'The Greatest': Oh, what a life he led

Story highlights

  • Sportswriter Mike Downey on Muhammad Ali's incomparable life
  • He was brash, skillful, strong and controversial

Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune and a frequent contributor to CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The year is 1962. I am but a boy and do not yet know who this Cassius Clay is. The movie "Requiem for a Heavyweight" begins and the fictional character "Mountain" Rivera is being pummeled by an unseen foe with piston-like fists. Clang, clang, clang, the fight ends. Through a haze, a beaten Mountain can barely see Clay come to his corner to pay his respects. "Thanks, kid," a 20-ish Clay tells the much-older man. "You were great."

The year is 1964. I have grown older and Clay has grown famous. He won an Olympic boxing gold medal for his country in 1960. But nothing has prepared America for this. Everybody is talking about him because he cannot stop talking. He is bragging. He is raving. He is reciting poetry. (His own.) He is the "Louisville Lip," a sobriquet inspired by the city of his birth.
    Cassius Clay is promising to knock out heavyweight champ Sonny Liston and shock the world. "This is the biggest thing in all history!" is among the amazing phrases that spill from his mouth. "I am the prettiest! I am the greatest!"
    A popular TV quiz show, "I've Got a Secret," devotes a segment to Liston vs. Clay on the eve of fight night. Panelists predict how badly and sadly Clay will lose. One says there will be no fight because Clay will faint in his dressing room, ha ha ha. A statement composed by Clay is then read to the TV audience. It is a long poem. It concludes:
    "Who on Earth thought
    When they came to the fight
    They would witness the launching
    Of a human satellite?
    Hence the crowd did not dream
    When they laid down their money
    That they would see
    A total eclipse of the Sonny."
    Next night, Clay wins the fight. "I shocked the world!" he shouts. "I shocked the world!"
    A week later, the hit TV show "I've Got a Secret" invites a pair of New York newspaper writers, Leonard Koppett and Bob Waters, to be on the show. The panel must guess what their secret is. Their secret is, "We were the only two writers who picked Clay to win the fight." No one guesses it.

    What a life

    Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali and became one of the world's most famous people, died Friday at the age of 74. And, oh, what a life he led. Loved, hated, loud, soft, strong, weak, quick, slow, sinner, saint, arrogant, humble, funny, sad, everywhere, nowhere.
    A ringside bell tolls, mournfully, 10 times. A requiem for a heavyweight. A goodbye to the greatest, who is gone from us forever, yet will never be truly gone.
    The year is 2014. It is the 50th anniversary of that Feb. 25, 1964 night. I contact people who were there in Miami Beach for the fight. The sportscaster Frank Gifford says he hasn't forgotten the manic behavior of Clay before the fight and recalls saying to himself, "This kid's scared to death." The sportswriter Murray Olderman remembers, "His head was bobbing almost uncontrollably. His eyeballs were rolling. He was frothing at the mouth."
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    Liston was unbeaten and looked unbeatable. Robert Lipsyte tells me he was told by a New York Times editor to measure the time and distance between the Miami Convention Center and the nearest hospital, to test how long it would take to get there if — more like when — Clay got carried away in an ambulance.
    No one seemed to take Clay very seriously. Certainly not a hot new musical act, the Beatles. Clay was late for a staged publicity photo and the Beatles were irate. He finally showed up and struck a pose, jabbing George Harrison, who pretended to tip backward and make the other Beatles fall like dominoes. "You boys aren't as dumb as you look," said the boxer to the band. "No, but you are," a fed-up John Lennon hit back.
    No one inside the arena could quite believe the sight of Sonny Liston quitting in his corner, refusing to return for Round 7. Same held true for those who heard it on a radio at home. The comedian Billy Crystal was one. He was someone who would mimic and then befriend and adore Muhammad Ali in the years to come. Crystal told me: "You had to imagine the mayhem in the ring. Liston sitting on his stool. Ali wide-eyed and screaming. It was the best fight that I have ever 'seen.'"

