The Best of the Muhammad Ali Birthday Tributes

Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali turns 70 today, and there has been no shortage of new commentary and repackaged classic Ali coverage to mark the occasion.

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Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali turns 70 today, and there has been no shortage of new commentary and repackaged classic Ali coverage to mark the occasion. We sifted through the tributes to an American icon to bring you the most essential pieces of media coverage that have accompanied Ali's birthday celebration.


Sports Illustrated, unsurprisingly, has the best collection of photographs showing Ali inside the ring. [SI]

The slideshow at Time's Lightbox blog gives equal time to Ali the marketing dynamo, devoting a slide to the iconic April 1968 Esquire cover that equated him to the martyr Saint Sebastin. In a small essay that accompanies the piece, George Lois, the magazine's art director at the time, recalls Ali as "above all...the sweetest, nicest person I’ve ever met in my life." [Time]

From Reuters, a picture of Ali's surprise appearance at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, where he lit the opening torch. The appearance comes 12 years after Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which has slowed his movement and quieted his voice.


Along with pictures, Time's birthday package includes a variety of famous names reminiscing on Ali the boxer and Ali the activist. Three of the most vivid recollections came from poet Maya Angelou, author Kurt Andersen, and boxing historian Bert Sugar.

Maya Angelou:

"I met Muhammad Ali in Accra, Ghana. I invited him to my house for dinner. He accepted and reminded me that he was a Muslim and ate no pork. I told him I was a southern Black woman who knew how to fry chicken. I told a person who works for me that I would like him to help me that evening because Muhammad Ali was coming for dinner. I warned him not to mention it to anyone. As the hour approached, I opened my door and heard shouts, The Greatest, The Greatest, The Greatest'—my block was filled with thousands—and he was."

Kurt Andersen:

"As a little boy, I was not a sports fan, but I was a huge fan of my father and of staying up late on Friday nights, so when I was five I watched a lot of boxing on The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. Therefore at age nine, three months after JFK's assassination, I gathered with my family around the giant antique radio to listen to Clay box—and beat!—Sonny Liston in Miami...My Sixties had begun."

Bert Sugar:

“One of the reasons Muhammad Ali was so remarkable was that the boxing fraternity did not immediately recognize what he was doing....That night he fought Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971—it wasn't a fight. It was an event! You couldn't get into New York that day, there was so much traffic. The limousines went from Madison Square Garden on 33rd street all the way up to 120th street, lined up to let people off. This is a man that means so much to us, and I've been privileged to know him through the years."

Classic writing

The lead story on Sports Illustrated's homepage is "The Epic Battle," Mark Kram's 1975 cover story from October 1975 following Ali's victory in the Thrilla in Manilla against Joe Frazier. Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated's in-house media critic, deemed it to be  the best article in the magazine's history. [Sports Illustrated]

"Ego," Norman Mailer's 1971 Life magazine essay written before Ali's first fight with Joe Frazier, is a terrific piece of boxing writing, and also makes a compelling case for why Ali -- "America's Greatest Ego" -- demanded the public attention unlike any of his peers. (Except for Richard Nixon.) [Life]

Ali's 2003 interview with Cal Fussman for Esquire's "What I've Learned" series shows how Parkinson's has robbed Ali of the rhetorical flourishes that defined his early interviews, but he still manages to get off multiple lines worthy of his younger self. Our favorite: "The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up."[Esquire]

New pieces

New York Times NFL reporter Judy Battista points us to this searching and appreciation of Ali written by veteran Newark Star-Ledger sports columnist emeritus Jerry Izenberg, who was in Ali's dressing room the night before his loss to Larry Holmes in 1980. Izenberg recallsIzenberg writes that Holmes was a 3-1 favorite at most sports books the night before the fight, but by fight night, the odds were even, thanks to one last push by "the heart money" (as opposed to "the smart money") to put small sums on the sentimental favorite in his second to last bout. [Newark Star-Ledger]

Tim Keown's "70 Reasons to Celebrate Muhammad Ali" is the most thorough of the Ali birthday listicles. []

Ali biographer Michael Ezra notes the irony of a country that wouldn't let Ali fight when he refused to fight in the Vietnam turning him into a national icon in his later years, once illness robbed him of his ability to speak with ease.  [The Guardian]

BBC boxing reporter Mike Costello gets Bill Clinton to share his Ali memories, which include an evening in a Michigan gym a decade ago where Ali "sat telling me jokes all night." [BBC]


On CBS This Morning, Charlie Rose had the unpleasant task of asking Dr. Jon LaPook, a Parkinson's specialist, what the outlook is for a 70 year-old-man suffering from the disease.

ESPN looked back at the bout between Ali and Frazier at Madison Square Garden from 1971, the so-called "Fight of the Century."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.