Up Next

Muhammad Ali

How the Greatest shocked the world again

Ali’s larger than life presence inside and outside of the ring

The best-kept secret in modern Olympic history slowly emerged from the darkness into a spellbound stadium. Someone in the upper deck suddenly yelled, “It’s Ali!” and a moment later one of the most recognizable faces on earth shuffled into the light and the throaty roar of 80,000 people.

A black man, taking the torch 20 summers ago at the opening ceremonies of Atlanta’s Centennial Games, was igniting the Olympic cauldron in the capital of the New South.

A three-time world heavyweight boxing champion – so fast, so pretty in his prime – was now in an endless bout against Parkinson’s disease, a foe much more debilitating than opponents George Foreman, Joe Frazier or Kenny Norton.

American swimmer Janet Evans, who had won four gold medals, handed him the flame. Concentrating on his every physical movement, he held the torch aloft in his right arm as his left arm shook. And shook.

Until the cauldron was lit, when much of the stadium and the 3 billion viewing at home began openly weeping, knowing we had just witnessed human majesty.


Muhammad Ali.

With many of his motor skills already gone at 54, he somehow moved us again. Twenty years ago, he brought hope, love and a soulful defiance against that awful disease to Atlanta, stunning spectators and athletes at three different venues after his indelible moment at the opening ceremonies.

Ali even took home Olympic gold again.

Cassius Clay Jr. was but 18 in 1960 when he won the light heavyweight gold medal in Rome. According to his autobiography, when Ali returned to Louisville, Kentucky, he was barred from a “whites-only’’ restaurant. Furious over the racism he still faced at home, he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. His inner circle questioned the validity of the story and Ali eventually admitted he lost the medal, probably during a move.

Either way, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee at the time, presented Ali with a duplicate gold medal at halftime of the gold medal basketball game between Team USA and Yugoslavia.

The crowd in the Georgia Dome, which had no advance warning of the presentation, began to stand and cheer. Ali kissed his medal, raised his arms and blew a kiss to the crowd, almost as if he had just finished jumping rope for the cameras in Zaire a few days before toppling Foreman in 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle.

Muhammad Ali kisses the gold medal which replaces the 1960 gold medal he lost. The replacement was presented during half time ceremonies at the Centennial Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta Saturday, August 3, 1996.

Muhammad Ali kisses the gold medal which replaces the 1960 gold medal he lost. The replacement was presented during half time ceremonies at the Centennial Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta Saturday, August 3, 1996.

AP Photo/Susan Ragan

Moments later, Reggie Miller, Shaquille O’Neal and a host of U.S. basketball players mobbed him at midcourt, taking pictures just before the Yugoslavian national team snapped their shots.

His last appearance in Atlanta came at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, the day of the boxing finals. The U.S. team was about to go home without a gold medal in boxing for the first time when, well, impossible became nothing.

David Reid, trailing by a whopping 10 points to Cuban light middleweight Alfredo Duvergel, looked down at Ali at ringside between the second and third rounds, saying later how motivated seeing the champ made him.

Thirty-six seconds into the third and final round, he launched a short right hand at the Cuban’s head. Duvergel dropped. The fight was stopped. Delirium.

Before the medal ceremony, Reid was brought over to meet Ali, the man he remembered posing with Frazier in the yellowing posters on the wall of his Philadelphia gym. They hugged, took pictures together and Ali playfully balled his fist and whispered something into Reid’s ear.

”What did Ali say to you?” I asked him afterward.

Reid responded: ”He said, ‘You’re a baaaaad boy.’ ”

As Ali was being driven off in a golf cart at the basketball game, a reporter covering his first Olympics managed to take a picture of him close-up. He put out his hand and Ali reached for it.

One of the great anecdotes in boxing recounts how Ali kept telling Frazier during their first fight, “I’m God, I’m God,” every time Frazier came forward, throwing that monster left hook. Finally, Smokin’ Joe replied, “Well, God, you gonna get an a—whuppin’ tonight.”

He wasn’t God, of course. But he had an almost holy quality to him. When Ali’s fingers touched mine that day as he went by in the golf cart, it was as close to a spiritual experience as I’ve had outside of a place of worship.

He was so much more than the Greatest of All Time, the Black Superman. Atlanta became so memorable because Ali had been out of the public eye for a while and much of the world had only heard of his battle with Parkinson’s rather than seen it. Dick Ebersol, then the NBC sports president, actually had to lobby Atlanta organizers hard to get them to agree to have Ali light the torch.

They not only wanted homegrown Evander Holyfield, but were worried about Ali’s physical condition and how seeing him physically struggle would come across to viewers.

Once, when his hands were lightning and his legs were spry, no athlete had such supreme command of his physical faculties. But that night in Atlanta, one of the greatest athletic specimens the world had seen had little control of his body. His entire torso trembled, his left arm shaking violently.

But he stood resolute, holding the torch high, bending down to light the fuse that would carry the flame upward to the cauldron, toward the heavens. When he turned to face the crowd again, the stadium exploded in sound and sobs.

We cheered that night in Atlanta. We cried. The Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali, had shocked the world again.

Mike Wise is a former senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.