Muhammad Ali is a paper saint now. Behind the mask of his Parkinson's syndrome the 64-year-old former heavyweight champion is a safe, nearly silent figure to be revered and admired, one of those icons on whom you can project whatever you want him to be, make him yours, the way you can with Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr.
Fierce and rebellious, brave and stoic, profane, devout, traitorous, patriotic, old skool or new, athlete or activist, African-American icon or citizen of the world. Yes. You bet.
Saints have their hagiographies and Ali has had his share. The latest is "Ali Rap," an hourlong special airing on ESPN Saturday night. The show, also available on DVD, is a companion to a pretty Taschen art book filled with the champ's quotations and designed by George Lois, who created the legendary Esquire cover in 1968 that portrayed Ali as St. Sebastian, wearing boxing gear and shot with arrows.
The show, hosted by Chuck D, starts from the shaky premise that Ali was a sort of godfather of rap and ends up being just another of those straightforward chronological biographies TV does so many of, only told in sound bites.
It's wonderful. Because the sound bites are all Ali's, and other than a few short introductions by Chuck D, "Ali Rap" wastes nary a second on anything other than Ali's words. The show is edited crisply but not showily. The focus is Ali.
"Before I heard Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash," says host Chuck D, the only other person whose words we hear, "before James Brown was singin' 'Papa Don't Take No Mess,' there was Muhammad Ali, riffin' on the human condition."
The show's promotional materials play up the pioneer of rap angle more than the show does, and the show in turn plays it up more than the book does. But Chuck D mentions Ali's "rhyming and flow" several times, and the roster of celebrities who voice some of Ali's words includes a healthy dose of rappers, including Ludacris, Rakim and MC Lyte.
A smorgasbord of actors, athletes, comedians and news anchors also recite the quotes, though none of them can compete with the copious film clips of Ali in his prime, which are what make "Ali Rap" wonderful.
Chuck D implies that the rhyming and boasting in rap descend from the champ, when the far more direct influence came from Jamaican dance hall toasting.
Ali was an original, but not because he invented rap. He has admitted he pretty much copped his act from wrestler Gorgeous George, and shoot, there's boasting in "Beowulf." My favorite bit of Ali doggerel, included in "Ali Rap," has more than a faint whiff of Mark Twain to it. It's Ali's explanation of his training regimen prior to "The Rumble in the Jungle," his classic 1974 title fight in Zaire against George Foreman:
I have rassled with an alligator
I have tussled with a whale
I done handcuffed lightning
Throwed thunder in jail
Only last week I murdered a rock
Injured a stone
Hospitalized a brick
I'm so mean I make medicine sick
Of course Ali had a huge influence on rap and hip-hop, as Chuck D says, but that's selling him short. He had a huge influence on everybody. While Ali was still active, every two-bit pug with a winning record was proclaiming his greatness to any live microphone.
"Ali Rap" glosses over the latter stages of Ali's career, what followed his regaining the title in Zaire and "The Thrilla in Manilla," the epic third fight in the trilogy with his greatest rival, Joe Frazier. There's no mention of the disputed decisions over Jimmy Young and Ken Norton or an out-of-shape Ali losing the title to novice Leon Spinks in '78.
Ali beat Spinks in a rematch, his last great moment in the ring, and poor Leon doesn't even get his name mentioned. There's almost nothing about Ali's two sad "comeback" losses, to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. Norton, who beat Ali in '72, is mentioned only in passing in one of the clips.
But no matter. It's those clips that make "Ali Rap" worth watching. What a sight he was. Whether reciting his scripted rhymes or bantering with reporters, he was dynamite.
In those old clips from the '60s he's more Chris Rock than Chad Johnson or any of the other athletes who pass for flamboyant today. "I just saw Sonny Liston," a TV reporter begins a question prior to Ali's first title fight in 1964. "Ain't he ugly?" Ali, then Cassius Clay, interrupts.
Ali was so pretty, so funny, so dynamic, so brave that I suspect it's hard to believe if you weren't around during his career that he wasn't universally loved. There's no indication of that in "Ali Rap." Ali talks about his critics in the clips, but it sounds to 21st century ears like the similar talk in any civil rights history. That was then, this is now, and we congratulate ourselves for being past racist authority figures blatantly attacking a black man.
But it was more than that. Ali was a polarizing figure. Sure, the racists hated him, but lots of other people hated him too. He talked too much for an athlete, not just a black athlete. He avoided the draft, joined the controversial Nation of Islam. His portrayal of Frazier, darker skinned than Ali and the son of a South Carolina sharecropper -- Ali grew up middle class in Louisville, Ky. -- as an Uncle Tom and "the white man's champion" was shameful.
Included on the DVD is the closed-circuit broadcast of the Ali-Foreman fight. You can choose to listen to it with commentary by Ali's longtime trainer, Angelo Dundee, and veteran Newark Star-Ledger columnist Jerry Izenberg.
Their conversation, more about the experience of Zaire than about the fight, might be worth the price of the DVD. At one point Dundee says he didn't bring his wife to Zaire. "Yeah," Izenberg says, "because you liked her."
In the penultimate round, the seventh, Izenberg mentions, almost in passing, "They're canonizing him today. The older ones who were around were not canonizing him back in those days. Believe me."
There are more rounded pictures of Ali, most notably David Remnick's book "King of the World." But it's hard to picture one as entertaining as "Ali Rap."
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NFL Week 14, Part 1 [PERMALINK]
Cleveland (4-8) at PITTSBURGH (5-7): The Steelers abused Tampa rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski last week and if Charlie Frye's can't go because of an injured wrist they'll get a chance to do the same in this one to Derek Anderson, a second-year man but one who hadn't taken an NFL snap before leading a comeback victory over Kansas City Sunday. Either way, the struggling Steelers rarely have a problem with the Browns lately.
Buster's pick: Pittsburgh (7-point favorite)
Previous column: NBA bumbles, NHL doesn't
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