he purchased Minister Louis X’s (later Farrakhan) calypso-styled recording White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell.
Ali enjoyed testing the limits of journalistic credulity. He performed magic tricks or feats of levitation for writers or videographers, long after he was debilitated by Parkinson’s syndrome. He feigned sleep when people approached, only to startle them that he was conscious. As a young fighter training in Miami, the non-swimmer convinced LIFE magazine photographer Flip Schulke that he trained underwater as a means of resistance training. The magazine published a photo essay that included Clay punching underwater in a swimming pool. The whole thing was a ruse. The goal was attention.
Muhammad Ali play-acted in ways seldom seen among adults, or with journalists. When asked in 1962 about his next fight with Don Warner, who refused to shake his hand at a press event, he intoned “He must fall.” During the same period, a tv reporter somewhat playfully asked if he could close his mouth.”You know that’s impossible,” Ali replied. But Ali was no clown, he chose his spots. He sought to be perceived seriously and with candor. Before some bouts before he was stripped of his title, he told the sporting media “There’ll be no predictions, no rhymes.” On television, Cosell once asked why the somber mood before the Zora Folley fight (which was to be his last before his 42 month exile).
“You’re rather truculent today.”
“Whatever truculent means, if that’s good, I’m that.” Ali countered.
Ali told media he would defeat Sonny Liston in their rematch, by employing a secret weapon. He never fully gave away “the store”. The show business aphorism is “Always leave them wanting more.” After he felled Liston with a lightning overhand right some ringside reporters said they didn’t even see, or doubted its potency (accusing the fight of being fixed). Ali revealed that the old movie minstrel actor Stepin Fetchit, who was in his camp, had taught him “the anchor punch”. For a newly announced Nation of Islam member to be cavorting with an elder actor famed for portraying listless, carefree characters, was additional surprise.
Later in Ali’s career, as public acceptance broadened, he did tv and radio ads for auto parts stores, Gino’s hamburger restaurants, and Brut aftershave. If he could sell a fight, and sell himself, he could sell anything. The Champ hawked D-CON home pest exterminator kits. Had Ali been a lifelong Christian, the alliterative and charming Cassius Clay, he would have been the greatest spokesperson of all time, dwarfing both basketball’s Michael Jordan, and variety show host Arthur Godfrey. Armed with a rapier wit, expert comedic timing, the element of surprise and suspense, a penchant for ethnic speech during a time when such speech seldom crossed the color line, and real-time sleight of hand and foot during matches (e.g. The Ali Shuffle), Ali marketed what may have otherwise been a dying sport after Liston, tainted with the brush of organized crime, dominated Patterson in two brief bouts, and fighters such as Davey Moore and Benny Paret died as the result of blows in the ring. Ali was a true ringmaster, in the circus sense of the word. People say “Image is everything”. Consider that of all the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, only his is set inside a wall- the only one upon which people cannot walk. If image was everything, Ali thought of every granular component of his image, through the very speakers who addressed that image at his funeral. Athletes, rappers and politicians have since channeled facets of Ali’s poetry, wit, or soulful swag.
Bijan C. Bayne is the author of Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race & Class Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball. He may be contacted on Twitter @bijancbayne
Jose Torres, Sting Like A Bee: The Muhammad Ali Story, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).
Budd Schulberg, Loser And Still Champion: Muhammad Ali, (New York: Popular Library, 1972).
Wilfrid Sheed, Muhammad Ali: A Portrait in Words and Photographs, (New York: Crowell, 1975).
Jack Olsen, Black Is Best: The Riddle of Cassius Clay, (New York: Putnam, 1967).
Claude Lewis, Cassius Clay: A No-Holds-Barred Biography of Boxing’s Most Controversial Champion, (New York: McFadded Bartel Corp., 1965).
Norman Mailer, The Fight, (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).
Muhammad Ali and Richard Durham, The Greatest: My Own Story, (New York: Random House, 1975).
Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).