Ali’s pop culture reach went far outside the boxing ring
With his outspoken personality and outsized charisma, Muhammad Ali became something much more than a champion boxer. He became a walking symbol of racial pride, religious conviction, political conscience and personal power. His reach extended far outside the ring to make him one of the world’s most recognizable figures, as well as a enduring presence in popular culture.
After stepping onto the international stage with his Olympic win in 1960, he immediately began grabbing the attention of artists and media outlets alike. Bob Dylan referenced him in the 1964 song “I Shall Be Free No. 10” with the lyric, “I was shadow-boxing earlier in the day / I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay.” The landmark Esquire magazine cover of 1968 acknowledged Ali’s political turmoil by portraying him as pierced by arrows, a modern day St. Sebastian.
Ali would become a fixture on talk shows, often creating unlikely juxtapositions between himself, his hosts and the other guests, sitting with Mike Douglas and Sly Stone, or alongside Clint Eastwood on British TV. In 1963 he appeared on a program hosted by Jerry Lewis. Lewis introduces Ali by lauding his “tremendous capacity for showmanship.” Ali responds at one point by saying “It’s not just showmanship, I back it up. See, I’m not talking for my health, I’m talking for my wealth.”
British musician Johnny Wakelin had a hit in 1975 with the song “Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)”
Ben Folds wrote the song “Boxing” as an imaginary conversation between Ali and Howard Cosell. Besides Folds’ own original version, Better Midler recorded the song for her 1998 album “Bathhouse Betty.”
Even as Ali’s career in the ring began to wane, he continued to remain a towering figure in popular culture. He appeared on an episode of the TV show Vega$, which was created by Michael Mann. Mann would later direct Will Smith in the title role of the 2001 film Ali, which would be nominated for two Oscars. Ali also appeared on in a 1979 episode of Diff ’rent Strokes.
In an episode from the fourth season of Mad Men that first aired in 2010, a 1965 Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight is used as a backdrop for the entire episode. Titled “The Suitcase,” it is widely considered among the top episodes of this highly-regarded show. Throughout the show characters talk about the impending fight, cajoling each other for tickets.
The story builds to the characters of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in a bar talking as the fight plays on the radio. As men around them begin to cheer, suddenly Don yells at the radio too, as the announcer proclaims a knockout victory for Clay. Peggy asks, “What Happened?”
What happened is that the man who would become Muhammad Ali shook up the world, both inside the ring and out.
AT A DINNER in 1977 in Chicago, Muhammad Ali takes a playful poke at sportscaster Howard Cosell, left, with advice columnist Ann Landers appealing for calm.