    A new name

    The year is 1967. Muhammad Ali is being taken very seriously now. Where once he was silly, now he is stern. He has embraced the Nation of Islam and become a minister thereof. He has adopted a new name, after originally asking to be known as Cassius X. He will fight for his people, but not for his country. Vietnam is not for him. He becomes a convicted draft dodger, flat-out refusing to report to the Army, pick up a rifle and aim it at the North Vietnamese.
    "And shoot them for what?" a deadly serious Ali asks. "They never called me a n - - - - - . They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me. They didn't rob me of my nationality. They didn't rape and kill my mother and father."
    I and others see him in a new light. For better or worse, Ali is stripped of boxing's heavyweight championship belt. He goes from charmer to pariah, from clown prince to object of scorn. In his autobiography a few years later, Ali told of going to the Ohio River and flinging his Olympic gold medal into it. (It would be replaced and presented to him in 1996.) He was an angry young American of the era, one of many. He was also a public figure, one of a kind.
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    The year is 1971. Ali is free to fight again, not with a weapon in Asia but with his fists in a ring. His protest has been upheld. His conviction has been overturned.
    Joe Frazier is champion now. Ali wants a piece of him. He taunts Frazier the way he did Liston, insults his skill, his personality, his looks. Ali is revered by some, reviled by others by fight night. The two men mix it up for 14 hard rounds, Ali's hare versus Frazier's tortoise, hopper versus plodder. A lightning bolt strikes in the form of Frazier's left fist, catching Ali flush on the jaw and knocking him to the canvas. It is a sight heretofore unseen, Ali knocked flat. He gets up, gets going again, but when the 15th round ends and the judges score the fight, Ali has shocked the world again — he has lost.

    Rumble

    The year is 1974. The place is Africa. Of all the spots in all the world, Ali feels his roots pulling at him and wants to fight here. He has regained much of his fame and prestige, Vietnam being looked upon by some in a new light, Frazier having been defeated in a rematch. In the meantime, however, the heavyweight champion is now someone else, a hulking, sulking menace who appears invulnerable, George Foreman.
    Back comes the old Ali, the old arrogance, whether faked or real. "Superman don't need no seat belt!" he tells a flight attendant who insists on his wearing one. "Superman don't need no plane," he is duly informed.
    Back comes the taunting, too. Foreman is big, dull, ugly, you name it, Ali jabbers for weeks before this promoted "Rumble in the Jungle" gets under way. Why he provokes people who can hurt him, no one knows. Sure enough, it's a trap. By using a strategy he calls "rope-a-dope," Ali ducks and dodges in the Zaire darkness, watching Foreman wilt in the outdoor humidity and heat. At the right moment, a spry Ali punches the exhausted Foreman, then watches him topple like a lumberjack's tree.
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    "Ali boma ye!" chant Africans at the fight, loosely translated into "Ali, kill him!" That he does not do, but become heavyweight champion of the world again, that he does. "I am the greatest," Ali says, as he did 10 years before. He might or might not be right.
    The year is 1975. Harvard has invited Ali to give its commencement address. He is sharp. He is sincere. A student shouts out: "Give us a poem!" Ali pauses for an instant, then gives them one:
    "Me? Whee!"
    The author George Plimpton later submits it to Bartlett's Quotations as the shortest poem ever. Short and sweet, like a boxer's best jab.
    And now the year is 1996. Time has flown. If Ali is the greatest, well, it means the greatest can be beaten by a Leon Spinks (in 1978) and beaten by a Larry Holmes (in 1980) and even by a Trevor Berbick, a relative nobody (in 1981), and still call himself the greatest with a straight face, and still have everybody believe it.

    The fame

    Because, is he popular? Is he ever! I look around me at the Opening Ceremony of the '96 Atlanta Olympics, look at the expressions on faces as the stadium's torch is clutched in the fist of Muhammad Ali, a hand shaky from the Parkinson's disorder made known to the public in 1984. Spectators look awestruck, misty-eyed, joyous. A man of few words now, reclusive and introverted, Ali's appearances have become increasingly rare. He is almost inanimate. He is a living statue of himself.
    The year is again 2016. Twenty years beyond those Olympics now, yet the man (with his myth) has been out there somewhere all this time, silently, the great talker, Ali, alive to his family and innermost circle of friends, a ghost to the rest of us.
    Reminders of him exist, including a daughter, Laila, who becomes a prizefighter herself and then a television personality, catching a quick wink of the public eye. When she performs in 2007 on the program "Dancing With the Stars," her father sits ringside, expressionless, hand trembling in his lap, but otherwise there in her corner. His spirit is willing, if his flesh is someplace else.
    And today, in the present, reminders remain all we have. I go to YouTube to watch a 1964 interview he gave, Ali at his greatest. Ali (then known as Clay) is sitting beside Bob Halloran, a television personality from Miami, fielding every question, launching into rhetoric and rhyme. "I'm the resurrector!" of boxing, "I'm the savior!" "Muscles so hard I'm going to break Superman's hands!" "I'm so pretty!" And, of course, one that would become a signature line of his, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!"
    The interviewer asks: "What will boxing be like when you're gone?"
    The boxer doesn't bat an eye.
    "When I'm gone, boxing is gone," he says.
    As epitaphs go, this could be his greatest.