What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.

Not including Tiger Woods on a list of the 50 Greatest Black Athletes is beyond an oversight — it’s an injustice Tiger, even more than being one of the most accomplished and decorated athletes who ever lived, is the greatest lightning rod sports has seen since a young Ali

Let’s get something straight: Any ranking of the greatest black athletes ever that doesn’t include Tiger Woods is not something I can get behind. This list, the result of public responses to surveys conducted by SurveyMonkey for The Undefeated, could be called “50 Great Athletes People Admire Most” or “Americans’ 50 Favorite Black Athletes.” But it ain’t a credible list of the greatest if it doesn’t include Tiger.

You can dislike Tiger and you can dislike golf, but if you fail to acknowledge his competitive brilliance, his dominance of the oldest sport on the planet, his impact culturally, athletically and economically, then you should recuse yourself from weighing in on an effort to rank the greatest black athletes. There’s no responsible definition of “great” in the context of sports that Tiger Woods doesn’t fit. Any conversation that isn’t driven by personal agenda couldn’t put him any lower than 10th.

Dumping on Tiger became a sport sometime around Thanksgiving 2009, and it hasn’t let up. Surely, some of the folks surveyed hold it against him because of his salacious infidelities, others because he called himself “Cablinasian” or whatever that was 20 years ago, others because he married a white woman, others because his body broke down and he couldn’t catch Jack Nicklaus, others because he didn’t play football or baseball but made more money than anybody who ever played either. Tiger, even more than being one of the most accomplished and decorated athletes who has ever lived, is the greatest lightning rod sports has seen since a young Ali.

But none of that speaks to the criteria. Eldrick Woods is (or was) otherworldly great, and he’s black (or as black as some other people on that list). If it’s easier for people to list, when asked, Gabby Douglas or Simone Biles, go right ahead. They’re great and black AND admirable, and there’s not one reason to object to either. But if you think either — or the great Herschel Walker, for that matter — has had 1/100th the impact of Tiger Woods the golfer, then you’re delusional.

I have five personal heroes who made the list, four of them childhood idols (Gale Sayers, Ernie Banks, Arthur Ashe and Walter Payton) and one who is to this very day one of my adult heroes, a man whose career I covered and whose life is exemplary (David Robinson). But I wouldn’t try to make the case that any one of those five was the best ever in the sport he played (well, maybe Payton) or created the drama week after week after week for more than a decade that Tiger did … or dramatically altered his sport the way Tiger did, or redefined what a participant in that sport can look like the way Tiger did.

I’d like to say that his résumé needs no review, but clearly (and sadly) from the results of this flawed exercise, it does. At age 20 he became the first man to win three consecutive U.S. amateur titles. Without having played a single tournament as a professional, he signed the most lucrative endorsement contracts in golf history (and if you think Nike pays hundreds of millions to nonathletes, go ahead and keep deluding yourself). He was the youngest to win the Masters, the fastest ever to ascend to No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings and, at 24, the youngest to win the career Grand Slam. You know how many people have twice been named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year? One. Tiger Woods. Not Jordan, not Ali — Tiger freakin’ Woods.

He held down the No. 1 ranking for 281 consecutive weeks, which is to say five-plus years. The Associated Press named him Male Athlete of the Year a record four times. Not Tom Brady, Tiger Woods. Golf, whether we’re talking prize money, TV ratings or weekend hacker participation, shot to the heavens when Tiger came aboard, and they’re sinking like a stone now that he’s gone. Nike, in the context of golf, was a startup company, and Tiger made it the worldwide leader in golf apparel. When he limped out of contention, Nike waved bye-bye to the business of making clubs and balls. Buick was so convinced that Tiger’s association with its cars spiked their sales, the company signed him to a $40 million endorsement deal.

You want to define Tiger Woods by competitive impact: Only Sarazen, Hogan, Player and Nicklaus have all won the four major championships that constitute the Grand Slam. And only Tiger has won all four consecutively.

