Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest athletes who ever lived and arguably the most charismatic. His trash talking poetics are well documented in both film and print and an always increasing amount of books and documentaries are released on a regular basis dissecting every aspect of his life . Well, almost every aspect.
Between being on top of the sporting world, speaking out against the American atrocities in Vietnam, being demonized by the white sporting establishment, and appearing with the scotch drinking funsters on the 1970s era Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Ali dipped his aching fingers in a number of projects that were absurd in conception and a million times more ridiculous in retrospect. As a showman, Ali never shied away from appearing on television outside of the boxing realm in any capacity. An assortment of cameos on television shows like The Sonny & Cher Show, The Jacksons, Different Strokes, The Flip Wilson Show, The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts and even the occasional appearance in the other ring at the WWF, can attest to this. In this essay we will explore four of Ali's hammiest moments. His short lived Saturday morning cartoon, his vinyl records dealing with battling tooth decay and reciting poetry, the movie in which Muhammad Ali played himself, and the comic book in which he fought Superman.
The Greatest's worst television appearance stands today as his most enjoyable. I Am the Greatest may not have taught kids anything about modesty, but if anything it, at least by default, taught children that even the greatest could come out with a stinker. The 1977 NBC Saturday morning cartoon aired at 10:30 am and features the voice of Ali as himself (the show is also known under the title The Adventures of Muhammad Ali), the typically limited animation associated with all cartoons of the era, and lasted a mere thirteen episodes. The premise was similar to Scooby Doo Where Are You? and its several hundred imitators like Fangface, Goober and the Ghost Chasers, and The Funky Phantom. Muhammad Ali, joined by a pair of children named Nicky and Damon, both of undetermined origin (orphans maybe?), sleuth through thirteen stories trying to nab evil doers. In various episodes you might see him wrestle an alligator, explore a haunted amusement park (a stock story for 1970s Saturday Mornings for some reason), or fly to Africa for a rumble against criminals in the jungle! At the end of each episode Ali would appear in person to explain the moral to the camera, this concept stealing more than a little bit from Bill Cosby's approach in Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. [UPDATE: Here it is kids - a nice ten minute chunk of the show, not available when this article was first posted!] It doesn't help that if you google "Muhammad Cartoon" you get a totally different list of stuff than you would've had you typed the same thing just a year and a half ago.
Three years prior to his cartoon, Ali came out with one of the most amazing things he was ever involved with. 1974 brought us one of the most legendary vinyl records ever made, Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay. The album features an A-list cast of celebrities all in rather ridiculous poses. Frank Sinatra, for instance, appears as a desperate ice cream vendor insisting Muhammad Ali force the gang of children that's following him (more orphans?) to eat ice cream. "No, kids! Ice cream hassa lotta sugah innit! Ice cream causes cavahtehs!" This record has caused a lot of confusion for collectors of weird LPs over the years as it has been reissued several times with various covers and various portions added, changed, or deleted. The copy I own is not the more well known version we see pictured on the left, but a later copy with all the pictures excised and replaced with nothing but text and the awesome name has been changed to TEETH. Why they would want to mess with perfection makes little sense. It is the same album as released previously the only difference being they have added recently elected President Jimmy Carter to the mix, narrating some parts previously voiced by Howard Cossell. You can listen to the whole amazing album, more or less, here at The Generation Exploitation Podcast #13. The podcast also includes an interesting 45 on the British label PYE Records from the seventies by Jimmy Wakelin and the Kinshasa Band titled Black Superman (Muhammad Ali). I don't know if the song is categorized as reggae or calypso although someone has referred to it as "white ska" which is hardly an endorsement but it's still worth a listen. The song was one of two tracks by British artist Wakelin to deal with Ali, the other titled In Zaire. Now, not only did Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay appear in various incarnations, it also spawned several vinyl (cop out) sequels. I say cop out because the sequels tend to reuse a lot of the same audio from the original LP. In the gatefold of the original album is the disclaimer, "Watch out for our next musical comedy adventure, The Dope King's Last Stand starring President Jimmy Carter, Muhammad Ali, Pat Boone, Billie Jean King, and other celebrities." Yet another sequel LP is President Jimmy Carter in the Fall of Mr. Tooth Decay. If you listen to the original record however, you'll know that Ali had already defeated Mr. Tooth Decay, so it sounds like Carter might have been trying to take credit for something he didn't do. It features a cover with a claymation Jimmy Carter mouth! As far as I know all three of these records are essentially the same, the last two mostly re-using the same stuff as heard on the very first or expanding on it by including much of the material edited out of the original. A godamn shame.
Ali's recording career did end there. But that was not where it started. Now reissued on CD, is his memorable 1963 Columbia LP I Am the Greatest, which unfortunately is not the soundtrack to his cartoon of the same name. However, it does feature fascinating spoken word tracks and his own poetry. The CD reissue includes his hard to find 45s including his amusing cover version of Stand By Me. You can listen to selections from the album here. And while we're at it, here's some cool footage of Cassius Clay singing and reciting poetry: Cassius and Sam Cooke singing a song together in 1964 and Clay reading poetry while Liberace plays piano on The Jack Paar Show!
