Commentary

70 reasons to celebrate Muhammad Ali

He turns 70 on Tuesday, and he's still "The Greatest." How? Let us count the ways.

Updated: January 18, 2012, 6:20 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This column contains language some readers might find offensive.

Every American, of almost any age, has a Muhammad Ali story. I was 10 years old when he fought George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, and it seemed like the biggest sporting event in history. Unlike a similar event today, which would include round-the-clock televised reports, this spectacle took place entirely in the imagination; we could read about it, but it was an exotic event in an exotic place, and it took the documentary "When We Were Kings" for me to confirm that the Zaire that existed in my mind bore no resemblance to the real one.

The six-week delay after Foreman cut his forehead while sparring only heightened the anticipation. The fight took place on a Wednesday night, and that fact alone gives you an idea of how much the world has changed since then. I don't remember it being on television, but I remember bringing my transistor radio to the gym so I could listen to the fight before and after our CYO basketball practice.

[+] EnlargeArthur Mercante
AP PhotoAfter Joe Frazier knocked him down and won in 1971, Muhammad Ali didn't back away. They fought twice more.

Boxing on the radio. How bizarre does that sound today?

About halfway through the practice, a dad walked in with his own radio and said, "Ali won. He knocked him out." It seemed impossible. Foreman was so big and strong he seemed unbeatable, especially for the lighter, older Ali.

At that moment, as a 10-year-old more than half a world away, I took it on faith that there was something magical about Ali.

Today is Ali's 70th birthday. He's both old and frail, but he remains a singular force in American sports. There are an infinite number of reasons Ali -- the Greatest of All Time -- is the most riveting, polarizing and enduring athlete of the past 50 years. Here are 70 of them:

1. Some boxers start their careers after committing crimes, and some start after becoming a victim: Ali's career started when he was 12, after he promised to "whup" a kid who stole his bike, and a Louisville cop told him he should learn to box before going after him.

2. No matter your age or political persuasion, a proud American moment: Ali lighting the Olympic cauldron before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

3. As the nation's top linguists attempt to decipher Floyd Mayweather's latest tweet, here's something that seems almost impossible to imagine: Ali was one of the first boxers to turn his back on the prevailing boxing culture, which in the '60s called for fighters to speak to the media only through their trainers.

4. So we got quotes like this one, which was not at all indicative of the way black athletes spoke in the late 1960s: "Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beating each other up."

5. Which brings to mind another thing: The loss of Ali's verbal poetry is magnified by the state of boxing now, with promoters responding to Twitter callouts and fighters bickering over dates for the one fight anybody wants to see.

6. "What's my name?" The question Ali repeatedly yelled at both Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell as he was destroying them in his first bouts after adopting the Muslim faith and changing his name.

7. Why the question? Both opponents had infuriated Ali in the weeks leading up to the fight by repeatedly calling him "Clay" as a kind of taunt; Terrell, an accomplished singer, even went so far as to sing a really bad song on a really bad set to make sure Ali had plenty of motivation.

8. The words Howard Cosell used to describe Ali's treatment of Terrell: "Pitiless taunting."

9. What Joe Louis, who provided the color commentary on the fight, said during the Terrell fight when Cosell said he didn't think Ali's behavior was necessary: "I think Clay can do whatever he wants right now."

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AP Photo/Ed KolenovskyMuhammad Ali was tried for refusing to serve in the military in 1967.

10. The two words a lot of men who fought in Vietnam still think first when they think of Ali: draft dodger.

11. So maybe they didn't get the right message, but the sentiment was there: LSU coach Les Miles showed his team the Ali-Sonny Liston rematch before the BCS title game last week.

12. The two top heavyweights on Ali's 70th birthday: Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko.

13. Great Moments in Confidence: "I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was."

14. Losing with dignity, a valuable trait that sometimes feels like it's been forgotten throughout the years: After his first defeat, Ali said, "I never thought of losing, but now that it's happened, the only thing is to do it right. That's my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life."

15. Ali had an indirect hand in much of what became popular in popular culture, and it's clear that rap and freestylin' are two of them: Two quotes to back up the assertion -- (1) "I'll beat him so bad he'll need a shoehorn to put his hat on," and; (2) "I'm so mean I make medicine sick."

