Not only was Muhammad Ali the Greatest of All Time in the ring, he made a huge mark in popular culture, from books and music to film and TV series. Ali, who died Friday at 74, was the subject of countless movies and documentaries – but also made quite an impression on the small screen, where his larger-than-life personality and famous braggadocio became hallmark moments on programs such as ABC’s iconic “Wide World of Sports.”
The world will remember him as a boxing legend, civil rights champion, humanitarian and so much more. But fans will also remember Ali’s TV appearances through the years, many of which were light-hearted and relied on Ali’s playful sense of humor. Here’s a look at some of the Champ’s memorable moments on the tube.
Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell
“For most of twenty years, the fighter and the broadcaster appeared together on national television so many times that they became a de facto comedy team, ‘Ali & Cosell,'” author Dave Kindred wrote in his 2006 book “Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship.” The book chronicled the unlikely relationship between Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell, some of which played out on “Wide World of Sports.”
On camera, the two were forever taunting each other. In one famous exchange, Cosell jabbed at Ali by telling him, “You’re being extremely truculent.” Ali’s response: “Whatever ‘truculent’ means, if that’s good, I’m that!”
But underneath it all, as Kindred wrote, “Cosell loved Ali, the rebel with a belief, and Ali loved Cosell, the cranky old white guy brave enough to stand with the storm.”
The 1976 Academy Awards
As “Rocky” star Sylvester Stallone hits the podium and starts talking about how honored he is to be there… Ali creeps up behind him. Stallone smiles. “Can’t you see I’m working?!” Ali points at him and jokes, “You stole my script! You stole my script!” The two then spar on stage. The Greatest of All Time in one of the greatest Oscar moments of all time. Stallone says he’ll treasure that moment for the rest of his life.
One of the most memorable episodes of NBC’s “Diff’rent Strokes” aired in October 1979: “Arnold’s Hero” centered on young Arnold (Gary Coleman) as he faked an illness in order to meet Ali. Yes, hilarity ensues as Arnold, Willis (Todd Bridges) and Kimberly (Dana Plato) attempt to keep up the ruse, until Ali figures it out in the end. It was an episode filled with cliche sitcom misunderstandings, but allowed Ali to have some fun as he entered the twilight of his career.
READ MORE: Review: ‘The Trials Of Muhammad Ali’
Even the Greatest of All Time needs to make a little bit of extra cash sometimes. Ali’s 1970s d-Con ads are today appreciated for their camp, intentional or not. But the commercials are also frequently criticized; the Washington Post once called them “embarrassing.”
‘I Am The Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali’
This Saturday morning series, which aired on NBC in 1977, features Ali blasting into outer space, among other absurdities. Ali contributed his own voice for the show. Kids’ animation in the late 1970s was just downright weird.
This 1979 TV movie, set during the Reconstruction, stars Ali as Gideon Jackson, a former slave who returns home after the Civil War. Kris Kristofferson and Ossie Davis also star.
1996 Atlanta Olympics Opening Ceremony
Even as Ali suffered from the debilitating Parkinson’s disease later in life, he still served to inspire. The athlete’s surprise appearance during the 1996 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony to light the Olympic torch was a proud moment for both Ali and the history of the Games.
‘America: A Tribute to Heroes’
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the television special “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” aired on multiple networks and brought stars from across entertainment, news and sports together to raise money and help those impacted. Ali joined Will Smith on stage, and although Parkinson’s disease had robbed him of his once booming and powerful voice, still managed to deliver a message with punch: “I’m a Muslim. People should know the real truth about Islam. I wouldn’t be here to represent Islam if it was really like the terrorists made it look. Islam is peace and against killing. The people doing this in the name of Islam are wrong, and if I had the chance, i would do something about it.”
Smith shared that message: “This man might be the most famous person in the world.He’s one of the greatest heroes of our time. And he’s a Muslim. It was hate and not religion that motivated the horrible acts of Sept. 11. In the wake of these events, nothing could be more un-American than to respond to hate with blind vengeance.”