Back to 1977 and Ali would star in a movie which produced a plague of a song that ended up far more famous than the film itself. Before Will Smith, Muhammad Ali took a stab at playing the role of ... Muhammad Ali, in a motion picture titled The Greatest (what happened to I Am?). Despite the film's obvious fromage-laden value, the picture is actually quite nice to look at and shot rather brilliantly. The opening shadow boxing sequence featuring the George "genius to dreck" Benson song The Greatest Love of All is a pretty piece of cinema even if the song would go on to ruin peoples lives, particularly when made even more famous by Whitney Houston. Perhaps the film's most entertaining images come less from the novelty of Ali acting and more from the film's co-director. Cult favorite Monte Hellman has a long list of motion pictures on his resume dear to the hearts of Drive-in movie fans. Brilliant pictures like The Shooting (1967), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and Cockfighter (1974), all starring Warren Oates, established a legion of Hellman followers. His stint directing James Taylor in Two-Lane probably prepared him for his job of dealing with non-actor Ali in The Greatest. Veteran television director Tom Gries was actually the original director but died of a heart attack while playing tennis during the weekend. Hellman came in to shoot the rest of the picture, but which parts he actually shot remains unspecified, but the discerning eye can kinda figure it out. The parts that look like a TV show can be credited to Gries, the parts that look cinematic can be credited to Hellman. When the film was released Monte's name was not on it, although he has been attributed since. He does not, however, include it in his official filmography. A godamn shame.
In late 1978, after all of his records had been released, after his final appearance on celluloid had made its rounds, there was only one piece of ham left for the greatest. Muhammad Ali would need to fight Superman in a comic book. And not just any comic book, but a GIANT comic book. This one-off was an oversized special with a colorful wrap-around cover printed on heavier than usual paper. The cover not only depicts this ludicrous match up, but if you eye up the faces watching ringside you will see drawings of celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, Ali's old friend Jimmy Carter, Phil Donahue, Sonny Bono, Wolfman Jack(!), Tony Orlando(!!), and even Welcome Back Kotter's Ron Palillo who at the time was also enjoying the comic book treatment at DC Comics. Looking even closer, the ringside is also laced with several in-jokes including drawings of the annoying twerp who played Superman in the 1948 and 1950 serials, Kirk Alyn. Sitting not too far from him is Christopher Reeve! The most "in" of all the in-jokes belong to comic book nerds as we're treated to etchings of artists from the comic world like Wally Wood, Gil Kane, Mad Magazine publisher William M. Gaines, and Superman's fucked over creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Such a retarded treatment of "the greatest" would require the greatest comic book talent and DC delivered by employing comic legend Neal Adams to pencil the whole work. The plot scripted by DC mainstay Denny O'Neil however is not the greatest. Surely I jest you must be saying! Here is it in a nutshell. A madman from outer space delivers an ultimatum to earth. Unless our planet's world champion fights against his planet's world champion, he and his throng of alien soldiers will invade earth. Then a debate on earth itself arouses. Who is the true champion of earth ... Superman or Muhammad Ali? After much discussion it is decided it is Ali who will be sent to duel since Superman isn't actually from earth but Krypton. Well, hell, we all knew that so why the debate? A problem arises however when the evil alien gets wind of the debate. He demands Superman and Ali fight each other and then the winner will take on his galaxy's champ. Superman does not want to murder anyone so he returns to his "Fortress of Solitude" where he has his powers temporarily deactivated (he can do that!?) so as not to have an unfair advantage. Ali then takes Super under his wing and trains him in the finer points of boxing. It's really all for naught, or maybe Ali was just playing a wild prank, because in the end Superman has the shit kicked out of him by Ali. However, Superman has the ability to heal pretty quickly as we have seen the way he springs back to life even after being exposed to Kryptonite for long periods of time. I don't want to give away the ending if you haven't read it ... but what the hell. In the end Muhammad Ali is defeated by an alien and everyone one on earth perishes. A godamn shame.
So that is it. Muhammad Ali, heavy weight champion of the world and in his own special way, heavy weight champion of bizarre fringe entities in trash culture. The man spoke out eloquently against American imperialism for many years, and yet ironically, these humorous failures depicted here represent some of the worst aspects of American quick buck capitalism. Which at this point, what with the hours of entertainment derived from such, if albeit for all the wrong reasons, I am still up in the air as to whether it is a godamn shame or not. At this moment I am landing closer to the "not" side.
MUHAMMAD ALI BONUS VIDEO CLIPS
A heated 1974 Muhammad Ali appearance on The Mike Douglas Show can be viewed with part one here and part two here. A strange pairing on the panel with Sly Stone, known for his notoriously crazy talk show appearances like this one on Dick Cavett.