16. The best possible heavyweight matchup on Ali's 70th birthday: Wladimir Klitschko vs. Alexander Povetkin.

17. Ali was, in addition to everything else, a cautionary tale: He stayed around a few fights too long, getting battered by Earnie Shavers and Larry Holmes when he was unable to summon the speed and dexterity of the old hands and legs.

18. One person Ali should have heeded: Ferdie (The Fight Doctor) Pacheco, who advised the champ to retire in 1977 after Ali defeated Shavers (barely) to defend his title.

19. Sports Illustrated headline after Ali's disputed, 15-round win over Shavers: ALI'S DESPERATE HOUR

20. A poignant Ali quote, just because it's hard to imagine many athletes formulating either the message or the verbal fluidity: "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth."

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Ali
AP Photo/Joe Holloway Jr.Muhmmad Ali first fought Jerry Quarry in 1970.

21. Where you stand on this is entirely up to you: Without Ali, there would have been no "Soul Brothers vs. the Quarry Brothers" double feature in 1972.

22. And, because every action has an equal and opposite reaction: Without Ali, there's a good chance Don King wouldn't have been around to promote "Soul Brothers vs. the Quarry Brothers."

23. Because back then, Vegas wasn't Vegas: Ali fought outside in places like Kuala Lumpur, where he defeated Joe Bugner, partly because the British fighter couldn't handle the tropical temperatures.

24. Three words: Closed-circuit television.

25. One "closed-circuit" story: On the night of the first Ali-Frazier fight, dubbed "The Fight of the Century," a Chicago theater was ripped to shreds when fans arrived to discover they wouldn't be able to watch the fight on closed circuit.

26. A cool Ali quote, just because it's so damned true: "It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it's the pebble in your shoe."

27. For better or worse: Without Ali, there would have been no Howard Cosell -- at least not to the extent that there was Howard Cosell.

28. Ali's career makes the idea of Tim Tebow being "a polarizing figure" almost laughable: If you think being an outspoken evangelical in 2012 is tough, try being a member of the Nation of Islam in 1964 and a war protester in 1967.

29. You want polarizing? We've got your polarizing right here: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger."

30. Here's a random but eclectic group of irascible sports figures: Ali, Al Davis and Jerry Tarkanian all either won cases before the Supreme Court or, in Davis' case, won because the court refused to hear the case.

31. "How much do your fighters sleep?" Question Ali asked trainer Angelo Dundee during their first meeting, after Dundee was asked to add Ali to his stable of championship fighters.

32. What that question means: There was bombast and controversy and flair, but there was also the kind of attention to detail and devotion to the craft that often gets overlooked.

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Ali and Cleveland Williams
AP PhotoCleveland Williams' shot at Muhammad Ali came in 1966.

33. Great Moments in Presumption: Journeyman Chuck Wepner knocked Ali down in the ninth round of their 1975 fight, walked to his corner and told his manager, Al Braverman, "Al, start the car. We're going to the bank. We are millionaires."

34. Braverman's response: "You better turn around. He's getting up, and he looks pissed."

35. Muhammad would probably distance himself from "Rocky: V": Because Wepner's fight with Ali is generally considered to have provided Sylvester Stallone the inspiration for "Rocky," we have Ali to thank for that, too.

36. Three of the many literary heavyweights who felt the pull of Ali: Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, David Remnick.

37. The top-ranked American heavyweight on Ali's 70th birthday: Tony Thompson.

38. Aside from continuing to fight well past his prime, this was Ali's worst idea: a 1976 exhibition match against Japan's Antonio Inoki, who was MMA before MMA.

39. Aside from the obvious, one reason the Inoki fight was a bad idea: The Japanese wrestler/martial artist pounded Ali's legs relentlessly to the point of causing blood clots, and Ali never moved the same again.

40. The night dignity took a sabbatical: The Inoki fight had to be the weirdest night of Ali's career, with one gloveless guy scooting around the ring on his back, kicking his legs at Ali's shins, while Ali stood over him, shadowboxing.