You want to define Tiger by economic impact: Forbes says only Oprah Winfrey, among people of color, is richer. Golf Digest reported he made nearly $770 million and will soon pass $1 billion. You want cultural impact? Every time he tees it up, even the people who were too dumb to appreciate him from 1996 to 2007 are now begging for a comeback because they realize, as every business in the golf industry does, that Rory and Jordan and DJ and all the young guys put together can’t add up to half of Tiger Woods. He’s still the world’s most recognizable golfer, the world’s richest and most celebrated golfer. Bo Jackson, who made the list, spends most every day of every week of his second life trying to be like Tiger.

And while it’s difficult at best for most folks to muster up any admiration for Tiger these days, what the folks who participated in the survey collectively also fail to acknowledge is that Tiger conquered a sport that directed a whole lot of hostility his way. He wasn’t Jackie Robinson, but it wasn’t like he was walking into an NBA arena every night, especially his first two or three years on tour.

In the context of how we measure athletes, there’s no category in which Tiger Woods comes up short. He’s either the second greatest person to ever compete in his sport (to Nicklaus) or No. 1. The other people who qualify for that discussion in their respective sports (Jim Brown, Jordan, Magic, Bill Russell, Ali, Joe Louis, Serena Williams, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt, LeBron) are all included.

Woods being left off is a glaring omission, one that undermines the intelligence and wisdom of thousands and thousands of survey respondents. Kobe Bryant being left off is a head-shaker — so is Mike Tyson — and Jack Johnson is nearly as egregious an error as Woods. The international search to find somebody to beat Johnson is the origin of the phrase “great white hope.” His July 4, 1910, victory over Jim Jeffries in the “Fight of the Century” ignited race riots in more than a dozen cities. No black (or white) athlete since has had that kind of cultural impact nationally. You can’t make the argument that Joe Frazier is greater than Jack Johnson. But I’m willing to believe you have to be nearly 60 years old to have any idea of how important Johnson was not just to blacks and athletes but to the United States early in the 20th century.

You can’t even tell the story of the black athlete in America without serious examination of Johnson. And you can’t carry the discussion into the 21st century, no matter how young you are, without including the incomparable achievements of a black man who, like Johnson, was a first: Tiger Woods.

This Emile Griffith jazz opera strives to understand boxing and masculinity Terence Blanchard asks, ‘What makes a man, a man?’ in ‘Champion’

The use of massive projection screens is one of the most remarkable things about Champion composer Terence Blanchard‘s opera about the life of boxer Emile Griffith, which debuted recently at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The screens, which flank either side of the stage, do more than provide a bridge into the world of film, where Blanchard has found a home crafting the sonic atmospheres of many of Spike Lee’s movies. And they don’t just help to establish Champion, with its heavy jazz influences, as a contemporary opera — a rarity when traditional operagoing audiences want and expect Verdi and Puccini and Mozart. No, the screens in Champion are central because they help the audience, who may not be familiar with Griffith’s story, understand how media not only shaped Griffith’s own story, but our understanding of it.


The opera tells the story of Griffith, a former welterweight and middleweight world champion from the U.S. Virgin Islands who gained notoriety in 1962 after his blows put an opponent, Benny Paret, in a coma. Paret died in the hospital 10 days later from his injuries. Underscoring the tragedy was the fact that Paret had taunted Griffith, who was gay, with anti-gay slurs. “Hey, maricón,” Paret apparently said it in a “cooing lisp” at a weigh-in before the two met in their third fight. “I’m gonna get you and your husband.” Maricón translates roughly to an anti-gay slur.

And because this took place in the days when boxing was still broadcast on network television in prime time, Paret’s fatal fall, after a savage round, was broadcast live into living rooms across the country. The fight, and Paret’s subsequent death, haunted Griffith for the remainder of his life.

The production originated with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2013, which commissioned it from Blanchard, a three-time Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter. With his first opera in the can, Blanchard is now working on his second, an adaptation of Charles Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones, which will likely debut in 2019.

