Other Sports

When a Sports Illustrated cover in 1969 slighted Muhammad Ali

My search for the May 5, 1969, Sports Illustrated cover started about five years ago when I interned at the company’s website in New York City.

I can’t recall when or where I first saw this cover, but it immediately resonated with me. Years before as a high schooler I was doing some odd job when I went to the boss’s office.

He had an old boxing promo poster that read Cassius Clay, and sure enough there stood the Louisville Lip in his white Everlast trunks. The poster had the signature of the man it depicted, but the signature read Muhammad Ali.

This signed poster, I remember the man telling me, is rare. Ali did not sign items that bore his old name. Somehow this man got hold of one of the few.

The SI cover intrigued me years later when I first saw it. It’s Ali, wearing a king’s red robe over his left shoulder. A crown of many jewels sits on the head of the man who was 29-0 in professional boxing, who was the two-time undisputed heavyweight champion and who saw those titles stripped away two years earlier because of his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.

The title reads: “ALI-CLAY. THE ONCE – AND FUTURE? – KING.”

That brown skin, the white fur accenting the royal garb, in front of what appears to be a tapestry – with Ali waiting in boxing purgatory because of his suspension. Ali appeared on the cover of the greatest American sports magazine 39 times in his life, none of them telling a greater story than that one.

What drew me initially was not the photograph. The title in the upper right corner refers to the champ as Ali-Clay even though he had changed his name five years earlier.

The cover, now 47 years old, was stuck in time even then.

A media slight

We laugh now at the “Coming to America” barbershop scene where it’s declared that Ali’s “momma called him Clay” so “Imma call him Clay.” But even after the man gave the media everything they wanted and more, that same media wouldn’t call him by his name.

This hyphenated last name was printed more than four years after the death of Malcolm X. Lyndon Johnson, the signer of the Civil Rights Act, had already retired back to Texas. Yet the media covering Ali – almost entirely white – would not lend credence to the Muslim name he had assumed five years before.

Inside the pages of the magazine he’s referred to as Muhammad Ali-Cassius Clay on first reference, and later references call him simply Ali. Here’s how he’s referred to in a complementary in the issue:

“In the strange world of Ali-Clay – he has, by fiat of Elijah Muhammad, supreme pontiff of the Black Muslims, been stripped of his “holy name,” though he still proposes to use it outside the church – the future holds no certainty, the present is a limbo and only the past is real.”

That appositive contained between the dashes reeks for four-decade-old sarcasm. They wouldn’t call the man by his name.

A powerful draw

Of course that name became one of the most powerful in the world. It was one that I gravitated to as a kid watching his fights on ESPN Classic, and then renting “When We Were Kings” from Blockbuster, and then wearing T-shirts with his image on it to school, and then having him standing over Liston as my desktop background and eventually buying his autobiography.

The search for this magazine edition made me Ahab.

For the better part of five years I’ve searched online for this magazine. You could always buy it on eBay, but always the magazine came with a subscription sticker on the left-hand side. Once every three or four months I’d look for the issue, and each time I couldn’t find a clean cover in good condition.

Two weeks ago I found one. Garth in Oregon was selling the magazine that sold on the 1969 stands for 50 cents as a buy-it-now in 2016 for $24. I bought it then.

Three days later it arrived. While typing this column I opened it for the first time. Soon it will be framed as one of my most prized possessions.

Muhammad Ali, the greatest fighter of his time and the most important athlete in the modern era, couldn’t get the decency to be called by the name he took. But he still talked. He still fought. He still won. He still became the greatest.

Ali. The once, future – and forever – king.

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