Carroll: Ali Was The Greatest

According to many surveys  Muhammad Ali was the most recognized public figure in the world in the latter part of the 20th century. He was an iconic figure for baby boomers who ranks alongside JFK, Elvis, and the Beatles.

In my opinion, Muhammad Ali is also the most important athlete in the history of television.

ABC Sports utilized its nasal Brooklyn lawyer-turned-boxing analyst, Howard Cosell, to interview Ali before and after the bouts. Ali’s playful interviews with the bombastic Cosell drew millions of viewers. When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to join the US Army on the basis of being a conscientious objector, it was Cosell, along with his ABC Sports boss, Roone Arledge, who constantly gave him a national forum. In turn, Ali put ABC Sports on the map.

Ali is unquestionably the most important figure in the creation of the sports pay-per-view market. In the pre-cable television days of the 1960s and 1970s Ali’s heavyweight championship fights were beamed into movie theaters around the country. Although big fights these days take place on Saturday nights, back then they occurred on Monday evenings since that was the slowest night of the week in the movie theater biz.

That’s why the most famous fight of Ali’s career, his battle to retake the heavyweight title from Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971 took place on a Monday. It was a battle of undefeated titans and Frazier eked out the decision in a fight that went the full 15 rounds. Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather were small potatoes compared with the interest in that first Ali-Frazier showdown.

Ali was a big fan of pro wrestling when growing up and he loved how “the villains,” would rile up the fans to buy tickets in the hopes of seeing them get their comeuppance. He frequently insulted his opponents in a manner that would make Donald Trump blush but to Ali it was just shtick to create revenue.

Sadly, Joe Frazier never saw it that way. I remember attending a press screening of the 2008 HBO documentary of “Thrilla in Manila,” which detailed the last of their trio of fights. Smoking Joe spoke after the film ended and was still livid over the insults that Ali hurled at him back in the day. When I brought up that Ali had always maintained that he did it just to maximize box office revenue, Joe refused to accept that.

Ali was only 74 when he died from Parkinson’s Disease complications. He did however outlive most of his ring opponents from the 1960s.The last big name surviving heavyweight from that era is Canadian George Chuvalo. That’s kind of fitting since Chuvalo went the 15-round distance twice with Ali.

The lone time that I met Mohammad Ali was in 1995 at the ESPY Awards at Radio City Music Hall. The ESPYs were ESPN’s idea of creating a glitzy awards show that would honor athletes the way that a myriad of awards shows salute entertainers.  The ESPYs were only in their third year at the time and they were a costly and time-consuming event for the Worldwide Leader in Sports. There was no guarantee that they would continue.

Mohammad Ali’s decision to accept a lifetime achievement ESPY at the time helped give the ESPYs priceless credibility and it’s a key reason why it has remained an annual event. It has become so successful in fact that this year it will air on ABC (ESPN and ESPN are both wholly owned by Disney) in primetime on July 13.

Yes, the toll that Parkinson’s Disease was taking on him were evident but Ali couldn’t have been more gracious to anyone who approached him that night. From everything that I have heard and read about him he was always that way with his fans. I know a lot of athletes who could learn from his example.

Of course Muhammad Ali was more than just an athlete. My favorite Ali television moment came when he was a guest on NBC’s “Meet The Press” in the 1980s. At the end of the interview Ali thanked the panel and then joked, “I am not used to being on classy shows like this!”

Last week I wrote about how rare it is that the Mets publicly honor their former players and that it takes milestones such as the 30th anniversary of the 1986 World Series-winning team to get them to do it. Contrast that with the Yankees who this Sunday will be holding their 70th annual Old-Timers Day. The Yankees know that it probably doesn’t pay in terms of cost-benefit as far as the bottom line of the income statement goes but it is an integral part of the Yankees brand. It connects generations of Bronx Bombers fans and it sends a positive message to their current roster. Incidentally the Phillies hold an alumni weekend every August. Good for them.

Mets radio voice and Cardozo High School alum Howie Rose broke out some old school Yiddish after Jeurys Familia recorded the final out against the Miami Marlins Saturday night after a very shaky ninth inning. “The Mets win in a very excruciating way. Oy abruch!” Rose shouted into the microphone. “Oy abruch” roughly translates to an exasperated “thank goodness.”

The New York City Football Club has made an art form of not winning games as was evidenced by Thursday’s 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake at Yankee Stadium. David Villa did convert a penalty kick but that was the only time that he was able to get the ball to the back of the RSL’s net as he endured several near-misses. To be fair to Villa, the incredibly poor sod did not help matters, as he struggled to keep his footing. Meanwhile, Villa’s fellow former European soccer stars, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, continue to give next to nothing to NYCFC.

New Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek deftly handled the question about whether he is a proponent of Knicks president Phil Jackson’s obsession with the triangle offense. Horancek avoided the term in his response and simply mentioned that it’s all a matter of floor spacing.

San Diego is the place to be in July as it will be hosting both the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and a week later, the largest entertainment consumer trade show in the world, Comic Con. It’s also a wonderful locale if you want to avoid the heat and humidity of New York in July.

Needless to say, if you haven’t made your travel plans yet I would do so ASAP. JetBlue has two daily flights out of JFK. San Diego has no shortage of hotels but here are two that I have always had a very pleasant stay. The historic Grande Colonial in the La Jolla Village section of San Diego and is two blocks from the Pacific Ocean and is a great place to see seals and sea lions. If you want to be closer to Highway 5, the Hyatt Regency La Jolla in University Town Center is close to shopping and mass transit (San Diego has a very good bus and trolley system). It’s gigantic swimming pool and sizable Jacuzzi make the Hyatt Regency La Jolla a wonderful place to relax.

I am neither a fan of diet drinks nor sugary ones so I am always looking for a beverage that will provide taste and refreshment without a lot of calories. I highly recommend Arizona’s Black  & White Iced Tea with ginseng and honey. It only contains 50 calories and generally costs only 99 cents at most retailers. It’s a good way to stay hydrated when the oppressive heat begins.

If you want to sample cuisine from Brooklyn’s restaurants in a very inexpensive way, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring “Brooklyn Eats” on Friday, June 24, at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott from 10 AM to 4 PM. Admission is $10.

Hats off to CBS for not treating summer as a wasteland as it will be bringing back “Zoo” and introducing two new series, “BrainDead” and “American Gothic” this month. Likewise ABC is reviving the old game show, “To Tell The Truth,” soon. I am surprised that no broadcast network wants to give a shot to that old staple, the variety show, with name talent. NBC has had success with “America’s Got Talent,” but that’s more of an update on the old “Ted Mack Amateur Hour” as opposed to  “The Carol Burnett Show” or “The Dean Martin Show.”

About the Author

Get connected with us on Social Media