Muhammad Ali, who died on Friday night at the age of 74, was one of the most fascinating figures of 20th-century America. The greatest heavyweight boxer of all time was a mass of contradictions: A 60s countercultural icon perhaps best known for his religious beliefs, a notorious loudmouth whose every action seemed carefully considered, a living symbol of black power and pride who taunted Joe Frazier with racially-tinged insults, an all-time-great athlete whose protest against the Vietnam War led to the white men in charge of his sport to stop him from competing at the height of his prowess.
In his later years, as Robert Lipsyte wrote in his New York Times obituary, "Ali became something of a secular saint, a legend in soft focus. He was respected for having sacrificed more than three years of his boxing prime and untold millions of dollars for his antiwar principles after being banished from the ring; he was extolled for his un-self-conscious gallantry in the face of incurable illness, and he was beloved for his accommodating sweetness in public."
But in his youth, during the years when he went from being Cassius Clay, the young braggart, to Muhammad Ali, the fiery champion, he was at the center of constant controversy. In his prime he was not only the world's best boxer but one of the planet's most fascinating celebrities. In those days boxing was one of America's most literary sports, and the tangle of politics, personality, persona, and pugilism Ali represented drew writers, commentators, and interviewers of all sorts. The resulting body of work paints a fascinating portrait of a man who somehow lived up to his own legend.
Here is a selection of just a few things that Ali said, and were said about him:
Mark Kram writing about Ali for Esquire, in a 1989 piece looking back on his career:
With the emergence of Muhammad Ali, no one would ever see the same way again, not even the fighters themselves; a TV go, a purse, and a sheared lip would never be enough; and a title was just a belt unless you did something with it. A fighter had to be; a product, an event, transcendental. Ali and the new age met stern, early resistance. He was the demon loose at a holy rite.
George Plimpton in Harper's on Cassius Clay's press conference before his 1964 fight with Sonny Liston
Clay made a short, final address to the newspapermen. "This is your last chance," he said. "It's your last chance to get on the bandwagon. I'm keeping a list of all you people. After the fight is done, we're going to have a roll call up there in the ring. And when I see so-and-so said this fight was a mismatch, why I'm going to have a little ceremony and some eating is going on—eating of words." His manner was that of the admonishing schoolteacher. The press sat in their rows at the Miami Auditorium staring balefully at him. It seemed incredible that a smile or two wouldn't show up on a writer's face. It was so wonderfully preposterous. But I didn't see any."
Floyd Patterson as told to Gay Talese in a 1966 issue of Esquire:
Before my fight with Cassius Clay I remember one day he came stomping up to my camp. He was surrounded by Muslims and came barging in, calling me "rabbit," and he held a bunch of carrots in his arms. All the television cameras and photographers moved in close to get action shots of the bloody scene. But they were disappointed. Clay handed me the carrots and I took them. The photographers took pictures, the pictures got into the papers and on television, and I guess it all helped sell tickets to the fight. But in the split second that Cassius Clay's eyes met with mine, I could sense that he was a little embarrassed by it all. He seemed to be apologizing, saying, "this is what I have to do." And later on, when we had a press conference before the fight, and Clay was screaming and bragging to a bunch of sportswriters, he leaned over and whispered to me once: "You want to make some money, don't you, Floyd? You want to make lots of money, don't you?"
Baseball's Jackie Robinson, who later criticized Ali for his antiwar stance, writing in 1964 (found in The Muhammad Ali Reader, edited by Gerald Early):
Despite his loudness—and sometimes crudeness—Clay has brought excitement into boxing. He has also spread the message that more of us need to know: "I am the greatest," he says. I am not advocating that Negroes think they are greater than anyone else. But I want them to know that they are just as great as other human beings.
An excerpt from a 1975 interview Ali did with Playboy, in which he said a lot of controversial things about women and race, but also spoke from the heart about poverty and wealth:
"I was driving down the street and I saw a little black man wrapped in an old coat standing on a corner with his wife and little boy, waiting for a bus to come along—and there I am in my Rolls-Royce. The little boy had holes in his shoes and I started thinkin' that if he was my little boy, I'd break into tears. And I started crying.
"Sure, I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin' hell, but as long as they ain't free, I ain't free."
From "Ego," Norman Mailer's famous 1971 essay on Ali:
He is fascinating—attraction and repulsion must be in the same package. So, he is obsessive. The more we don't want to think about him, the more we are obliged to. There is a reason for it. He is America's Greatest Ego. He is also… the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet, he is the very spirit of the twentieth century, he is the prince of mass man and the media.
Robert Lipsyte in the New York Times Magazine in 1971, after Ali returned to boxing after being banned due to his opposition to the draft and just before his famous fight with Frazier:
He feels superior to boxing, a gift to boxing, a hero of history who has temporarily ennobled a sordid and ungrateful sport. In an accurate prediction just before his three-and-a-half-year exile from the ring, he said: "When I'm gone, boxing will be nothing again. The fans with the cigars and the hats turned down will be there, but no more housewives and little men on the street and foreign presidents. I was the only boxer in history people asked questions like a senator."
From a piece by Ira Berkow, also in 1971, about how fast Ali really was:
A fly again laded on his knee. Ali suddenly grew still. He slowly reached out to snatch the fly. Jabbed. Had it! "My timing's back!" cried Ali. "See, at least I'm not too old."
A quote captured by Roger Kahn in 1975, in an Esquire piece anthologized in The Muhammad Ali Reader:
"There is nothin' no greater than the human heart. Nothin'. There's the golden heart and gold is beautiful an' the silver heart, and silver's more useful and the heart of iron. Strong, but it can melt. And the heart of rock, which must be broke, and the paper heart, that flies with the winds, like a kite flies, but that's all right so long as the string is strong. There's many more hearts and each is different and each is a miracle. What can compare with the human heart?" He smiled slightly. "I didn't just make that up. I use that when I speak to students." An exchange Bob Greene had with Ali while reporting a profile of him for a special 1983 issue of Esquire celebrating 50 influential Americans: "I'm the most famous man in the world," the voice said. I said that there would be other famous people in the issue; people, perhaps, as famous as he. "Who?" Ali said. I said that some of the others were John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King. "They're all dead," Ali said. Finally, the famous writer and Ali biographer Ismael Reed shared this on Saturday, writing for the New York Times: I think of a story that one of Ali's friends and former managers, Gene Kilroy, once told me. A child was dying of cancer. Ali visited the hospital and told the boy that he was going to defeat Sonny Liston and that he, the kid, was going to defeat cancer. "No," the boy said. "I'm going to God, and I'm going to tell God that I know you."