41. And while Ali fought Liston twice, Patterson twice and Frazier three times: As of Ali's 70th birthday, the current heavyweight champion of the world is waiting for his kidney stones to pass before he fights someone named Jean Marc Mormeck -- a former cruiserweight coming off a two-year retirement -- in March.

42. Probably apocryphal, but we like it anyway: In his book, "The Soul of a Butterfly," Ali recalled asking his brother, Rudy, to throw rocks at him, and no matter how hard Rudy threw, he could always dodge the rocks.

43. This description, from Mailer, of Ali's knockdown of George Foreman in the eighth round of the Rumble in the Jungle: "Foreman's arms flew out to the side like a man with a parachute jumping out of a plane."

44. For better or worse: Without Ali, there would have been no Don King, at least not to the extent there was -- and is -- Don King.

45. Before the Rumble in the Jungle, we were treated to this priceless moment in broadcasting: Howard Cosell, holding a microphone and summoning his deepest Serious Voice, saying, "It might be time to say goodbye to … the great. … Muhammad … Ali."

46. Obvious, but worth emphasizing: Ali headlined an era boxing will never repeat -- Liston, Patterson, Frazier, Quarry, Foreman, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Shavers, Holmes.

47. Just for the heck of it: Cleveland Williams.

48. One striking aspect of the tremendous Ali-Foreman documentary "When We Were Kings": Don King quoting Shakespeare, at length.

49. Well, and one other thing: King quoting Shakespeare at length while wearing a pink-and-white-checkered jumpsuit -- gas-station attendant style -- with white loafers.

50. Wait, this guy had … fun?: Amid the epic seriousness of guys like Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin (to name two who figure to bring their epic seriousness into our homes over the next few days), it's almost jarring to watch clips from Ali-Quarry II, with the crowd laughing at Ali's antics as though it were a comedy club.

51. One undeniable truth, though: Jerry Quarry was one tough dude.

52. Iconic: this photo.

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AP Photo/John RooneyMuhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston in 1965.

53. And, of course: the one at right.

54. Take all the in-stadium sing-alongs and chants and none of them come close to the emotional impact of this: "Ali boom-ba-ya," over and over, that night in Zaire.

55. Not to mention Chuck Wepner: Ali's career was so expansive he was part of three different rivalries that could be considered among the sport's best -- Liston, Frazier and Foreman.

56. When wading through old photos and video, one thing stands out: how lean and almost small the man seems in comparison to the lumbering heavyweights who followed.

57. The most complicated relationship between rivals in American sports: Ali-Frazier.

58. What Ali told Will Smith when they met for the first time after Smith agreed to portray Ali: "Man, you're almost pretty enough to play me."

59. What Ali did for Will Smith: erased any lingering image of the actor as "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" once and for all.

60. Something Manny Pacquiao and Mayweather might want to emulate as they conduct their calendar Kabuki: There might have been exceptions, but it sure seems Ali fought whomever, whenever, wherever.

61. Just a fact: Ali was the first man to win the heavyweight title three times.

62. Trivia: Ali's 1960 Olympic gold was won as an 18-year-old light heavyweight.

63. Ali's high school breakfast: raw eggs and milk.

64. What a little boy dying of cancer told Ali as he lay in his hospital bed: "I'm going to meet God, and I'm going to tell him you are my friend. "

65. One of the saddest sights in sports: Ali standing against the ropes, defenseless, while Larry Holmes alternated between punching Ali and pleading with the referee, "Stop it. I'm going to hurt him."

66. Ali's last fight: a sad loss to Trevor Berbick in 1981.

67. The one rivalry that endured: Ali-Frazier.

68. Not to take sides, but: In retrospect, it seems a little hypocritical for Ali to have called Frazier "Uncle Tom" while simultaneously preying on racist notions by calling Frazier -- rhyme or no rhyme -- a "gorilla" in the run-up to "The Thrilla in Manila."

69. A really, really bad idea that reeked of opportunism: Laila Ali versus Jackie Frazier, dubbed Ali-Frazier IV.

70. And finally, irony doesn't get much sadder than this: Ali, the mouth that roared, struck nearly mute by Parkinson's.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Senior writer, ESPN.com