One of the reasons you couldn't take your eyes off Muhammad Ali was your ears. You just never knew what was going to come out of his mouth next. Whenever he appeared, you had to stop and listen. He understood that as well as any natural comedian, and he constantly mixed his best material with something new and original.
If you were born after his last fight (a sad loss to Trevor Berbick, in 1981) and now see the heavyweight champion silent and shaking as he battles Parkinson's disease, it's almost impossible to understand the magnetism he had in his day. But you can start by imagining how it would be if the most important athlete in the world right now were as funny as Chris Rock or as creative as Eminem. Even that's hard to fathom. We don't have a single most important athlete in the world today.
"I outwit them," Ali once said, "and then I outhit them."
As the words on the pages above reveal, Ali was rapping from the start.
Check out the number * (at end of article) he dropped on champ Sonny Liston leading up to their heavyweight title fight in 1964, when Ali was still known as Cassius Clay. Liston was a 7-1 favorite, having knocked out his three previous opponents in the first round. But instead of showing deference, Clay called him "the big, ugly bear" and crashed Liston's training camp carrying a bear trap. (On fight night, the bear didn't even bother leaving his corner for the seventh round.)
Before Ali, sports was sports. After Ali, sports was entertainment.
And then he turned his words on the social issues of an era when blacks couldn't eat at the same lunch counter as whites. And then on a government that demanded he fight in a war on the other side of the world against a group of people who'd never attacked his country. His words angered many, they were bitter medicine, but you had to keep listening because you never knew if they'd be coated with the sugar of his humor.
"Comedy is a funny way of being serious," Ali said. "My way of joking is to tell the truth. That's the funniest joke in the world."
Of course, we might not have paid so much attention to his words if not for the unspoken acts—like when he somehow survived Round 5 of that first Liston fight despite nearly being blinded by a substance on Liston's gloves (most likely the coagulant used to close a cut on Liston's face). Or the day a defiant Ali refused to step forward for his induction into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Or that unforgettable night 10 years ago when he lit the Olympic flame in front of the world, his hand shaking from Parkinson's.
It was the silent moments that gave his voice its true power.
"THIS GUY IS DONE. I'LL STOP HIM IN ONE."
-12-YEAR-OLDCASSIUS CLAY DROPPING HIS FIRST PUBLIC RAP, 1954
"JOOOOEEEE FRAZIER. AIN'T HE UGLY? HE'S TOO UGLY TO BE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD. THE CHAMP SHOULD BE PRETTY, LIKE ME."
-BAITING FRAZIER BEFORE THEIR EPIC FIRST BATTLE, 1971
"THEY'RE ALL AFRAID OF ME BECAUSE I SPEAK THE TRUTH THAT CAN SET MEN FREE."
-WAITING TO HEAR FROM THE COURTS ON HIS DRAFTEVASION CONVICTION, 1969
WAITER: "We don't serve Negroes."
CLAY: "Well, I don't eat'em either!"
-THE REIGNING OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST AFTER BEING REFUSED SERVICE AT A MIAMI RESTAURANT, 1961
"I AM AMERICA. I am the past you won't recognize. But get used to me: black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goal, my own. Get used to me."
-THE NEW HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMP ANNOUNCING HIS CONVERSION TO ISLAM, 1964
"Don King's body did four years in prison, BUT HIS HAIR GOTTHE CHAIR."
-POKING FUN AT BOXING'S MOST FAMOUS PROMOTER, 1976
"IT'S JUST A JOB. GRASS GROWS. BIRDS FLY. WAVES POUND THE SAND. I BEAT PEOPLE UP."
-REFLECTING ON HIS CRAFT, 1977
I WON THE TITLE, BECAME CHAMPION, powerful and strong. And then God tries you, fixes it so it's hard to talk, hard to walk. I'm blessed and thankful to God that I understand He's trying me. He gave me this illness to remind me that I'm not number one. He is."
-ADDRESSING HIS BATTLE WITH PARKINSON'S DISEASE, 1999
"You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned? WAIT 'TIL I WHUP GEORGE FOREMAN'S BEHIND. I done something new for this fight, I done rassled with an alligator! That's right, I have rassled with an alligator! I done tussled with a whale! I done handcuffed lightning, throwed thunder in jail! Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I'm so mean, I make medicine sick!"
-HYPING THE RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE, 1974
"NOW CLAY SWINGS with a right, what a beautiful swing, and the punch raises the bear clear out of the ring. Liston is still rising, have picked him up—he's somewhere over the Atlantic. Who would have thought when they came to the fight that they'd witness and the ref wears a frown, for he can't start counting 'til Sonny comes down. Now Liston disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic, but our radar stations the launching of a human satellite? Yes, the crowd did not dream when they laid down their money that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny!"