It didn’t take long for Muhammad Ali to become a boldface name in the pages of Variety. With preternatural charisma and media savvy, the former Cassius Clay provided great copy as his star rose in the early 1960s.
Ali, who died Friday at age 74, was quickly dubbed “the Poetic Pug,” the “Louisville Lip” and “Brassius Cassius.” More than other fighters of his era, Variety gushed about the huge “gate” delivered by Ali fights around the country, as well as the strong demand for closed circuit telecasts, radio and TV rights whenever “the Greatest” was in the ring.
Variety even gave a good review to Ali’s one and only comedy album, “I Am the Greatest,” released by Columbia Records in 1963, months before he claimed his first heavyweight championship title.
Here’s a look at the evolution of Ali as a media superstar as chronicled by Variety:
- Cassius Clay’s first appearance in Variety came in the Dec. 1, 1961, edition in a production listing for the David Susskind-produced film version of Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (not to be confused with the original 1956 “Playhouse 90” TV production). Ali is seen in the opening moments of the 1962 film knocking out the down-on-his-luck boxer played by Anthony Quinn.
- By April 1962 Variety carried a reports of exhibitors being “in the leather flurry” for closed-circuit boxing matches that were selling out in the south due to “the popularity of Cassius Clay and Ralph Dupas.”
- The Nov. 21, 1962, weekly edition called Ali’s Nov. 15 knockout of Archie Moore at Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium “the showbiz event of the week,” with a host of celebs sitting ringside for the “100G sellout.”
- Ali finally made page one in the Jan. 30, 1963, weekly edition, which featured a dispatch from Pittsburgh on “the colorful young heavyweight” and his knockout of Charlie Powell. Variety declared: “Never in the history of the city has a public figure dominated the news media as Brassius Cassius.” Ali made the rounds of local TV and public events and caused a stir simply by walking down the street. The story features examples of Ali’s verse including this gem: “If I say a mosquito can pull a plow/Just hitch him up and don’t ask how.”
- The inevitable happened in the April 2, 1963, edition, which reported that the “loquacious” star had signed with the William Morris office for “showbiz appearances.”
- Ali’s deal with Columbia Records for an album that would mix comedy and music was trumpeted in the July 31, 1963, weekly edition. Three months later, the review was positive, noting that the wax format was a good fit with Ali’s natural skills as he “essays considerable verbiage on his favorite subject — himself.” Ali’s warbling of “Stand By Me” was released as a single in March 1964.
- Through 1963 and 1964 there was plenty of breathless coverage of the seven-figure b.o. pulled in by Ali’s bouts with Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson and others.
- The first reference to “Mohammud Ali” came in the June 30, 1965, weekly edition in a review of the ABC interview show “Nightlife,” hosted by Les Crane, with Nipsey Russell as sidekick. The review mentioned the appearance of Ali, who is “more widely known as Cassius Clay.” Variety referred to Cassius Clay in parenthesis when writing about Muhammad Ali as late as the mid-1970s.
- The July 7, 1965, weekly edition dubbed Ali “cash and carry Cassius” for refusing to take a check from Westinghouse for his $500 appearance fee for doing “The Mike Douglas Show.” The champ insists on “folding money,” Variety reported. “You mean the richest company in the world doesn’t have $500 for the heavyweight champion,” Ali is quoted as thundering to producers.
- Ali’s principled stand on refusing to be drafted into the military in 1967 and subsequent three-year suspension from boxing made worldwide headlines but did not dim his star in Variety. Ali (most often still referred to as Clay) remained a staple in our pages, whether noting his many news and talk show appearances, his work with other showbiz civil rights activists of the day or his 1969 Broadway debut in the musical “Big Time Buck White,” The story on that deal noted that Ali’s contract included a clause releasing him from the show if he lost his final legal appeal over his draft resistance.
- “Buck White” opened Dec. 2, 1969, at the George Abbott Theater and ran seven performances. The show mixed traditional musical elements with a middle act that featured Ali speaking from behind a lectern a la a press conference while a plant in the audience taunted him with racial insults. The show closed with Ali delivering an “inspirational message” and belting out the showstopping number “Get Down.” From Variety’s review: “Clay, or as he prefers to be known in private and as a fighter, Muhammad Ali, has natural authority on the stage. He sings reasonably well with the usual amplification, and speaks clearly, though without a hint of the sort of modulation that dramatic training might bring. His greatest asset is his undeniable fervor. Although his stage technique is primitive, his belief in the righteousness of his cause is manifest and impressive.”
- By 1971, with his boxing career back on track, Ali was also tending to his media profile. One month almost to the day after he was beaten by Joe Frazier in the famous “fight of the century,” a full-page ad in the April 7, 1971, weekly edition featured a close-up of Ali in a suit and tie, with that penetrating stare, offering his availability for “personal appearances, lectures, television, concerts, fairs, colleges/universities and endorsements.”
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