The Legacy of Muhammad Ali: ‘The Greatest’ Promoter

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Jonathan Eig, Randy Roberts and Davis Miller discuss the legacy of Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali, three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, civil rights leader and arguably one of the most celebrated sports icons of the 20th century, received a farewell from thousands in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky today. He died June 3 from complications related to the disease he brought so much attention and fundraising skills to — Parkinson’s. Ali did more than bring his sport to the world’s attention. “Very few people in our lifetime changed the American culture, changed the world as much as he did, especially for someone who is not in the position of political power or saw himself primarily as a political person,” says Jonathan Eig, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, who is writing a biography of Ali. He adds that Ali “was a terrible businessman — but a brilliant promoter. He was unbelievably gifted naturally at calling attention to himself” — and to his sport, one might add.

Eig joined Randy Roberts, a Purdue University history professor and the co-author of Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X, and Davis Miller, author of Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts, also a personal friend of Ali’s, to discuss the boxer’s life and legacy on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. 

In 1966 Ali was drafted and appealed for conscientious objector status, which was denied. His refusal to serve in Vietnam cost him his hard-earned titles, which were stripped from him and that kept him out of the ring during some of his prime years. Ali successfully appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. “I think in many respects the older Ali, the Ali with Parkinson’s, became an even greater man than the young, boisterous Ali,” says Miller.

Listen to the podcast above. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is your lasting memory of the Ali legacy?

Randy Roberts: Wow, that’s a tough one. When he started to die, I started to think about literature a little bit, because I’m an old literature guy, and I thought of Hamlet. There’s one scene in Hamlet that I really love; it’s Horatio talking to Hamlet about Hamlet’s father, and Horatio said, “I saw your father once, he was a goodly king.” And Hamlet almost corrects him almost to say he wasn’t a king. Hamlet says, “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”

Here’s Muhammad Ali. He wasn’t the king of the world. He was a man, and there was good and there was bad, and there was right and there was wrong, and I agreed and I disagreed with him. But take him for all in all. Put it all together, I’ll not see his like again. There’s not going to be another one like him. He was so generous.

Knowledge@Wharton: Jonathan?

Jonathan Eig: I certainly have to agree with that. You know, we run the risk of mythologizing people, especially when they die, and Ali does not deserve that. He deserves to be treated as a man, with all of his human flaws. But at the same time, we should be honest in our evaluation and say very few people in our lifetime changed the American culture, changed the world, as much as he did, especially for someone who’s not in a position of political power or even saw himself primarily as a political person. He didn’t see himself as an activist, but he changed the culture more than most people I can think of.

Knowledge@Wharton: But his personality — and part of this is also the relationship that he had with people like Howard Cosell — gave him an ability to use the media at a very early time to get his messages out. And they were powerful messages, the way he brought them forth.

Eig: That’s right. He was a terrible businessman and a brilliant promoter. He was unbelievably gifted naturally at calling attention to himself. Even in childhood, he just loved to be the center of attention, and maybe because he was compensating for the fact that he wasn’t a good student. But from day one, people talk about him just needing eyeballs, and he was brilliant at attracting those eyeballs, and then at using that to provoke and to challenge people.

Knowledge@Wharton: Randy, your comments on that.

Roberts: I would agree. He needed people, he loved people, but somehow, he had that charisma. There’s a lot of people that would like to get all the eyeballs on them, and they don’t get all the eyeballs on them. He was able to — he just attracted people. If he was in a room full of people, he was the one that everybody paid attention to. His first promotion, as Jonathan said, was really himself. He turned professional in 1961 or 1960, and early 1961, he had a fight out in Vegas. He was fighting a guy named Duke Seidenberg, I think, and he went on a radio show before the fight, and he was on with Gorgeous George. A reporter said to then Cassius Clay: “Cassius, how are you going to do the fight?” And Clay said something to the effect of “I think I’m going to win, I’ve trained hard, I’m ready to fight, Duke’s a good fighter but I think I’ll end up winning.” And then the reporter turns to Gorgeous George and says, “George, how are you going to do on your fight?” He was also wrestling at that time, and he says, “I’m going to kill him, I’m going to rip off his arm. If I lose, I’ll crawl across the ring on my knees, I’ll kiss his feet, but that’s not going to happen.” And Muhammad, Cassius’ eyes were lighting up and he’s thinking “Man, this is a good act, I want to go watch that fight.” And from then on, we see the first of the Louisville rip, the talking, the braggadocio. Before he’s selling any causes, he’s selling himself.

Knowledge@Wharton: Randy, let’s talk about the relationship that Ali had with Malcolm X. When you think about that period in U.S. history, realistically, when you think about the African American community, you think about Malcolm X, you think about Dr. Martin Luther King, and probably the third one on that list would be Muhammad Ali.

Roberts: Oh, I don’t think there’s any question about that.

“We’re talking about somebody who changed America and became one of the most popular men in America, and he’s one generation removed from a sign painter. He’s two generations removed from a convicted murderer.”–Jonathan Eig

You have to realize Muhammad was raised in a segregated town — Louisville. He was raised by a father who was bitter. Bitter that he didn’t get his due. His father thought he was a great artist. His father talked all the time and the one story that his father told was, if you become involved with white people, it’s going to lead to problems. There was a house firebombed not far from Clay’s neighborhood when a black couple tried to move into a white neighborhood. Their house was firebombed. Cassius is about the same age as Emmett Till, and so that Emmett Till story was one that feared him and scarred him, and he heard about it. So his idea was, I don’t want to follow Martin Luther King. I’m not about integration, I don’t want to go on marches. Maybe he was on one protest and some water was thrown on him, hot water, I don’t know, he told various stories. But what Malcolm X was saying, and what Elijah Muhammad was saying, was separation. There’s a white, blue-eyed devil out there. It’s bad. Whites are going to hurt you. Separate, separate. And that’s what he latched onto.

Knowledge@Wharton: Jonathan, you’re in the process of writing a book on Muhammad Ali. What are you learning right now about Ali that maybe you didn’t know before?

Eig: There are so many things, some of them fundamental things, that people have missed and not reported over the years. Just think about the fact that we’re talking about somebody who changed America, and became one of the most popular men in America, and he’s one generation removed from a sign painter. He’s two generations removed from a convicted murderer. I mean, nobody’s ever reported that Ali’s grandfather was a convicted murderer and his great-grandfather was a slave. This is an American dream story like no other because it gets mixed up in this tangled, very messy world of racial politics and the civil rights movement. Ali is a figure who could not have come from anyplace else but this strange American history that we’ve got.

And you know, diving into it and learning about how the Nation of Islam changed his life, how his illness changed his life, how the four marriages and countless affairs changed his life — he’s really just an endlessly fascinating figure.

Knowledge@Wharton: I’ll pose this question to both of you, and Jonathan, I’ll start with you. Without boxing and without the life that he had in boxing, is Muhammad Ali’s life that much different? I mean, he was such a personality. Could he have had the voice that he had without the boxing angle of it?

Eig: I’d have to say no. He often said, and some of his friends often said, if it wasn’t for boxing, Ali would have ended up being a janitor or working in a movie theatre, because he was not a good student; he had difficulty reading. It’s very unlikely that he would have found a platform, a voice. It’s very unlikely that he would have found an audience. Maybe he could have made it as an entertainer, as an actor, something that didn’t require a great deal of education, but it’s very unlikely that he would have had that kind of a platform if not for his great athletic gifts. And we shouldn’t minimize those — they were incredible. He had a God-given talent. No one had ever seen a boxer like him before, and if it wasn’t for that fascination with his gift, then I don’t think people would have listened to him.

Knowledge@Wharton: Randy?

Roberts: Would Louis Armstrong have had a voice without the trumpet? Would Frank Sinatra have had a voice without his voice? It is what brought him to the attention of the world. Anybody that moves from some other field into politics, it’s that initial field that gains them the attention. No, I think unquestionably, Muhammad Ali might have ended up frustrated like his father had it not been for boxing. It’s impossible to say, but it’s very difficult to see how he could have gained the attention of the world and had the world listen to him. Without boxing, if he had joined the Nation of Islam, and protested the war in Vietnam, and refused induction, he would have ended up in prison as Elijah Muhammad ended up in prison. His case would not have become a cause celebre.

Knowledge@Wharton: That is truly one of the key moments in his career: Him saying, “No, I will not go to war in Vietnam.” He did not have any issues with the Viet Cong, is the way he put it, and without that boxing career, as you said, he would have been in jail. There’s not much doubt about that.

Roberts: I think that’s right, and I think that if it weren’t for his protest over Vietnam, he might have also been remembered as a great boxer and brilliant personality. But that protest against the war really changed him, and gave him an iconic status — because he suffered, because he was willing to sacrifice his career. When he made that decision to skip the draft, the war was still fairly popular.

“He was willing to go on camera with his hands shaking.… That takes a very special, a very different kind of courage than getting in the boxing ring.”–Jonathan Eig

It’s while he’s sitting out, it’s while the government is denying him a right to earn a living and while he’s faced with jail time that his image begins to change. He goes from being one of the most unpopular men in the country to being seen as a victim, and by the time he comes back to boxing in 1970, the war has become massively unpopular. There are protests all over college campuses, and the Nation of Islam is no longer the most radical black group in the country. There are more radical groups. The country has changed, and Ali is suddenly seen as not quite as frightening and not quite as incomprehensible as he was in 1967.

Knowledge@Wharton: Jonathan — obviously, Parkinson’s was really a serious part of his life. He lived with it for quite a long period of time, and a lot has been made about the relationships he has had with a variety of people that have been battling Parkinson’s, including Michael J. Fox.

Eig: Yes. One of the really interesting things when Ali was first diagnosed is how public he went with it. He never tried to hide it, never tried to dismiss it, and really dove in, along with his wife, Lonnie, almost immediately to raising awareness and raising money for the disease. I think that another part of his importance is how he confronted that disease. He was willing to go on camera with his hands shaking — not just to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta, but also to do hundreds and maybe thousands of television interviews where sometimes he would fall asleep on camera. That takes a very special, a very different kind of courage than getting in the boxing ring.

Roberts: You know, I was giving a talk one time at Miami University of Ohio, and a program was put together on Muhammad Ali — and Muhammad Ali showed up for it. Here are these academic papers on him, and I can remember, it was kind of poignant for me that afterwards, there was some sort of obligatory cocktail party, and Muhammad was there. By that time, his ability to articulate had deteriorated significantly and for one time probably in his life, he seemed to be alone. Nobody was around him. So I said to the host, I said, “Look, do you have some cards?” And the host said “Yeah.” Because I know Ali loved magic, he loved card tricks, he loved sight magic, he just loved it. So I went over and I sat down and I did a card trick, and then he took the cards and he did a card trick, and by that time, there’s a group of people gathered around, and he did maybe two or three, and I maybe did two or three, and then he at the end points to me with a palsied hand that’s shaking, and he was able to get out his famous line, “You’re not as stupid as you look.” It’s a line he said to a million different people at a million different occasions, but it’s a memory that I will carry with me.

Knowledge@Wharton: Jonathan, did you have any opportunity to meet Mr. Ali along the way?

Eig: Yeah, I just met him in October and he wasn’t doing interviews, hadn’t been doing interviews for many, many years now. But I was able to talk to him, and tell him about the book I was writing, and to thank him for the opportunity. He didn’t speak back, but I think he was listening. I have the impression he was listening, and from what friends and family have told me, he was very aware of what was going on in recent years, and really enjoyed spending time with his family and especially his grandchildren.

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the things we haven’t really touched on is his love of Africa. Obviously, going over there to fight, and his fight against political inequity is a pretty important piece to his career as well.

“He was loved in Africa. He was loved in the Middle East. We think of him as an American champion. The Muslim world thinks of him as a Muslim champion.”–Randy Roberts

Roberts: No question. He saw — much like W.E.B. Du Bois at the turn of the century — the problem of the world was the color line. It wasn’t just the problem of America, it was a problem of the world. When he became champion, his first overseas visit was to Ghana and other African countries. He was loved in Africa. He was loved in the Middle East. We think of him as an American champion. The Muslim world thinks of him as a Muslim champion. There’s no question that Africa figured very prominently, and I think it goes back to the Olympics. I think 1960 in Rome was a really important experience for Muhammad Ali. He leaves a segregated neighborhood, a segregated town, and he goes over to Rome and suddenly, the great figures in Rome on the American team are people like Wilma Rudolph, Rafer Johnson, Cassius Clay. They’re all black.

There’s a New York Times piece that talks about trading pins — which all the athletes did — and they said the world champion of trading pins was Muhammad Ali. He’s going around the Olympic village, he’s talking to different people, he’s meeting different people. This was the Olympics where Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia won the marathon barefoot and became famous. So I think that experience showed him there was a larger world out there, and much of the world was a world of color and a world of integration.

Knowledge@Wharton: In some respects, his appearance in the Olympics that year may have led to the protest in 1968 by John Carlos and Tommie Smith as well.

Eig: I think there’s no question that John Carlos and those guys could not have done what they did had Muhammad Ali not come along first and shown that a black athlete could have a voice, that a black athlete didn’t have to just take what the white world gave him and be thankful. Ali changed that, and those guys were a part of the next wave.

Knowledge@Wharton: We now turn to Davis Miller, who is also writing a book about Ali, and he is a friend of Ali’s. Davis, welcome.

Davis Miller: Thanks for having me on at the last moment. Actually, my book’s just been published. It’s called Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts, and it’s so strange that it’s been published right at the demise of my longtime dear friend.

“… and then I threw three really basic martial-arts blows that he hadn’t seen before, kickboxing blows. And I caught him with all three — which was a mistake, because until then he’d been sleepwalking, and he woke up.”–Davis Miller

Knowledge@Wharton: Obviously, that’s a great coincidence and an unfortunate one. What are your lasting memories of Muhammad Ali, whether they be in the ring or out?

Miller: They’re both, and they’re all personal. I had the opportunity to spar with him at his training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, way back in 1975.

I was a kid, I was hoping to become a world champion kickboxer, and it ended up being my first ever piece. I wrote about it for Sports Illustrated when I was in college, and the act of being in the ring with him — which I don’t think anybody has much written about — it was stunning. As I entered the ring — and I’m 5’7”, 5’7½” on a good day and of course he was 6’3½” — and he turned to audience and said, “This man is a great karate master,” which you know, there was no truth in that at all. And he said, “When you get in the ring with me, you’re going to think you’ve been whooped by Bruce Lee.” And when the bell rang, he walked backwards, two steps backwards to the ropes and took a seat on the second strand in his rope-a-dope and invited me in, beckoned me in with a quick wave of gloves. I threw kicks at him, and he dodged them as easily as he’d been doing it his whole life, and then I threw three really basic martial-arts blows that he hadn’t seen before, kickboxing blows. And I caught him with all three — which was a mistake, because until then he’d been sleepwalking, and he woke up. Came off of the ropes as he had done with George Foreman and hit me with a single jab, and suddenly I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear, my legs went to soup. There were about a hundred spectators there, and they sounded like they were 18 miles away. He knew he could have knocked me out with a single shot, of course, but what he did instead is, he came and draped this long arm around my shoulders, and he said, “You’re sad; you sure can hit to be so little.”

He may as well have said he was adopting me, because he’d been my childhood hero. He’d saved me from depression after my mom died. Made me believe I could do anything. But my all-time best memory of him is a far more recent one. We were friends, dear friends, for 30 years. In fact, Lonnie Ali was writing me from the hospital just a couple of hours before Muhammad went out. But, years ago — Muhammad and I share the same birthday, 10 years apart — we celebrated his 50th birthday and my 40th birthday together with my then 6-year-old son, Isaac. We were at his home in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and we were there three days. Ali was this magnificent practical joker and he chased Isaac around furniture, jumped out from behind the furniture, would pick him up, throw him on the ground, tickle him, say things like “I’m the mummy, I’m Frankenstein, I’m going to eat you up.”

“He treated almost everyone as if they were family. Particularly as he got older. He would have always done it, but I think in many respects, the older Ali, the Ali with Parkinson’s, became an even greater man than the young, boisterous Ali.”–Davis Miller

Then, as we’re getting ready to leave after three really very lovely days — this was in January 1992, and it’s been snowing the entire three days. Not much accumulation, just a little bit. But Muhammad has already had Parkinson’s then for close to 20 years, and he’s wearing these slick-soled street shoes, and he decides he’s going to walk us out to the car, and I’m worried he’s going to fall. He would occasionally fall in the house then sometimes, and so he’s escorting us to the car, we come in, my son and I, and he sees the video camera in the back seat and he points to it.

And I know what he wants. He wants me to turn it on, and he’s going to be the public Muhammad Ali. I did and he picks up my 6-year-old son, and puts his head right next to him so that what’s framed in the camera is just Ali’s head and Isaac’s and he says some of the most amazing stuff. He says — and I’ll paraphrase, obviously — he says, “This man is going to be the next champion, he’s going to be the Great White Hope, I did not say dope, I said hope. And he will be the champion in 2020. Look at the face. 2020, I will be the manager, I’ll be 93, and we will be the greatest of that day of all times.”

Then, as soon as he finished that and I turned the camera off, he turned both to my son and me and said, “You’ll remember this when you’re an old, old man.” And I will take that memory — it’s a very commonplace memory, it may not mean anything to anyone but me and my son — but I’ll take that to the grave with me. That’s who he was. He treated almost everyone as if they were family. Particularly as he got older. He would have always done it, but I think in many respects, the older Ali, the Ali with Parkinson’s, became an even greater man than the young, boisterous Ali. When people say he could not talk in those last years, they’re entirely wrong. He would talk your ear off, but if you were in a public place, he wouldn’t do it. He considered it undignified and I think he became some sort of ailing family member to the world….

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