When a great sportsman becomes a cultural icon: Muhammad Ali’s story

Saturday January 16 2016

Muhammad Ali celebrates his 74th birthday tomorrow. Ali’s contribution to popular culture covers virtually every genre of the arts. Narrative films, biopics, documentaries, biographies, songs, coffee-table picture books, and a very special kind of poetry performed by the champ himself. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH

Muhammad Ali celebrates his 74th birthday tomorrow. Ali’s contribution to popular culture covers virtually every genre of the arts. Narrative films, biopics, documentaries, biographies, songs, coffee-table picture books, and a very special kind of poetry performed by the champ himself. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH 

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Muhammad Ali celebrates his 74th birthday tomorrow, and there are many reasons why students of culture will relish this landmark moment with him.

Ali has always been more than a sportsman and outside the boxing ring he has been celebrated on many stages – cultural and political.

Ali’s contribution to popular culture covers virtually every genre of the arts. Narrative films, biopics, documentaries, biographies, songs, coffee-table picture books, and a very special kind of poetry performed by the champ himself. This is the man who famously declared, “I’m so bad, I make medicine sick!”

In 1963, under his birth name Cassius Clay, he released the spoken-word album I Am the Greatest, a celebration of his 1960 Olympic Gold medal for the lightweight boxing category. The album included his cover version of Ben E King’s remarkable hit song, Stand by me.

Ali’s boxing style, bravado and accomplishments have inspired numerous songs from renowned stars and mediocre artistes across virtually every genre. Amongst them are Sam Cooke’s The Gang is All Here (1964) and Alvin Cash’s 1967 single Ali Shuffle.

In 1973, Dennis Alcapone recorded a reggae number, Cassius Clay. After Ali’s staggering knock-out of George Foreman in Zaire on October 30 1974 — the fight that came to be known as the “Rumble in the Jungle” — Congolese maestros Trio Madjesi of Orchestre Sosoliso released 8eme Round. It opens with the command, “Fasten your gloves” and then ripples off with an array of trumpets, furious drums and rapid Lingala.

Perhaps there is no Ali song that has captured the imagination of the world more than Black Superman, by English pop star Johnny Wakelin. When it was released in 1975, its bland bubblegum melody quickly gained traction in school playgrounds across the world as children chanted the words from Ali’s priceless boasts.

“This is the story of Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He knows how to talk and he knows how to fight and all the contenders were beat out of sight….he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee…the black superman who  calls to the other guy, ‘catch me if you can’”. Wakelin also recorded the chanting sing-a-long In Zaire. 


The lyrical praise that followed “Rumble in the Jungle” included funk numbers from Mark Rice and the Philadelphia-based singers, The People’s Choice. And long after his boxing career had come to an end, Ali continues to inspire songs.

Tuff Enuff is a 1986 tune with clear references to Ali as the champ. In 2001 the UK-based group Faithless also saluted the champ in Muhammad Ali. In Ali Rap Theme (2006) Public Enemy sampled Ali’s memorable 1964 boast before the Sonny Liston fight, “I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast, I’m pretty and can’t possibly be beat”.

Ali’s boasts keep coming back into circulation. For the 1977 biopic The Greatest, George Benson recorded 'The Greatest Love of All', a song whose composition was later mired in copyright controversies. Nonetheless, Whitney Houston’s 1985 version became a global hit.

Similarly, R. Kelly scored big with The World’s Greatest, the theme song for the biopic that won Will Smith the 2001 Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Smith piled on 16 kilos of muscle to fit into his heavyweight role in Ali. He mustered Ali’s left hook and his shuffle in the ring giving an electrifying performance of a quick-witted man who, ultimately, succumbed to the anguish of losing dear friends like Malcolm X. 

How many Ali documentaries are there? My count includes: When we Were Kings (1996); Ali: King of the World (2000); Muhammad Ali: Through the eyes of the World (2001); PBS’S Muhammad Ali : Made in Miami (2008); Thrilla in Manilla (2008); Champions Forever (2009); Facing Ali (2009);  The trials of Muhammad Ali (2013) and I am Ali (2014).

