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Muhammad Ali was more than just a boxer: 9 profiles on his life and legacy

Muhammad Ali rests just before his famous fight against Sonny Liston in 1965.
Muhammad Ali rests just before his famous fight against Sonny Liston in 1965.
Fred Kaplan via Getty Images

Muhammad Ali died Friday at the age of 74. While he's remembered as one of the best heavyweight champions the world has ever seen, boxing was only one aspect of his life. As he wrote in his 2004 memoir, The Soul of a Butterfly:

I would love to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love. And if all that's too much, then I guess I'd settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn't even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.

He lived his life dancing around the boxes people tried to put him in. As the world mourns, here are a few profiles that captured Ali's complexity:

The showman

Ali's bravado was legendary, but for those who interviewed him, boasting opened the doors to a deeper understanding of how Ali lived up to being the great athlete he proclaimed himself to be:

1) Tom Wolfe pointed out in an October 1963 profile in Esquire that being a showman was a carefully crafted performance:

Cassius [Clay] lets you know in a wide assortment of ways that his big talk is an act. He says it straight out. He says it obliquely with the bit about "You better not lemme go." He says it ironically, and perhaps unconsciously, when he sits in a $160-a-day hotel suite, looking out over city lights, and cajoles a battery of hip New York girls into standing up and being counted on the side of beans and bread as apostrophized by an alley singer nobody ever hear of. But it is also true that now he has had the view from the top of the mountain, as the phrase goes. It is doubtful that he is going to be able to settle, psychologically, for anything less. He is only twenty-one years old, but the latter-day career of Cassius Clay is going to be one of the intriguing case histories of American boxing or show business or folk symbolism or whatever it is that he now is really involved in.

2) Photographer Gordon Parks noted years later, in the September 1966 issue of Life, that Ali's act wasn't just for the public. At a time when he was called a "traitor" for refusing to fight in Vietnam and an anti-white bigot for declaring his unwavering love for black people, his bravado was a source of reassurance for himself too:

"Hey, Angelo, could I have whipped Jack Johnson in his time?"

"Baby, you could have taken anybody in everybody's time."

"And that's the beautiful truth, brother," Rahaman, his sparring partner, cut in. Such questions, such answers, I realized meant more to him than I had originally imagined. Muhammad seemed to encourage it all. Often he had asked me, "Why would a big magazine like yours want to do a story on me? Am I really that big? Do people really want to know about me?" He expected affirmative answers and he nearly always got them. He clearly needed these assurances against the bad publicity he was getting.

3) In 1998, David Remnick made a similar point in the New Yorker:

Nearly all the writers regarded Clay’s bombast, in prose and verse, as the ravings of a lunatic. But not only did Clay have a sense of how to fill a reporter’s notebook and, thus, a promoter’s arena; he had a sense of self. The truth (and it was a truth he shared with almost no one) was that he knew that, for all his ability, for all his speed and cunning, he had never met a fighter like Sonny Liston. In Liston, Clay was up against a man who did not merely beat his opponents but hurt them, damaged them, shamed them in humiliatingly fast knockouts. Liston could put a man away with his jab; he was not much for dancing, but then neither was Joe Louis. When he hit a man in the solar plexus, the glove seemed lost up to the cuff; he was too powerful to grab and clinch; nothing hurt him. Clay was too smart, he had watched too many films, not to know that.

"That’s why I always knew that all of Clay’s bragging was a way to convince himself that he could do what he said he’d do," Floyd Patterson told me many years later. "I never liked all his bragging. It took me a long time to understand who Clay was talking to. Clay was talking to Clay."

The magician

Ali was a master of illusion. He danced around his opponents. But he was also known for his magic tricks.

4) In his 1989 feature "My Dinner With Ali," Davis Miller wrote:

You ever seen any magic?" [Ali] asked. "You like magic?"

"Not in years," I said.

He stood and walked to the back of his RV, moving mechanically. It was my great-grandfather's walk. He motioned for me to follow. There was a sad yet lovely, noble and intimate quality to his movements.

He did about 10 tricks. The one that interested me the most required no props. It was a very simple deception. "Watch my feet," he said, standing maybe eight feet away, his back to me and his arms perpendicular to his sides. Then, although he'd just had real trouble walking, he seemed to levitate about three inches off of the floor. He turned to me and in his thick, slow voice, said, "I'm a baadd niggah," and gave me the old easy Ali smile.

