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Professional sports today is as much show business as it is athletics. It is a form of grand entertainment, the same as a circus, a Beyonce concert or an Avengers movie. They are all in the putting-a-butt-in-a-seat business. Often luring those butts into seats requires something outrageous — over-the-top antics and shenanigans that would embarrass a booger-eating class clown.
No one understood this dynamic better than Muhammad Ali. It wasn’t enough for him to be a world-class athlete, he also wanted to monetize his years of discipline and skill as much as possible. He knew the career span of boxers was relatively short, filled with pain, and that the longer you held on, the greater the danger to your health and risk to your life.
However, Muhammad’s method of entertainment was different than anyone else’s had ever been, probably because he had a passion and talent for all forms of entertainment that most athletes don’t share. He had movie-star good looks, which he liked to remind us by shouting, “I am the prettiest.” In another life, he would have been right up there with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte as big-screen hunks. He did appear in movies. At 20, he played himself in Requiem for a Heavyweight. The following year, in 1963, he fulfilled his secret desire to be an R&B recording star by releasing an album, I Am the Greatest, mostly of Ali (then Cassius Clay) trash-talking, but with him singing one song, Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” What elevated this project above a mere exploitation piece was that the liner notes were written by Ali fan and world-famous American poet Marianne Moore. Ali’s choices of entertainment were already being raised to pop culture icon status.
In 1969, sporting a three-story Afro and thick beard, Ali appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show to promote the short-lived musical Buck White. Ali sang a song from the play about black liberation. Not surprisingly, he sounded pretty damn good. But what’s remarkable about his appearance wasn’t the nearly unrecognizable face or the sweet voice or even the militant song, it was that Ed Sullivan introduced him, clearly uncomfortably, as “Muhammad Ali Cassius Clay,” even though Ali had changed his name five years earlier. The animosity over his daring to reject Christian teachings to embrace a “foreign” religion still rankled much of white America.
Those who knew Ali knew that he loved magic and would spontaneously perform magic tricks for fans on sidewalks, in restaurants, in airports — anywhere he could delight someone with a sleight of hand maneuver. This is what defines Ali as someone who lived for entertaining. It didn’t matter how many were in the audience, if he had a chance to amaze someone, he took it.
But the secret to Ali’s power and impact as a performer is the sly sophistication of his approach. He adopted the persona of the Shakespearean court jester, whose role in the bard’s plays wasn’t just to entertain the court with his foolishness, but to infuse his antics with insights of truth about them. His witty repartee made those bitter truths easier to swallow — and to keep them from cutting off his head for his impudence. Queen Elizabeth was said to have scolded her jester for not criticizing her harshly enough. In the end, Ali was not able to hide his outrage at injustice behind his entertaining disguise, and they did indeed come for his head, sentencing him to prison and banning him from boxing.
At first, while Ali pranced about shouting, “I am the greatest!” he was also mocking the prevalent stereotypes white America had of blacks. They were bit players in the epic drama of America. They were supposed to be humble, accept their lot with gratitude, praise God for whatever scraps they were given and recede into the wings when their role of servitude was over. Like the jester in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Ali saw himself as “wise enough to play the fool.” So, he deliberately goaded white America — and even some African-Americans, who feared his outspokenness would put them at risk. “I’m young; I’m handsome; I’m fast. I can’t be beat,” he would boast. And white America couldn’t give their money up fast enough to see this brazen black man beaten back to his place.
The golden rule of business is figure out what the public wants and give it to them. With the rise of the civil rights movement causing so much social turmoil and unrest, Ali figured out that what white America wanted was things to go back to the way they were. Voices crying out for equality silenced; blacks quietly waiting for whites to decide if and when to give them the gift of equality. Ali represented that upstart voice, and defeating him would send a message to other blacks speaking out.
Well, Ali foxed them all. Not only didn’t they defeat him, their efforts only inspired others — black and white — to fight for equality. Not just racial equality, but gender, sexual and religious equality. He never stopped being the entertainer, quick to launch a witty barb or make your keys disappear. But the message beneath it all was said with a grin on the lips, but with steel in the eyes: “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky, my name not yours. My religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
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