Ali’s pop cul­ture reach went far out­side the box­ing ring

Jerusalem Post - - COMMENT & FEATURES - • By MARK OLSEN

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.

(Chicago Tribune/TNS)

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.

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