Pop Culture Paid Tribute To Muhammad Ali Long Before His Death

Muhammad Ali was the greatest in the boxing world, and his death at age 74 has saddened fans all over the world. But long before the Great One died, he was a pop culture magnet. According to ABC News, Ali was the subject of countless films over his lifetime—and sometimes he was the star.

Will Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of the boxing legend in the 2001 film, Ali. But 25 years before that, Muhammad Ali starred as himself in a dramatized version of his life story. The 1977 movie was titled The Greatest, and it included footage from Ali’s real-life fights as it chronicled the boxing champ’s journey from the Olympics in 1960 to his title fights in the ’70s. Ernest Borgnine played Ali’s Trainer, Angelo Dundee, in the movie, while James Earl Jones played Malcolm X.

The 1970s were actually prime time for Muhammad Ali. The larger than life pop culture superstar turned up in comic books, commercials, TV shows, and even on the radio.

As part of his pop culture parade, in 1979, Ali guest starred on the Diff’rent Strokes episode “Arnold’s Hero.” The episode had Arnold Jackson (Gary Coleman) pretending that he was deathly ill so he could meet his boxing idol. When Ali turned up to grant the terminal tyke his final wish, he deadpanned, “I hope I’m not too late.”

And anyone who turned on the radio in 1975 has to remember this one. Ali was the subject of English recording artist Johnny Wakelin’s mid-’70s chart topper, “Black Superman.” The novelty pop song paid tribute to the boxer who “floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.”

You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Muhammad Ali sparring with fellow pop culture legend Michael Jackson. The boxer appeared on the 1977 variety show The Jacksons, where he showed Michael how to take care of business in the ring.

Also in 1977, Ali voiced an animated version of himself in the kiddie cartoon series I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali. The short-lived animated series aired on Saturday mornings on NBC in 1977.

Ali surprised Sylvester Stallone on stage as he was presenting at the 1977 Oscars ceremony, telling him he was the real Apollo Creed and accusing Sly of “stealing his script” for the Rocky movies. (Indeed, the Rocky character Apollo was based heavily on the real-life boxer.) The two then sparred on stage and Stallone got emotional as he told the audience he felt honored to be standing beside the boxing great.

In 1978, Ali’s life was replayed on the nostalgic show This Is Your Life. The sports legend’s walk down memory lane included a cameo by pal Tom Jones, who dubbed him “one of the greatest entertainers” of all time. But things got touching when the boxer’s adversary, Joe Frazier, appeared on stage and the two longtime foes embraced each other like old friends.

And while he made the rounds on many late night talk shows over the years, one of Ali’s greatest pop culture moments was on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2001. Taped footage showed the sports superstar giving a nay-saying Howard Cosell a piece of his mind before he was introduced by Winfrey. Oprah touted the legend as the most written about person on the planet, and he went on to praise Will Smith’s portrayal of him in the big screen biopic that was released that year.

At the time of his Oprah interview, Ali said he hoped the movie would help people to get to know a little more about him. Over the years, we surely did.

[Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images for NAACP]