<
>

Ali's gift of gab grabbed the masses

One of the reasons you couldn't take your eyes off Muhammad Ali was your ears. You just never knew what was going to come out of his mouth next.

Whenever he appeared, you had to stop and listen. He understood that as well as any natural comedian, and he constantly mixed his best material with something new and original.

If you were born after his last fight (a sad loss to Trevor Berbick in 1981) and now see the former heavyweight champion silent and shaking as he battles Parkinson's disease, it's almost impossible to understand the magnetism he had in his day. But you can start by imagining how it would be if the most important athlete in the world right now were as funny as Chris Rock or as creative as Eminem. Even that's hard to fathom. We don't have a single most important athlete in the world today.

"I outwit them," Ali once said, "and then I outhit them." As the words on the pages above reveal, Ali was rapping from the start.

Check out the number he dropped on champ Sonny Liston leading up to their heavyweight title fight in 1964, when Ali was still known as Cassius Clay.

Liston was a 7-1 favorite, having knocked out his three previous opponents in the first round. But instead of showing deference, Clay called him "the big, ugly bear" and crashed Liston's training camp carrying a bear trap. (On fight night, the bear didn't even bother leaving his corner for the seventh round.)

Before Ali, sports was sports. After Ali, sports was entertainment.

And then he turned his words on the social issues of an era when blacks couldn't eat at the same lunch counter as whites. And then on a government that demanded he fight in a war on the other side of the world against a group of people who'd never attacked his country. His words angered many, they were bitter medicine, but you had to keep listening because you never knew if they'd be coated with the sugar of his humor.

"Comedy is a funny way of being serious," Ali said. "My way of joking is to tell the truth. That's the funniest joke in the world." Of course, we might not have paid so much attention to his words if not for the unspoken acts, like when he somehow survived Round 5 of that first Liston fight despite nearly being blinded by a substance on Liston's gloves (most likely the coagulant used to close a cut on Liston's face). Or the day a defiant Ali refused to step forward for his induction into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Or that unforgettable night 10 years ago when he lit the Olympic flame in front of the world, his hand shaking from Parkinson's.

It was the silent moments that gave his voice its true power.

Cal Fussman, who is based in Chapel Hill, N.C., is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and Esquire. In October 2003, Fussman wrote Esquire's cover story on Muhammad Ali for its 70th anniversary issue.