From addressing the Klan to battling Superman, The Greatest truly did it all. As we bid farewell to a legend, we salute him with this roundup of mind-boggling trivia. The phrase “larger than life” never felt more fitting…
1. He outlived a shocking number of opponents. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984 at just 42: For the last 32 years of his life he seemed oddly vulnerable, particularly compared to the electric fighter he once was. Yet he outlived his first ring foe (Tunney Hunsaker died in 2005), his last (Trevor Berbick died in 2006), and many, many others including Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Ken Norton, Archie Moore, Henry Cooper, Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena, Ernie Terrell, Jimmy Young, Jimmy Ellis, Buster Mathis, Mac Foster, Bob Foster and Cleveland Williams.
2. He was a truly global fighter. Ali’s first 18 fights took place in the U.S. and then he went out into the world, fighting in England, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Ireland, Indonesia, Zaire, Malaysia, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and the Bahamas. In the end, he defended or won titles on four different continents. Even in America he got around, fighting in a dozen different states. (His famed rematch with Sonny Liston took place in the boxing hotbed that is Lewiston, Maine.)
3. He once spoke at a Ku Klux Klan rally. During his most militant phase, Ali wholeheartedly endorsed the Nation of Islam’s belief that blacks and whites only marry their own race… with the bizarre result he found himself allied with the Klan. Indeed, he spoke at one of their rallies on this point of agreement and by his own account was warmly received, other than an awkward moment when a “funny thing happened” and they produced a rope to “String him up!” only to reveal it was just a joke. (Really.)
4. His most dangerous opponent was a Japanese wrestler. In 1976 Ali took on the wrestler Antonio Inoki in Tokyo. Viewed by Ali’s camp as a cash grab (he earned $6 million—more than $25 million in 2016 money), the “exhibition” soon got surreal as the fighters’ handlers debated whether it was a real fight and rules continually changed. The result: Inoki seized upon a rule that forbid him to kick Ali unless he had a knee touching the mat and spent much of the bout lying on his back, kicking wildly as Ali tried to figure out what to do. (The narration to this footage is in Japanese, but the fight wouldn’t make sense in any language.) Ali threw six punches total over 15 rounds yet the fight was scored a draw as Inoki won three points for landed kicks… all deducted for fouls. The night almost ended Ali’s career, as the kicks caused two blood clots in his leg and amputation seemed a real possibility. Amazingly, the two became friends and Ali made a point of attending Inoki’s final bout in 1998.
5. It is impossible to overstate how bizarre his rivalry with Joe Frazier became. Ali normally talked trash for two reasons: It psyched out opponents and it sold tickets. But there was no rattling Smokin’ Joe and from the time their first bout proved The Fight of the Century, they hardly needed help filling seats. Yet Ali constantly noted how “stupid” and “ugly” Frazier was and baited him as the “other kind of Negro: he’s not like me.” Before their final bout, he obsessively called Frazier a “gorilla”, often rhymed with the fight site: Manila. The irony is that during Ali’s exile from boxing Frazier loaned him money and, as champ, granted him the first bout of the trilogy to put Ali back on solid financial ground. Ali’s move to Philadelphia for a time in the 1970s exacerbated the tensions, as if he were claiming Frazier’s home base. Frazier never overcame his loathing of Ali, insisting the Parkinson’s was “Joe Frazier-itis” and musing of his foe’s famous appearance at the 1996 Olympics: “It would have been a good thing if he had lit the torch and fallen in.”
6. He had a very brief acting career. Ali made countless TV and film appearances, which made sense for a man so charismatic. Between 1977 and 1979, he gave other roles a shot. Granted, it was a gradual transition: His first effort was playing himself in The Greatest, also starring Ernest Borgnine as Ali’s legendary trainer Angelo Dundee and James Earl Jones as Malcolm X. He later took on the role of slave-turned-U.S. Senator Gideon Jackson in the four-hour NBC movie Freedom Road; Kris Kristofferson costars as a sharecropper. That same year he appeared on Diff’rent Strokes reciting one of his less legendary poems (at the four-minute mark). Then no credits until the 2013 short: Muhammad Ali – Celebrity Fight Night & Fighting Irishmen.
7. He was an Irish fighter. Yes, Ali was unexpectedly Irish. His great-grandfather Abe O’Grady emigrated from County Clare in the 1860s to Kentucky and married a freed African-American woman. In 2009, 10,000 attended his triumphant “homecoming” as he returned to the small town of Ennis. (Awesomely, people posted signs reading, “WELCOME HOME ALI O’GRADY.”) Ali also knocked out Alvin Lewis in Dublin in 1972 (celebrated in the film When Ali Came to Ireland) and once tried to pick up Liam Neeson’s then-girlfriend Helen Mirren (Neeson recalled: “I guess I should have been annoyed. But all I could think was, ‘Wow, Muhammad Ali is trying to pull my girl. How cool is that!‘”)
9. He was not a Beatles fan. There is a famous photo shoot of The Beatles clowning around with Ali, all parties seemingly charmed with each other. When The Beatles left, Ali had only one question: “So who were those little f-ggots?”
9. He did like Elvis. Ali’s fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco said The Greatest loved The King, though not for the expected reason: He “wasn’t really into music” but said, ”That guy can dance.” (Pacheco also observed when they got together it was “probably the best-looking black guy and the best-looking white guy on the planet in the same room” and the two eyed each other “like roosters.”) An apparently tense initial meeting was reportedly relaxed when Elvis unexpectedly used a karate leg sweep to knock Ali over and the two men proceeded to laugh wildly. Elvis stayed for two weeks at Ali’s Deer Lake, Pennsylvania training camp, during which Ali convinced Elvis to unexpectedly take the stage at “this little redneck place called Spoonies.” Elvis once presented Ali with a robe that was supposed to read “The People’s Champ” but instead said “The People’s Choice”: Ali wore it anyway and promptly got his jaw broken in a loss to Ken Norton.
10. He had the most independent slave name ever. It’s difficult to overstate how controversial Ali’s casting aside his “slave name” was in 1964, but there is a slight historical irony in his case. Muhammad Ali was originally named after his father Cassius Clay, who got his name from his father Herman Clay when he decided to pay tribute to Cassius Marcellus Clay. Cassius Marcellus was born a Kentucky slave owner, but freed his slaves in 1844 and continued to be a champion of emancipation, publishing the anti-slavery newspaper True American and serving as the Ambassador to Russia under Abraham Lincoln, helping to win Russian support for the Union cause and ensure Europe did not officially recognize the Confederacy.
11. His Superman comic remains insane. In 1978 Ali went 1-1 against Leon Spinks but had better luck against the Man of Steel. And yes, he accomplished in a single issue what the crack news team at the Daily Planet could not achieve over a several decades: figure out Superman’s true identity (as well as solve the related mystery: “What the hell is Clark Kent up to in his spare time?”). The Greatest, indeed.