Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like An MC: Muhammad Ali and his moments in music
The late Muhammad Ali, who died late Friday at the age of 74, was fond of referring to himself as “the greatest” long before it was even true. In time, the boxer not only grew into the brag, but became synonymous with the title. At his pop cultural peak, which lasted throughout most of the ’70s, Ali was a larger than life fascination to fans and fellow famous notables, the latter of whom — no matter how prominent — would be eclipsed by his star-power.
Actors, musicians, athletes, politicians and heads of state all wanted an audience with the champ, while shrewd businessmen were keen to use his appeal to make a dollar. In turn, there were often some interesting moments when Ali crossed over into world of music. Below are some of the more memorable times when he did.
Cassius Clay — I am the Greatest!
While rising through the ranks of the heavyweight division in the early ’60s, the brash Ali — then still known as Cassius Clay — had already honed his trash-talking game to the point that his agents thought it only made sense to put it on wax. Each of the initial tracks on the 1963 album were listed as a round, with the challenger delivering boast after boast how he would take down the then world champion Sonny Liston. The “fight” ended with Clay knocking out Liston in the eighth round; in real life, just over six months later, it would take just seven rounds. I am the Greatest! also included a not-as-painful-as-you-might-think take on “Stand by Me,” which came close to landing in the Top 100, reaching as high as number 102.
Did Ali invent rap?
ESPN posited in a 2006 made-for-television documentary Ali Rap that regardless of conventional belief, Ali created the musical genre of rap with his emblematic way of speaking about himself, his opponents and life in general. Quotables like, “I’ve wrestled with alligators/I’ve tussled with a whale/I done handcuffed lightning/And throw thunder in jail” weren’t just run of the mill declaratory statements, they were responsible for inspiring people to spit rhymes. Bolstered by host Chuck D and a companion book titled Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali, the First Heavyweight Champion of Rap by noted art director George Lois, the theory isn’t quite flawless, but it does provoke viable conversation.
Sinatra shoots “The Fight of the Century”
Having announced his retirement from singing a few months beforehand, Frank Sinatra was looking for work in early 1971. A budding amateur photographer, he landed the job of shooting ringside the first of three bouts between Ali and Joe Frazier for Life Magazine. There were rumors Ol’ Blue Eyes was unable to snag a seat for the fight – at least where he thought he should have a seat — so he took the gig to be closer than even the front row and announcers. He ended up being the subject of fellow photogs in attendance while Ali was handed his first career loss. One of Sinatra’s snaps ended up on the cover of Life for an article that Norman Mailer penned.
Elvis outfits Ali
Well into his flashy jumpsuit phase, and like many millions captivated by Ali, Elvis Presley felt that the fighter should be outfitted in a similarly showy manner. The King presented Ali with a tricked out rhinestone robe before his match against the British boxer Joe Bugner on Valentine’s Day 1973. Despite being erroneously inscribed “People’s Choice” instead of “People’s Champ,” Ali was so enamored with the robe he wore it to the ring for his bout the following month against Ken Norton — and lost. Considering it bad luck, Ali kept the item but never donned it for a fight again.
Ali fights Mr. Tooth Decay
Anyone who says the ’70s weren’t a time for celebrities to do fucked up, off the wall things needs to check out this 1976 gem. It’s an album featuring Ali teaching the children how to deal with the biggest threat of their lives — cavities. The theme song itself is quite the audio candy, though having nothing to do with the supposed subject of the recording; instead of singing about dental health, there’s a whole chorus of singers going on about all the things Ali gets blamed for, like, putting the crack in the Liberty Bell, riding Paul Revere’s horse to signal the arrival of the Brits and throwing the tea “into Boston Bay.” Helped out by the likes of sportscaster Howard Cosell, Sinatra and Richie Havens, Ali eventually lets the kids in on the secret to defeating Mr. Tooth Decay (Spoiler Alert: It’s a toothbrush), before getting into the ring with the dastardly villain.
A music festival to match a rumble
Long before the selfie sticks invaded Coachella and Bonnaroo gave people a reason visit a sleepy town in Tennessee, then newbie boxing promoter Don King cam with the idea to throw a three-day music festival to build up interest in the mega fight between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, Africa. Under the guise of forging solidarity between native Africans and African-Americans, the festival featured performers from both sides, including James Brown, the Spinners, Bill Withers and B.B. King. Rather than break down barriers, the event was mired in controversy as King had hooked up with loathed human rights violating dictator Mobutu Sese Seko to assist in funding and putting on the fest. Zaire 74 was the basis for the 2008 documentary Soul Power and served as the backdrop for the Academy Award winning doc When We Were Kings.
Ali meets the Beatles
Some of the most iconic photos which exist in the world came from when the Beatles stopped by the training camp of Cassius Clay in Miami in 1964 while the 22-year-old was preparing to take on Sonny Liston for the world championship. The Beatles arrived in the United States for the first time just a week and a half earlier, and their photographer Harry Benson had set up the shoot with the British pop band who were driving fans wild up and down the East Coast. Though the images and camera footage from the day show a jovial Fab Four clowning around with the champ-to-be, they were actually furious at being upstaged by the cocky fighter.