The Greatest may be no more, but we’re all living in the shadow Muhammad Ali cast as a cultural icon
To mark the passing of the man who transcended the boxing ring with his lightning wit and political defiance, here we recommend some of the best places to start learning more about Ali’s influence on culture, politics and society.
When We Were Kings
I’m so mean I make medicine sick.
Leon Gast’s seminal 1996 documentary focuses on the events during and after the infamous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. At the time most had assumed that the 32-year-old Ali was over the hill – and the young Foreman was set to be his greatest ever test.
Most of the film involves a combination of rope-a-dope action of the fight combined with insightful and candid interviews from those who knew the great champion best, giving a personal side to an event that feels as much a part of cultural history as sporting.
King of the World by David Remnick
Pulitzer Prize-winning sports writer David Remnick charts the rise of Cassius Clay in this utterly compelling book, which covers his early years leading up to his 1964 fight against Sonny Liston.
The psychological warfare a young Clay (shortly before he changed his name to Ali) waged against his older, street-wise rival is almost unbelievable. As soon as Liston touched down in Miami for the fight, he was waiting for him at the airport, shouting: “Chump! Big ugly bear! I’m gonna whup you right now!”
Clay’s antics had some fearing he was even insane. Far from it, it was just the first the world had seen of his outsized ego. This is the essential Ali origin story.
Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser
Widely regarded as the greatest book about The Greatest, Thomas Hauser’s 1992 study is rigorously researched, with contributions from more than 200 of Ali’s family, rivals, friends, and those who knew him best.
While it’s possibly not the warts-and-all critique some would expect about a complex man, the widescreen perspective offered by the range of voices helps the reader gain a thorough understanding of Ali.
Although it wasn’t a huge critical hit, Michael Mann’s 2001 biopic is one of Will Smith’s finest roles, and his physical commitment recalls Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. The realism of the fight scenes especially is impressive: all of the boxers were former or current world heavyweight championship calibre, and Charles Shufford, who plays George Foreman, was reportedly allowed to hit Smith as hard as he could, as long as he didn’t actually knock the star out.
Part of the film’s problem is that it tries to cover a pivotal decade in Ali’s life, from 1964 to 1974, a period which included his first heavyweight title win, three marriages, his conversion to Islam, his refusal to fight in Vietnam, his 1971 comeback against Joe Frazier and the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman.
But if you can forgive its breakneck pace, Ali is worth revisiting.
Superman vs Muhammad Ali
In 1978 DC Comics a fitting tribute to Ali’s seemingly superhuman talents. The title is a little misleading: in actual fact the boxing great teams up with Clark Kent’s alter ego to defeat an alien invasion of earth.
In the days since Ali’s death the cover image of the comic book has been shared widely on social media.
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