Victor Ryan Robertson as Benny Paret and Aubrey Allicock as young Emile Griffith in ‘Champion.’ In front of the bed: Arthur Woodley as the elderly Griffith.

Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

The violence of Griffith’s story — “Paret’s head rocked on a neck that looked like a broken plinth” — presented a question: How would it be depicted onstage, in a way that would give audiences an understanding of Griffith’s complex talents as a boxer, with his incredible left jab and quick-moving hands? Griffith was said to have landed 17 punches in seven seconds in his fight with Paret.

The screens in Champion help the audience understand how media not only shaped Griffith’s story, but our understanding of it.

Choreographer Seán Curran (Stomp, L’Etoile, Alcina) chose to slow things down in the pivotal fight of Griffith’s life. Onstage, the two men playing Griffith (Aubrey Allicock) and Paret (Victor Ryan Robinson) are isolated in spotlights, surrounded by a sea of red. The punches are drawn out so that the fight looks more like a dance, with the actors bending their bodies, Matrix-style, in response to each blow. The flashes of white light that capture the blows echo the flashes of photographers who documented the fight. You needn’t see the literal depiction of the violence in the ring, because, on either side of them, the screens flanking the stage show the real-life grisly imagery of Paret sliding down the ropes and out of consciousness.

By incorporating the actual footage of Paret, Champion underscores the role television and newspapers had in framing our understanding of what happened. The knockout Paret experienced on live television was responsible for boxing’s subsequent disappearance from TV and as a gathering place in popular culture. That even now fight night is still so often relegated to pay-per-view and premium cable is part of the legacy of the Paret-Griffith fight.

Andre McLaughlin and Aubrey Allicock in an encounter in ‘Champion.’

Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

But the discrepancy between the fight occurring onstage and the imagery framing it serves another purpose as well: depicting the art and the beauty so many boxing fans see in the sport, even as the fatal violence of the fight became a political football in the aftermath. “I’ve been such a big fan of boxing and, to me, it’s one of the most misunderstood sports on the planet,” Blanchard said. “We try to have some elements [showing] the rigorous workout that goes into it, the science behind it. It’s not just guys up there whaling on each other and throwing their hands around and beating on each other. It’s not that. It’s really a scientific dance.”


Media didn’t just influence how Americans saw the Paret-Griffith fight. It determined how they perceived Griffith’s masculinity, and Paret’s taunting, as well. At the time, homosexuality was still so taboo that The New York Times dared not speak its name. In the 2005 documentary, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, journalist Pete Hamill described his colleague Howard M. Tuckner as “furious” when The New York Times copy desk changed the word “homosexual” to “unman” in Tuckner’s story about the weigh-in standoff.

Griffith is played by three actors. (That fact, along with Champion’s themes of homosexuality and black masculinity, are certain to attract rudimentary comparisons to recent Academy Award best picture winner Moonlight.) Arthur Woodcock portrays a hobbled, hunched-over, elderly Griffith, near the end of his life, whose brain is so addled by dementia that he doesn’t remember putting one of his shoes in the refrigerator. The story unfolds as a series of flashbacks from Griffith’s life, with Allicock playing Griffith as a young man and Samuel Grace playing Griffith as a boy growing up in the Virgin Islands. With his bell-like vocals, Grace exhibits a stunning vulnerability in his turn as Little Emile. It becomes clear that the adults around him realize Griffith is “different” when his surrogate mother, Cousin Blanche (Leah Hawkins), forces him to hold a cinder block above his head for hours because, Little Emile sings, “She say I have the devil deep inside of me.”

The knockout Paret experienced on live television was responsible for boxing’s subsequent disappearance from TV and as a gathering place in popular culture.

Through Curran’s choreography, Champion portrays Griffith as a figure who was repeatedly goaded into displays of aggression, which at the time were conflated with masculinity. When he first meets his manager, Howie Albert (Wayne Tigges), Griffith is a fairly subdued man, new to New York City, who wants to make hats. But Albert pushes Griffith’s buttons, hoping to unleash his “killer instinct” lurking within, and Griffith sends Albert careening to the floor.

