Ferocious, hilarious and a verbal dynamo, Muhammad Ali is one of the precious few people who can lay claim to being the 20th century’s greatest athlete. If his dominance in the ring were all we used to measure his importance, the champ would still be major. But once you factor in his political engagement, his principled refusal to support the Vietnam War and his movie-star charisma, you see why Ali didn’t just tower over his sport but also the cultural landscape at large.
The man born Cassius Clay didn’t confine himself just to boxing, though. In the more than 50 years he was a celebrity, Ali flirted with plenty of creative endeavors, everything from music to movies, high art (he was the subject of a Warhol portrait) to comic books. So we’re looking back at his 10 defining pop-culture moments — boxing was what made him a legend, but these intriguing digressions spoke to his magnetic personality and showman’s wit.
Ali Releases the Album I Am the Greatest! (1963)
A year after Columbia Records put out Bob Dylan, the label released another album from a poetic revolutionary. The mostly spoken-word I Am the Greatest!, credited to Cassius Clay, was conceived to sound like a boxing match mixed with the jazzy, smoke-filled vibe of a Beat-Generation coffeehouse. Spouting his braggadocious rhymes and predicting that he’d become the heavyweight champion in 1964 — a boast that came true when he defeated Sonny Liston the following year — Ali gives his words a swinging, musical virtuosity that’s a precursor to hip-hop’s most dexterous rappers. “This kid fights great/He’s got speed and endurance,” he taunts. “But if you sign to fight him/Increase your insurance.” I Am the Greatest! supplemented Ali’s rhymed pieces with a decent cover of “Stand by Me”: As a vocalist, he’s only mediocre, but that unflappable confidence and swagger come through in every note he sings.