From The VIBE Vault: ‘Muhammad Ali: The Greatest’

This article originally appeared in the January 2002 issue of VIBE Magazine.

Muhammad Ali became the most famous — possibly the most admired — man on earth. Will Smith is portraying the living legend in Columbia Pictures’ biopic Ali. David Pigpen examines the life of the boxer, activist and pioneer.

History is not a close confidant of the hip hop generation. Inhabiting a world that hurtles along in fast-forward, brothers and sisters don’t have much time to comb through history books for lessons to live by. This generation’s idols tend to be figures who are intensely plugged into the here and now — Allen Iverson, Dr. Dre, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Tiger Woods, Eminem. But one thing the millennium generation understands more deeply than most is the power of the spoken word. From Malcolm X to Jay-Z, empires have been built upon it — and not just empires of cash. Which is why, more than 20 years after he threw his last punch and long after his famously lyrical wit was muffled by the onset of Parkinson’s syndrome, there are still plenty of reasons to care about Muhammad Ali. Now it has fallen to Will Smith, in the new film Ali, to translate the drama of Ali’s turbulent life into something understandable to a generation that has grown up admiring heroes whose circumstances and priorities couldn’t be more different. It’s a tall order.

Still, there are many things about Ali’s life that should be instantly recognizable. Now 60, he has been an object of fascination, awe, and controversy for more than three decades, mainly for his achievements in the ring. A model of pantherlike grace, stealth, and power, he is the only boxer to be crowned heavyweight champion three times. Drama followed him everywhere. He was a warrior, fighting in some of the most memorable bouts ever — especially the Thrilla in Manila (in which he outlasted Joe Frazier) and the Rumble in the Jungle (when he outsmarted George Foreman). Like Bob Marley’s or Michael Jordan’s, Al’s fame rippled out over all pop culture. From America to Europe, Africa, and Asia, Ali became the world’s most renowned athlete (though fans of Brazilian soccer god Pele might argue the point), in part because of his mouth, but also because of his heart. He offered a rare mix of qualities: at once a brilliant performer, ego-happy individualist, savvy salesman, wily political agitator, and spiritual force. Think Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Malcolm X fused into one man.

Ali was a baller (he made $5 million a fight back in the’70s) and a brawler (the beat down he gave the glowering bully Sonny Liston ranks among the most famous upsets ever). He was a rapper before the was rap: His fast tongue and quick wit paved the way for every superstar and trash-talker to come down the pike. “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait till I kick Foreman’s behind.” He once taunted. And he often bellowed, with a bravado that might sound familiar to anybody who has ever picked up a hip hop record, “I am greatest!” But he never got lost in his own hype; he delivered his lines with a fun-loving twinkle in his eye. And, in a famous phrase that Latrell Sprewell or Lauryn Hill could surely relate to, Ali once said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”

In his day, Ali brought the noise and fought the power in ways that today’s studio gangstas only fantasize about.

Anyone whose images of Ali are drawn from later appearances-his dramatic lighting of the Olympic flame at the 1996 Atlanta games, or his halting denunciation of violence after the WTC attack-might still wonder, why the big deal? When he isn’t making public appearances, he spends much of his time now with his wife, Lonnie, 45, on their Michigan farm, quietly autographing memorabilia and entertaining guests with his repertoire of magic tricks and corny jokes. But in his day, Ali was a young lion who brought the noise and fought the power in ways that many of today’s studio gangstas and street-corner politicians only fantasize about. In the words of Spike Lee, “He was handsome, he was articulate, he was funny, charismatic, and was whuppin’ ass, too.”

It’s difficult to overstate how important Ali was in bolstering African-American solidarity and pride during the stormy 1960’s and early ‘70s. Says Todd Boyd, author and professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California, “Ali was front and center in leading the shift from the Civil Rights era to the black-power era.” And through his battles with the government and his acute social consciousness, he developed into a potent political force and a cherished progressive figure for all Americans. “He hit people for a living, and yet, by middle age, he would be a symbol not merely of courage, but of love, of decency, even of wisdom,” notes David Remnick in his 1999 Ali biography, King of the World.

Ali’s plunge into political controversy was revolutionary, and took some courage. He joined the Nation of Islam in 1964, and his refusal to enter the Army in 1967 because of his pacifist beliefs cost him the heavyweight crown, a prize he had coveted since he was a kid in Louisville, KY, growing up as Cassius Clay. At the age of 25, at the peak of his athletic prowess, he was sentenced to five years in jail, kicked out of boxing, and fined $10,000 for draft evasion. Despite public vilification, he held his ground and appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction by an 8-0 vote — but not until after he had lost three precious years. When he returned and eventually recaptured his crown, it put an exclamation point on his career. Says Boyd, “African-Americans realized that you could prevail if you stick to your guns.”

“A lot of people didn’t like him because he stood for something, and that something American didn’t like,” says Leon Gast, director of the best Ali documentary to date, When We Were Kings. Gast, who spent several years in the ‘70s filming Ali, remembers the heat the fighter took for speaking out against the war. “He never did anything because it was fashionable,” says Gast. “Even among middle-class blacks, he was unpopular because of his in-you-face attitude. They felt that all the things he was advocating would happen, but would come at a slower pace.”

Before Ali, athletes rarely took public stands, nor were they expected to. “Ali has always been the exception rather than the rule,” says Chris Wilkinson, a screenwriter of the film Ali. “Athletes didn’t get politically involved. The way it used to be is like it is now.” Ali wasn’t, in face, alone-track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously delivered a gloved black-power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics; the Celtics’ Bill Russell marched for civil rights; Curt Flood took on baseball’s reserve clause-but his example mattered.

Ali wasn’t one to stand on a picket line, yet his protests man an indelible impression. And he jumped into all of his causes with singular flair. No one manipulated the media as skillfully as he did, with a never-ending stream of rhymes, jokes, and pungent remarks, all delivered seemingly off-the-cuff. It’s a sad irony that Ali’s verbal and physical gifts have been largely taken from him by Parkinson’s, possibly a consequence of the cumulative blows he had absorbed in the ring.

Ali’s legacy is still hotly debated. Some argue that the tradition of social and political engagement he represents has been lost on a new generation of self-centered athletes whose goals in life seem to be lucrative sneaker deals and a couple of Range Rovers in the driveway of a 20,000-square-foot home. Can you imagine Michael Jordan saying he wont take the $90 million in endorsement fees this year because of overseas sweatshops? But in fairness, few people in the public eye, let alone athletes, have shown Ali’s adherence to principle and willingness to sacrifice. And there are those who would point out that Jordan, in his pure moneymaking zeal, also breaks down doors for African-American athletes who follow his example of using himself as the product, and just working to enrich others.

This, in fact, may be another mark of Ali’s influence. He earned more money in his career than all the other heavyweights before him combined. But unlike most, Ali was — and still is –extraordinarily (and often quietly) involved in charitable efforts, helping organizations as diverse as UNICEF, the Lutheran Child and Family Services in Michigan, and New York City’s Hebrew Home for the Aged. His generosity always exceeded his appetite for luxury.

“Ali never though of himself as a brand and never worried about putting his foot in his mouth, because money was not important to him,” says Gast. “He made lots of it, and gave lots of it away to people he thought needed it.”

Ali, the movie, covers a decade of the champ’s life, ending with his epic upset of Foreman in Zaire in 1974. According to the screenwriters, there was so much great material in Ali’s life that their original draft came in at a whopping 187 pages. Obviously, there’s just no way to bottle this man or his ineffable spirit.\

An old street adage tells us, if you’re not playing the game, then the game’s playing you. Ali played the game.