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.
Ali Meets the Beatles (1964)
February 1964 was a titanic month in pop-culture history. On the 9th, the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, cementing their American ascendance. On February 25, Cassius Clay defeated the heavily favored Sonny Liston to become the champ. In between, on February 18, this new generation of photogenic celebrities met up. The Fab Four were in Miami Beach to record a second Ed Sullivan appearance, and Clay was about to fight Liston in the same city. Photographer Harry Benson arranged a get-together, capturing the Beatles’ playfulness and Clay’s inexhaustible exuberance. “It was all part of being a Beatle, really,” George Harrison later said of meeting Ali, “just getting lugged around and thrust into rooms full of press men taking pictures and asking questions.” But he did admit, “Muhammad Ali was quite cute.” In the years to come, rock stars would flock to have their photo taken with the man nicknamed the Greatest of All Time, including Ali’s labelmate Bob Dylan.
Ali’s Iconic Esquire Cover (1968)
When Esquire art designer George Lois prepared to have Ali on the cover of the April 1968 issue, he wanted to craft an image that conveyed the boxer’s tormented public image. (At the time, Ali courted controversy for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War. As a result, he was stripped of his title.) Lois hit upon the idea of depicting Ali as a martyr. “I wanted to pose him as Saint Sebastian, modeled after the 15th-century painting by Botticini that hangs in the Metropolitan,” Lois later recalled. After initially worrying that the source image was of a Christian, Ali (who was Muslim) finally agreed — but not before getting the blessing of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. The magazine cover became one of the most galvanic of the 1960s, elevating Ali’s political stance to the level of art. And it remains an iconic cover: A 2005 Radar story parodied it for a story about Tom Cruise’s tortured relationship to Scientology.
Ali Appears in Broadway Musical Buck White (1969)
In the late 1960s when he was forbidden to box for dodging the U.S. draft, Ali needed to make money in order to support his family and pay alimony to his first wife, Sonji Roi. One of the gigs that grabbed his interest was a role in Buck White, a musical that only ran for seven performances on Broadway in December 1969. Costarring Donald Sutherland, the musical, based on a play by Joseph Dolan Tuotti, concerned a black militant leader who addresses a black-power group. In the production, Ali sang “It’s All Over Now, Mighty Whitey,” a song about refusing to succumb to white racism. “I’m just about what they call broke,” Ali admitted at the time about signing up for the role. “I was stopped right in the middle of my profession. I’m not complaining over what they have done — I’m just saying, if I never fight again … the people will know, y’know, who the real champ is.” Thankfully, he got the chance to return to the ring, regaining his title in the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” bout against George Foreman in 1974.
Ali Makes a Kids’ Album: The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay (1976)
Of all the accolades Ali earned in his life, the one perhaps most forgotten by the public was his Grammy nomination for Best Recording for Children. The nod was for the album The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay, a wonderfully kitschy piece of mid-1970s kids’ entertainment that features the champ, Howard Cosell, Frank Sinatra and Richie Havens. Adventures opens with a theme song that extolls the boxer’s greatness in bizarre terms — “Who dumped the tea in the Boston Bay?/Ali! Ali!” — and then proceeds to chronicle the fictional epic battle between Ali and Mr. Tooth Decay and his evil henchman Sugar Cuba. Adorably playing the part of an iconic role model who’s teaching impressionable kids the importance of dental health, Ali fashioned an affectionately campy classic.
Ali Stars in His Own Biopic: The Greatest (1977)
Michael Mann’s moving, absorbing 2001 drama Ali was actually not the first biopic about the prizefighter. Almost 25 years earlier, Ali starred in a film based on his memoir that retraced his life from early Olympic glory to his later struggles with the U.S. government and his epic showdown with George Foreman. The Greatest has an impressive pedigree — it was written by two-time Oscar-winner Ring Lardner Jr. (M*A*S*H) and costarred Robert Duvall, Ernest Borgnine and James Earl Jones — but Ali more than holds his own, and it’s fascinating to watch him replay his life, particularly the darker chapters. (In an innovative move, the film’s boxing sequences use footage from the actual bouts.) Will Smith was a fine champ in Mann’s version, but no one could play the man as well as Ali himself could. As The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby said, “You might call Muhammad Ali a natural actor, but that would be to deny his wit, sensibility, drive, ability, enthusiasm, poise and common sense, all of which are the conscious achievements of an ambitious man who has known exactly what he has wanted for a long time.”
Ali Gets Animated for I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali (1977)
Lest you think Mike Tyson is the only boxer with his own animated television program, The Greatest of All Time got there first. Just a few months after his big-screen biopic hit theaters, Ali was on the small screen in this NBC Saturday cartoon series in which he has fabulous adventures, whether in the middle of a swamp or in outer space. (The episode titles serve as decent plot descriptions: “Ali’s African Adventure,” “Volcano Island,” “Oasis of the Moon.”) Occasionally dipping into the rhymed patter that highlighted his boxing career — “If he don’t wanna fight, he should stay home that night!” — Ali was quite lovable starring in what were, essentially, his own version of Scooby-Doo mysteries. Sadly, I Am the Greatest only lasted 13 episodes.
Ali Becomes a Comic-Book Star: Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (1978)
The Man of Steel has squared off against Lex Luthor, Batman — even, respectively, Jerry Lewis and Pat Boone. But in the same year that Superman: The Motion Picture hit theaters, DC Comics released this mano a mano showdown, whose title and cover led readers to think that the two American heroes would square off in the ring. That’s actually not the plot, though: It turns out that an alien race has come to destroy Earth, and Superman and Ali must team up to defeat them. (The two men’s only real bone of contention is which of them should fight the alien’s top warrior.) Superman vs. Muhammad Ali made the champ seem like a superhero himself, as well as one of the few people who correctly figures out that the guy in the cape is actually Clark Kent.
Ali Appears as Himself on Diff’rent Strokes (1979)
It wasn’t surprising that Arnold (Gary Coleman) worshiped Muhammad Ali — they were both ultra-cocky guys with a gift for gab. But the running joke of this Diff’rent Strokes episode from its second season is that once his dad (Conrad Bain) tries to arrange a meeting with the champ, everybody wants to muscle in on their encounter. After their father’s plan falls through, Willis (Todd Bridges) and Kimberly (Dana Plato) trick Ali into coming to see their brother by telling him that Arnold is dying. Floating on that bulletproof charm of his, the champ gets plenty of laughs playing the straight man. And he didn’t mind being the punch line: When the fake-dying Arnold pretends that he’s too weak to lift his head from the pillow, Ali identifies himself: “It’s me, the champ.” To which Coleman’s wiseacre replies, “Joe Louis?” (“This kid’s delirious,” Ali responds, with perfect deadpan comic timing.)
Ali Lights the Torch at the Olympics (1996)
Muhammad Ali showed incredible courage throughout his life — in the ring, standing up for civil rights, defying the U.S. government’s order that he go to Vietnam — but his bravest moment might have been during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. His appearance was a surprise; the Olympic committee choose to keep it a secret that he had been selected to have the honor of lighting the torch that officially kicked off the Games of the XXVI Olympiad. But it wasn’t that ceremonial act that was so powerful — it was his strength to stand in front of the whole world and reveal the Parkinson’s that was attacking his body. (He was diagnosed with the disease in 1984.) His left arm shaking, but his face still resilient, Ali was a portrait of grace under duress, still an inspiration after so many years.