“Throughout all of Emile’s journey — of course he got a lot of accolades and all of the great things that he deserved — he’s kind of just the pawn in the bigger structure of what this field was, or continues to be,” said Champion fight master Joe Isenberg. “And, he’s pushed to kill this guy. Of course, not intentionally, but it’s a part of this journey that he didn’t really intend to fall into, and then he continues a whole life of regret … dealing with that situation.”

Further complicating Griffith’s inner conflict is his tortured relationship with his birth mother, Emelda (Denyce Graves), who left him and his six brothers and sisters sprinkled among various caretakers in the Virgin Islands. When Griffith journeys to New York as an adult, his mother Emelda mistakes him for his brother, Frankie. While Griffith’s story is portrayed as an epic tragedy, Emelda is a tragic figure in her own right and in Champion, her relationship with Griffith is forever tainted by the fact that she left him.

“I know I’m not the mommy you want, but I’m all the mommy you got,” Emelda tells her son, who is still trying to outrun the specter of Paret’s death even after his success in the boxing ring climbs to greater and greater heights.

“You’re nobody’s mommy,” Griffith tells her, practically spitting the words in contempt. “You’re just a money-loving whore with a s–tload of children.”

Denyce Graves as Emelda Griffith in ‘Champion.’

Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

Blanchard fills in Emelda’s story with two arias that provide some explanation for Emelda’s decision to leave her children, and the complicated feelings she has about it. And while Verdi and Puccini seemed to take an almost sadistic pleasure in pushing singers to the brink of their capabilities with vertiginous, superhuman upper-register runs, Blanchard brings forth revelations in plumbing the low end of the scale in Emelda’s second aria, allowing Graves to show off her range.

“She’s like Muhammad Ali,” Blanchard said of Graves. “You don’t want to teach your kid to box by watching Muhammad Ali, ’cause he always kept his hands down. She’s like that. She breaks all the rules. Her low register is impeccable. It’s amazing to listen to her sing.” There’s also a moment in Champion after Griffith defeats Paret and he’s standing over his opponent, both arms raised, seemingly not unlike the famed photograph of Ali standing in victory over Joe Frazier.

But alone, the triumphant pose belies what’s really taking place. In that moment, Griffith isn’t just a winner. He’s the little boy who grew up in the Virgin Islands, holding a cinder block over his head at the behest of Cousin Blanche. He’s the man Blanche and Albert goaded him into being, and what of it? His rival is conquered, defeated, dead. But so is part of Griffith. And the devil he’s been trying to shake still clings.

“What makes a man a man?” a forlorn Griffith asks of himself. “Who is this man who calls himself me?” Even by the end of the opera, it’s not clear that Griffith really knows.

On this day in black history: Joe Frazier wins heavyweight title, Magic Johnson’s jersey was retired, ABC hires first black female president Black History Month: The Undefeated edition Feb. 16

1957 – Happy birthday, LeVar Burton
Actor LeVar Burton is known for his role as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 award-winning television series Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley. He also had a recurring role in the Star Trek: Next Generation series and movies, and was host for more than 20 years of Reading Rainbow.

1970 – Joe Frazier knocks out Jimmy Ellis
Joe Frazier, a 6-1 favorite, fought Jimmy Ellis for the heavyweight title in front of more than 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden. Ellis was knocked down at the end of the fourth round and his trainer Angelo Dundee refused to let him go back out, making Frazier the undisputed heavyweight champion.

1992 – Magic Johnson’s jersey is retired
On Feb. 16, 1992, a tearful Magic Johnson thanked Larry Bird and the fans in Los Angeles as his jersey was retired by the Lakers.

ESPN Video Player

2016 – Channing Dungey becomes first African-American president at ABC Entertainment Group
This made Channing Dungey the first black president of a major broadcast TV network. She joined ABC Studios in 2004, was previously executive vice president of drama development, movies and miniseries and was integral in the development of shows such as Scandal, Criminal Minds, How to Get Away with Murder, Quantico, Army Wives and Once Upon A Time.