When we were Kings tops the pack, not just for its Academy Award win for Best Documentary Feature, but for its instructive back-story of persistence. Director Leon Gast had been hired to record the all-black music concert that preceded Ali’s fight in Zaire (captured in the 2008 documentary Soul Power). Gast gained unfettered access to Ali on his early morning runs and brutal training in the ring. Foreman was far less forthcoming and Gast ended up with miles of Ali footage.

But it still took Gast 22 years to make When we Were Kings. In between was a long legal battle against boxing promoter Don King for rights to the footage; a struggle to raise funds to complete the project and shifting ideas for the film. Eventually, Gast settled on an Ali-centred story with Foreman and the music concert as background.

The heart of this documentary is Gast’s 1993 interviews with journalists Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. The cameras cut fast between the journalists’ rapid-fire commentary on the boxers and the gripping scenes from the knock-out in the 8th round. Gast’s stellar cinematography is a fitting tribute to the skill and the speed of Ali’s mouth, feet and fists.


Champions Forever features forgotten interviews affirming Ali’s prowess. But Thrilla in Manilla runs against the grain, showing Ali as a heartless bully who recklessly whipped up race sentiments and said cruel, untrue things about his opponents. Like calling Joe Frazier “an ugly gorilla”. A bloodthirsty media spurred Ali on and his opponents suffered irreparable damage.

Today, Ali’s speech has become considerably diminished by the vagaries of Parkinson’s disease. But filmmakers have found new ways to rebuild his voice and bring immediacy to his words. In Facing Ali, Director Pete McCormack used Red One high-definition cameras to shoot interviews that fill up the screen and underline the value of oral testimonies as history. We meet 10 men who fought Ali and listen to their anxieties, their respect for their opponent and their long psychological recovery from the gruelling fights.

The latest of these documentaries, I Am Ali, exploits the champ’s audio diaries — numerous recordings of telephone conversations and random thoughts that filled up Ali’s lifelong love for tape recorders. It is as if we are eavesdropping on his calls to his daughters and their mothers.

The interviews of his brother, his son and the boxing community combine to paint a portrait of a warm friend and a doting parent. The sound from those audio files — without the benefit of images — floods the film with intense nostalgia for a time, for a man who was stolen from the public by a truly crippling disease.

Is there a more photographed sports personality than Ali? One of my favourite Ali pictures is from a Louis Vuitton advert that appeared on the back of Time magazine in November 2012. Its validation of big dreams is breathtaking. Ali is seated in the pose of a mentor watching over his five-year old grandson, who stands astride in a vest and over-size gloves, ready to learn the ropes from the sated champ.

For the April 1968 cover of Esquire magazine, Ali struck the pose of a martyr, his body pierced by six arrows coming from all directions. It was a calculated statement about the legal consequences of turning down the draft to fight in the Vietnam War.

His logic was faultless. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger”. But according to journalist Sunni Khalid in the Thrilla documentary, this quip wasn’t original to Ali. Abdul Rahaman of the Nation of Islam purportedly gave him that pun. Rahaman reportedly wore Ali’s championship ring — the alleged prize for a wisecrack that won Ali tons of praise for his courage against racism. That courage continues. Last month, Ali was in the news responding to Donald Trump’s bigoted views of Muslims.

Tens of books have been written by, for and about Ali. Those of us who recognise the value of (auto)biography as history, as a study of values and identity, treasure every one of them. In Soul of a Butterfly, written by Ali and his daughter Hana Yasmeen, Ali makes a plea for how he would want the world to remember him. But nothing captures Ali’s contribution to humanity better than the lyrics made famous by Brian McKnight and Diana King: 

“When one man climbs, the rest are lifted up… And when the long fight has been fought and won ...We will leave the world remembering when we were kings!”