5) David Maraniss, a bit taken aback by Ali's magician act, wrote in his 1997 Washington Post profile why magic was such an integral part of Ali's legacy:

What is going on here? In part it is just Ali amusing himself with magic tricks that he has been doing over and over for many years for anyone who comes to see him. But he is also, as always, making a more profound point. He has transferred his old boxing skills and his poetry and his homespun philosophy to another realm, from words to magic. The world sees him now, lurching a bit, slurring some, getting old, trembling, and recalls that unspeakably great and gorgeous and garrulous young man that he once was. He understands that contrast. But, he is saying, nothing is as it appears. Life is always a matter of perception and deception."

Poets and philosophers contemplate this, and boxers know it intuitively. (Ali ghost boxing before the Foreman fight: "Come get me, sucker. I'm dancin'! I'm dancin'! No, I'm not here, I'm there! You're out, sucker!") Back when he was Cassius Clay, he pretended that he was demented before fighting Sonny Liston because he had heard that the only cons who scared big bad Sonny in prison were the madmen. By acting crazy, he not only injected a dose of fear into Liston, he took some out of himself. Life is a trick.

The comedian

Humor was an undeniable part of Ali's charm, especially in his social commentary.

"Comedy is a funny way of being serious," he said in Esquire. "My way of joking is to tell the truth. That's the funniest joke in the world."

6) One example is Ali's story of encountering racism at a Louisville diner after returning with an Olympic gold medal in Esquire:

I came back to Louisville after the Olympics with my shiny gold medal. Went into a luncheonette where black folks couldn't eat. Thought I'd put them on the spot. I sat down and asked for a meal. The Olympic champion wearing his gold medal. They said, "We don't serve niggers here." I said, "That's okay, I don't eat 'em." But they put me out in the street. So I went down to the river, the Ohio River, and threw my gold medal in it.

The people's champion

Ali was keenly aware of injustice and fearlessly outspoken about it.

7) Film critic Roger Ebert gives the example of when the two watched 1979's Rocky II together:

"A great move," [Ali] said. "A big hit. It has all the ingredients. Love, violence, emotion. The excitement never dulled."

What do you think about the way the fight turned out?

"For the black man to come out superior," Ali said, "would be against America's teachings. I have been so great in boxing that they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan and Rocky."

8) In a 2009 essay, President Barack Obama remembers how this strength ultimately made Ali "a force for reconciliation and peace around the world":

We admire the man with a soft spot for children, who, while visiting a hospital in Philadelphia many years ago, picked up a boy with no legs. Gazing into the child's eyes, Ali said, "Don't give up. They're sending men into space. You will walk someday and do this," and proceeded to do the famous Ali Shuffle with the giggling boy in his arms.

We admire the man who has never stopped using his celebrity for good — the man who helped secure the release of 14 American hostages from Iraq in 1990; who journeyed to South Africa upon Nelson Mandela's release from prison; who has traveled to Afghanistan to help struggling schools as a United Nations Messenger of Peace; and who routinely visits sick children and children with disabilities around the world, giving them the pleasure of his presence and the inspiration of his example.

And we admire the man who, while his speech has grown softer and his movement more restricted by the advance of Parkinson's disease, has never lost the ability to forge a deep and meaningful connection with people of all ages.

Asked why he is so universally beloved, he holds up a shaking hand, fingers spread wide, and says, "It's because of this. I'm more human now. It's the God in people that connects them to me."

9) The late poet Maya Angelou wrote in Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World that his steadfast commitment to morality was the ultimate testament to his greatness:

Muhammad Ali was not just Muhammad Ali the greatest, the African-American pugilist; he belonged to everyone. That means that his impact recognizes no continent, no language, no color, no ocean. It belongs to us all, just as Muhammad Ali belongs to us all. It wasn't only what he said and it wasn't only how he said it; it was both of those things, and maybe there was a third thing in it, the spirit of Muhammad Ali, saying his poesies -- "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." I mean, as a poet, I like that! If he hadn't put his name on it, I might have chosen to us that!

He can be compared to any great man or woman. He can be compared to anybody in the world and not be found wanting. He can be compared to Mahatma Gandhi and to Marie Curie because he belonged to everybody. It wouldv'e been nice, I think, it he belonged only to African Americans, but it was never so with him. As a practicing Muslim, he also belonged to the Baptists, and so Baptist preachers would preach about him. So, of course, he could be compared to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, or Mr. Mandela because he is a person of such confidence in his morality. Other people will say that he had this expertise, that he was agile and wonderful, physically, but I think of the moral man. A moral person can be compared to any moral person in the world.

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