The Champ of Comedy
Muhammad Ali used humor as a way to comprehend the world, and himself
The Greatest was The Funniest, too. Some of my favorite writers have done magnificent work about the broad or personal significance of Muhammad Ali—I’d dig into Mikal Gilmore, Charlotte’s own Tommy Tomlinson, and the incomparable David Remnick—but not that many people seem to have focused on Ali’s humor, his profound gift for comedy. Ali himself knew it, and knew what function the laughs served. “Comedy is a funny way of being serious,” he told Esquire in 2004, long past the time when he could rhyme and one-line through the tensest of confrontations. “My way of joking is to tell the truth. That’s the funniest joke in the world.”
Has any prominent athlete ever been funnier? I can think of only one, Charles Barkley, who comes close to matching Ali’s intelligence and comic timing, and even Sir Charles can’t quite match the Champ for wit with dignity, without a trace of buffoonery. Check this out. It’s from when he was still known by his slave name, before he knocked out Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964 to win the heavyweight championship for the first time.
That Ferris Bueller look he gives the camera at 0:13 is just priceless, isn’t it? Even if the interviewer was trying his own ham-hand at comedy, it was incredibly insulting to suggest that young Cassius Clay close his damn mouth for once—and during an interview! But instead of exploding or stalking away, the young man turns it around like a professional comic handling a drunk heckler at a club. If you get too smart, I’ll knock you out! Then the knowing glance to the audience: Get a load of this clown, will you? The reporter tried to make Clay the joke, not realizing Clay owned the joke, and him.
We see it too seldom these days, from people famous and not, and those who want to be: the kind of humor that springs from a deep understanding of oneself and the world. “Humor is the great thing, the saving thing,” Mark Twain said. “The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments flit away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” That’s not to say Ali’s wit was always kind-hearted; Joe Frazier wasn’t exactly filled with a sunny spirit after Ali repeatedly called him a “gorilla” in public before the Thrilla in Manila in 1975. (If you watch the fight, you’ll know what I mean. It’s a wonder Ali walked out of the ring alive, and in ways that didn’t reveal themselves until later, I suppose he didn’t.)
But so many athletes and celebrities since Ali’s prime, from Terrell Owens to Johnny Manziel to Kanye West, have adopted Ali’s greatest-of-all-times bombast but missed the self-aware nod-and-wink behind it. Ali knew he was The Greatest, and he knew everyone else knew, so his repeated choreography of ego was part of the joke. Everybody else since then has just been yelling for attention, while the Champ, even robbed of the ability to speak, knew that the truth, as he said, was the greatest joke of all.
As Ali’s death approached Friday evening, longtime friend Billy Crystal tweeted a video of “15 Rounds,” an 11-minute, one-man summation of Ali’s career that he performed for a retirement tribute in Los Angeles in 1979. It’s maybe the best thing Crystal has ever done—delivered with spot-on impressions of Ali and Howard Cosell, affection, accuracy, and poignancy. It was funny as hell, too, of course. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Crystal began, “there’s very little that I can add or say about Ali that he hasn’t already said himself.”
ESPN and The Sporting News both posted items about Crystal’s performance and Tweet, noting Ali’s in-person enjoyment. But Crystal reprised “15 Rounds” 13 years later for Ali’s 50th birthday celebration, and it’s something else entirely.
By 1992, Ali was eight years into his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He hadn’t retired in 1979. He’d kept fighting for another two years. By then, he was nearly 40, and the effects of his disease were already showing. So when Crystal performed “15 Rounds” this time, it was against the sad reality that his impression of Ali would be the closest anyone would come that night to the Ali everyone remembered.
Yet Crystal forged ahead. There’s one moment midway through when the comedian, impersonating Cosell, reports the news of Ali’s stunning 1973 loss to Ken Norton, when the then-unknown challenger broke Ali’s jaw. “I’m in the hospital now with Ali,” says Crystal-as-Cosell. “His jaws are wired shut—perhaps poetic justice.”
Uh-oh: Awkward. The joke was funny 13 years before, but now? With Ali debilitated, practically unable to speak at all? No worries. The crowd got it, and a few seconds later, the broadcast cuts to the Champ, who even in his life’s coda is smiling and laughing along with everyone.