5 great Muhammad Ali pop-culture moments
Muhammad Ali, who died late Friday evening, transcended sports and race, appearing in movies, TV shows, Broadway plays and pop-culture magazine covers long before LeBron James or even Michael Jordan. USA TODAY take a look back at some of his best crossover moments:
1996 Olympic torch lighting
This might have been the first time some ET readers ever saw the prizefighter. A gold medalist himself (for his light heavyweight feats at the 1960 Rome Games), he was chosen to light the cauldron at the Atlanta Games in 1996, marking the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics. The organizers somehow managed to keep his involvement secret until the big moment when swimming great Janet Evans handed off the torch. The tremors from Ali's Parkinson's Disease, with which he'd been diagnosed with a decade earlier, were apparent as he stood before a stadium of thousands and billions of TV viewers, making it one of the most emotional moments of any Olympic opening ceremony, ever.
Will Smith earned his first Academy Award nomination for his work in Michael Mann's biopic, which focused on a pivotal 10-year period covering the boxer's first heavyweight title win over Sonny Liston in 1964, his conversion to Islam, name change (from Cassius Clay) and refusal to heed his draft call to fight in Vietnam and their negative impact on his career, including the loss of his title and a legal fight that ultimately concluded in a Supreme Court win (dramatized in the 2013 HBO TV movie Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight). The film ended with Ali as an underdog in 1974's Rumble in the Jungle, in which he reclaimed the world title from George Foreman.
Smith, who by then, was a box-office heavyweight himself with hits like Independence Day and Men in Black under his belt, was happy to cede the spotlight to Ali at the film's premiere. "I will play second fiddle to Ali for the rest of my life," Smith told USA TODAY. "If I could only be second, if I could only get to second with Ali, that would be great."
Surprising Sylvester Stallone onstage at the 1977 Oscars
Stallone, whose boxing drama Rocky had been a big hit that year, was minding his own business presenting the Oscar for best-supporting actress when Ali snuck up behind him, jokingly accusing him of stealing his moves. "I'm the real Apollo Creed," he pronounced. Stallone posted a video of that moment on social media Saturday upon learning of Ali's death.
Meeting the Beatles (1964)
The Beatles were in Miami on their first U.S. tour, having just made their American TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb 9, 1964. Ali, who was then still using his birth name of Cassius Clay, was in town doing his final prep for his first world heavyweight title bout against Sonny Liston. A photographer named Harry Benson organized a memorable photo shoot of the boxer pretending to trade punches with the Fab Four (before laying them flat).
'Different Strokes' (1979)
Like a lot of kids in the 1970s, Arnold Jackson (the late Gary Coleman), worshiped Muhammad Ali. And like a lot of parents, his adoptive dad pulled strings to finagle an opportunity to meet the champ. But when that fell through, his brother and sister (Todd Bridges and the late Dana Plato) cooked up a fake Make-a-Wish scenario that brought Ali to their apartment to meet a "terminally ill" Arnold. Ali's comic timing turned out to be as precise as his moves in the ring.