Saddened to hear of the passing yesterday of three time World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali. We had been expecting this news not just for years but for many decades. It’s startling to think how young he was when it was first announced that he had Parkinson’s Disease — 42. That was 1984, and ever since that time, 32 years (!) we were expecting some sort of bad news about him. Usually it was, “Did you see Muhammad Ali at x? He looked bad.” But to use a boxing metaphor, he paced himself. He lasted 74 years. That’s essentially nine rounds.
I was between the ages of 9 and 16 during those peak Ali years between 1974 and the end of his career in 1981. I followed sports more than I do now, but you didn’t actually have to do so in order to have him on your radar. He was a show biz personality. His bouts and stunts weren’t just sports news, they made the news news, much like his outlandish contemporary Evel Knievel. He was on variety shows. He had a hit song written about him, “Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)” by Johnny Wakelin, which reached #21 in the pop charts in 1975.
Ali was constantly horsing around on television with nasal, monotonic ABC announcer Howard Cosell (see photo above). Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali (with Cosell as straight man) were a GREAT comedy team. Ali was always boasting (much more like the culture of pro wrestling than pro boxing) and his public utterances often took a rhyming form, positing him somewhere on the entertainment scale between Nipsy Russell and LL Cool J. Much anticipating hip hop, he always seemed to be angry (often pretend angry) but he was also screamingly funny. My God! He starred in his own 1977 autobiographical film, titled The Greatest! As far as I am concerned, that was the most inspirational thing he ever did. That inspired the hell out of me.
The title of this post is not hyperbole or even a stretch. If you read my one and only New York Times piece about the boxing and show biz connection, you know that it goes back at least the mid 19th century. And if you read the Sport and Recreation section of this blog, you know that a long string of professional athletes, mostly boxers and baseball players, went into vaudeville back in the day, with actual acts. If vaudeville had still been around I have zero doubt that Ali would have toured the circuits with GUSTO and audiences would have eaten up his act with a fork and spoon. But, as I wrote in the last chapter of my book No Applause, who needs vaudeville when there’s television and radio?
As much as ANYBODY, Muhammad Ali was someone who kept the spirit of vaudeville alive in the modern era, and that’s what we give championship belts for around HERE. More than though — he literally had his own variety show: