Muhammad Ali transcended the world of not just boxing, but sport as a whole, like no other athlete who came before him nor anyone after him, touching the hearts of men, women and children across generations in each and every corner of the globe.
His fistic genius inside the ring enamoured legions of fans in a prizefighting career that spanned over two decades, sharing the centre stage with and beating such contemporaries as Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and many, many others.
Of course, Ali wasn’t any ordinary sportsman and his exploits out of the ring were as incredible as they were in it. Below we take a look at five great Ali tales away from the world of boxing.
Muhammad Ali And The Japanese Wrestler
If you thought Rocky Balboa’s battle with Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan) in Rocky III was boxing’s first foray into the world of boxing-wrestling crossovers, you’d be mistaken.
In 1976, Ali, the WBC and WBA heavyweight champion of the world was targeted by Antonio Inoki, a Japanese wrestler who had been staging contests against champions of various martial arts to prove that wrestling was the ultimate fighting discipline.
Staged in Tokyo and fought under special rules that would become a precursor to the MMA we all know and love today, the actual event descended into a farce, with the majority of the fight spent with Inoki on his back, kicking Ali in the legs 107 times in total. The bout was ultimately scored a draw, something that some fight fans still dispute to this day.
A fun fact for some of the younger readers - Inoki would go on to voice ‘the Crimson Chin’ in Nickelodeon’s Fairly Odd Parents.
Muhammad Ali: The Broadway Actor
It’ll come as no surprise that arguably the most charismatic sportsperson in history would find his way to the big stage at some point and, in 1969, still in exile from boxing due to his objections to the Vietnam War, Ali joined the cast of Broadway musical ‘Buck White,’ as its lead actor.
Unfortunately for Ali, a life in showbusiness was clearly never meant to be with reviews of the show mostly negative. One writer for the New York Times said: “Muhammad Ali, also known as Cassius Clay for stage purposes, is heavyweight champion of the world, by right and dignity if not by name, and he is beautiful. Buck White, the new musical that opened at the George Abbott Theatre last night, is not quite so beautiful, and this is a pity.”
The show sadly lasted just five days but it wouldn’t be Ali’s last acting opportunity, starring as himself on US sitcom Diff’rent Strokes and opposite Kris Kristofferson in the TV movie, Freedom Road.
Muhammad Ali And The Release Of 15 American Hostages In Iraq
In 1990, defying the US government once again at the age of 48, Ali travelled to Iraq where 15 Americans had been captured by Sadaam Hussein in the build-up to the Gulf War.
The former heavyweight champion was criticised by both the White House and the press when he divulged his intentions. “These people traveling to Iraq are making a serious mistake,” said Joseph Wilson, the then top American diplomat in Baghdad.
Ali spent a week in the Iraqi capital before he even heard a word from Saddam and worse still, he even ran out of his Parkinson’s medication. As Saddam kept Ali waiting, the fighter took to the streets, visiting schools and mosques. “We hope and pray there is not a war,” he told the press, which followed him everywhere. “And with the little authority from the fame that I have, I’ll show the real side of Iraq.”
On November 29, Ali finally sat down with Hussein and promised him that he’d bring back to America an honest account of what he’d seen in Iraq. He also secured the freedom of every single one of the 15 hostages.
Muhammad Ali And The Man On The Ledge
In 1981, nearly a full decade before his voyage to the Middle East, Ali proved once again why people call him ‘the Greatest.’
When Ali heard the cries of a suicidal man threatening to throw himself from the ninth floor of a building in Los Angeles, the boxer had no hesitations in speeding towards the scene in his car, on the wrong side of the road, flashing his lights desperately as he raced to get there in time.
Heading straight upstairs, ignoring the cries of the crowd behind him, he proceeded to convince the man why his life was still worth living.
“You're my brother. I love you and I wouldn't lie to you. You got to listen. I want you to come home with me, meet some friends of mine,” Ali told him.
Ali ultimately convinced the man to come down and even accompanied him to the hospital. Afterwards Ali said: “I'm going to help him go to school and find a job, buy him some clothes,
“I'm going to go home with him to meet his mother and father. They called him a nobody, so I'm going home with him. I'll walk the streets with him and they'll see he's big.
“Everyday I'm going to visit him in the hospital. I told him I'd stay close to him.”
Muhammad Ali: The Torchbearer
In 1996, the effects of Parkinson’s on Muhammad Ali had taken their toll and the once loud and brash epitome of charisma had been hidden away from the public eye for some time, so when he surprised the world with his appearance at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, the world was reminded of how special he was.
On July 19, 85,000 people watched in person and another 3.5 million people watched on their televisions as Janet Evans, a five-time Olympic medallist in swimming, passed the torch to Ali, who, with shaking hands, lit the Olympic cauldron. The flame would burn for 17 days until August 4.
It almost never happened, too - Olympic organizers initially wanted hometown hero and Olympic bronze medal winner Evander Holyfield lighting the flame but lobbying from former NBC executive Dick Ebersol changed their minds and thus the images of Ali in Atlanta will remain among the most poignant and iconic shots to ever be captured at an Olympic Games.