Last week, the world lost former boxing heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali, known as “the Greatest,” at 74 years old. First making headlines in 1960 as a young man named Cassius Clay, his greatness extended from his hometown in Kentucky to Africa, to the Philippines, to Muslim communities, and around the world – including the Miracle Mile and Hollywood.
In the few days since he passed, stories about the champ flooded the country’s conscience from newspapers to social media feeds – about his grace and power in the ring, about his loud and self-aggrandizing poetry, and about his activism and courage in the name of peace. The reaction further justifies his nickname, but at the same time introduces ambiguity as to which aspect of Ali’s life the term “greatest” applies to.
Nicknames to the effect of “the best ever” are applied to athletes in every sport – Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Babe Ruth – and for good reason. The same applies to Ali, who became a three-time heavyweight champion and Olympic gold medalist. He delivered theatrical performances named the “Fight of the Century,” “The Rumble in the Jungle” and the “Thrilla in Manila,” and his highlights are still as thrilling in today’s YouTube era.
But Ali’s personality and activism polarized generations and helped him transcend his sport light-years past any of the other “great ones.” The stories filling newspapers and social media feeds from former boxing reporters and sports columnists who met Ali are just as much about his presence and his unmatched charisma as they are about his achievements in the ring. They’re about how he was the best athlete in a time when boxing meant more than it does today, and also about how he redefined “self-promotion” like a hip-hop lyricist before the music genre existed.
“I done handcuffed lightning, and thrown thunder in jail. That’s bad. Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick,” he quipped.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t,” he said before beating George Foreman.
The stories are also about how he embraced his fame and how he never said no to an autograph or a photo request. He was one of the most recognizable people on the planet and never shied away from the spotlight.
Bernie Shine, a Hancock Park resident, remembers when Ali lived in the neighborhood in the 1980s at 55 Fremont Place. Shine was driving through Hancock Park looking for an address and pulled over to check his Thomas Guide. He heard a group of kids yelling, “Ali! Ali! Ali!” as another car pulled up, and when he looked over, he saw Muhammad Ali pulled his car over too, nearby. And soon, more kids arrived.
“Ali gets out of his car and talks to all these kids. He reaches back in the car and gets a pen and paper and starts signing autographs,” Shine said. “I watched that and thought, there’s a card-carrying man in every sense. It was beautiful, there was no audience, no press, he just did this for those kids. It was a great moment and speaks volumes to what he was about.”
Ali was even credited with saving a life in the Miracle Mile.
In January 1981, a 21-year-old man climbed to the ninth floor of a Miracle Mile office building at 5410 Wilshire Blvd. and threatened to jump. A crowd began to form and a police psychiatrist and minister tried to convince the man to come down, but with no success. As the crowd grew, police cleared Wilshire Boulevard from Dunsmuir to La Brea Avenues.
Ali was nearby and heard about the situation and volunteered to help. He ran up to the ninth floor, went to the nearest window and yelled out to the man.
“You’re my brother,” he said. “I love you and I couldn’t lie to you.”
After talking, the man agreed to come down. He was taken to a hospital, and Ali promised to buy him clothes, help him find a job and visited him the next day.
“Former heavyweight champions slip out of the news as easily as ex-presidents. But Muhammad Ali was never your garden variety champion of all the world,” said Walter Cronkite, reporting the story for CBS. “Yesterday in Los Angeles, he responded like a superhero when a distraught man threatened suicide.”
Ali was also an activist for civil rights, peace and love. Shortly after he “shook up the world” in 1964 at the age of 22 by beating the seemingly unbeatable Sonny Liston, Ali – born Cassius Clay – changed his name and converted to Islam, exposing more and more Americans to the Muslim religion as he gained popularity. A few years later, he refused to serve with the armed forces in the Vietnam War, by famously stating, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” he said. “This is the day when such evils must come to an end.”
Ali’s individuality and reverence for faith extended to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2002. Of the more than 2,580 stars, only Ali’s is not on the ground.
Ana Martinez, producer of the Walk of Fame, said Ali almost turned down the opportunity for a star because he didn’t want to disgrace the Prophet Muhammad by putting the name he assumed on the sidewalk for people to walk on and disrespect. Ali also didn’t want people stepping on his name either. Martinez said the late honorary Mayor of Hollywood and Walk of Fame committee chair, Johnny Grant, decided he would grant Ali’s request to bend the rules. Ali’s star was set into the wall at the entrance of the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.
“Muhammad Ali is one of the most famous showmen in the world.” Grant said in 2002. “His composite career includes world championship boxing, movies, television, recording and philanthropy. Since the day he won worldwide recognition with an Olympic gold medal, his life has been walking theater.”
Martinez said according to security at the Hollywood & Highland Center during the two-day weekend after Ali died, approximately 8,000 people visited his star. More people from around the world visiting Los Angeles continued to line up this week to visit the star and remember Ali and his greatness – whether for his athletic dominance, for his captivating personality or his heart and the influence he had on people around the world.
“Muhammad Ali gave us incredible skill as a fighter, an incomparable gift for words and a peerless legacy as a sports and cultural icon. He also modeled the extraordinary power of self-determination — inspiring millions to treasure their humanity, claim their dignity and give all they have to the global causes of peace, justice and equality,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Los Angeles mourns with the entire Ali family. ‘The Greatest’ is no longer with us in body, but his spirit lives in the hearts of all who were touched by his grace and strength.”
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