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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHAMP
RICHARD O'BRIEN
January 23, 2012
Five decades after his first mention in SI, the man with a total of 38 cover appearances still inspires us, especially remembering the long road he traveled from denounced rebel to beloved icon
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January 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, Champ

Five decades after his first mention in SI, the man with a total of 38 cover appearances still inspires us, especially remembering the long road he traveled from denounced rebel to beloved icon

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MUHAMMAD ALI TURNS 70

For photographer Neil Leifer, the four days he spent early this month at Muhammad Ali's house in Paradise Valley, Ariz., were both a revelation and wonderfully familiar. Leifer had read dire reports that after decades of battling Parkinson's disease, Ali was on his deathbed, yet Leifer found the fighter alert and cooperative. Though Ali seldom speaks (except with his wife, Lonnie, and other family members), he "doesn't miss a thing," Leifer says. The photographer, who began shooting for SI in 1958 and has taken more than 170 of the magazine's cover photos, went out to dinner with Ali and Lonnie and, at home, watched Ali undergo the extensive stretching routine that helps maintain his mobility. "After the session," Leifer says, "the difference in his walking was noticeable."

And when it came time to take the photos, says Leifer, who first shot Ali in 1963 and has photographed him countless times since then, "it was like the old days." Ali appeared to thrive on the engagement. "The shot with his fists up was his idea," says Leifer. "He was every photographer's and every writer's favorite subject, whether you liked him or not, because he always made you look good."

The name Cassius Clay first appeared in the pages of SI in 1958. The reference was to a 19th-century Kentucky politician and emancipationist. Two years later, in our April 18, 1960, issue, the name showed up again, this time attached to a decidedly more contemporary figure. That week's FOR THE RECORD section listed the "20 diligent-punching young men" who had qualified for the U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials, and it noted that Clay, a 178-pounder from Louisville who was named after the statesman, had been declared the outstanding boxer of the AAU tournament. He would go on, of course, to become the outstanding boxer of, well, forever, and he would show up countless more times in SI and appear on 38 covers. In many ways he and the magazine came of age together.

Now Ali is turning 70. They're planning a big birthday bash for him in Las Vegas on Feb. 18. (Never mind that his actual birthday is Jan. 17.) The celebration—an "undisputed heavyweight event" at the MGM Grand Garden Arena that will be recorded and broadcast on ABC a week later—is a gala occasion for celebrities and the public to gather for a feel-good, charity-benefiting (and ratings-driving) tribute to the man who is perhaps the one universally beloved figure in the U.S. today.

But amid the accolades and the warm glow from the candles, it's worth leaning back on the ropes to consider what a profound change this lovefest represents. Today, with Ali physically diminished and every self-celebrating athlete unwittingly channeling the Greatest, it's almost impossible to see just how original and transformative a figure he was—and how divisive and even reviled he remained through much of his career. If changing times have brought him acceptance and affection, let's recall Ali's singular role in bringing about much of the change. Just as he did in those terrible wars with Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton, Ali on the world stage played for the highest stakes, at a level of risk unthinkable in today's sports culture.

These days a petulant tweet by Ozzie Guillen is hailed as an act of courage, while LeBron James's appearance in an edgy new ad campaign is treated like a statement of principle. A name change, meanwhile, is greeted not with controversy but merely with a newly lettered jersey (WORLD PEACE). By contrast, Ali, whose dancing, hands-down style in the ring initially drew harrumphs from the boxing establishment, faced far more withering fire for his actions outside the ropes.

After his upset win over Sonny Liston to take the world heavyweight title in 1964, the wide-eyed, 22-year-old Clay had shouted to the assembled press, "I shook up the world!" But it was his announcement soon after that he had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali that had the real seismic effect. Until then Americans had expected black athletes to follow the example of the quiet, apolitical Joe Louis. Columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote in the New York World Journal & Telegram that Ali (Cannon called him Clay, of course) was "a vicious propagandist for a spiteful mob that works the religious underworld." It was a view shared by most of the establishment media, which largely refused to use what Cannon termed the boxer's "Black Muslim brand name."

You think James got slammed for the Decision? Ali, too, once made a long-anticipated and controversial choice. Only it took place off-camera in a former Houston post office building, where on April 28, 1967, he declined to step forward and be inducted into the U.S. Army at the height of the Vietnam War. This refusal, on religious grounds, got Ali arrested and stripped of his title. Two months later he was convicted of draft evasion, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in jail, but he stayed free on appeal, and in '71 the conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Along the way Ali lost 3½ years in the prime of his career.

Ali's most famous quote explaining his refusal to go to war, "I ain't got no quarrel with those Vietcong," seems the very model of the prima donna athlete's egocentric worldview, but a quote later in the same interview isn't as often remembered: "No Vietcong ever called me n-----." The focus there went far beyond self.

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