'Biography' presents a complex Ali


October 08, 1991|By Steve McKerrow

Two quotes ring with particular resonance in a new biography of former heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali premiering on cable tonight.

"I'm actually too good for my time," we hear him saying at a 1967 press conference regarding his banishment from boxing, for refusing on religious grounds to be drafted into the Army.

And near the end of this edition of the Arts & Entertainment network's "Biography" (at 8 p.m. and again at midnight), in a clip of fairly recent vintage, he says in sadly halting fashion, "I'm happy to be getting out [of boxing]. It's been hell."

He may have been right both times.

What an interesting puzzle Ali has been on the American celebrity landscape since emerging as an Olympic boxing champion in 1960! And while it is somewhat dry, this hour-long reprise captures Ali's complexity pretty well, refreshing the memory about incidents that proved, as actor James Earl Jones says at one point, that Ali "is constantly redefining himself."

For instance, former tennis great Arthur Ashe recalls how the 19-year-old Cassius Clay dramatically flung his gold medal away after being refused restaurant service in his home town of Louisville, Ky., in "an act of defiance that made us feel pretty good." Clay broke the mold of black athletes whose manner should show "we were grateful to be there," Ashe notes.

Yet Ashe also admits "I was a little embarrassed" by Clay's brash manner leading into his 1964 title victory over Sonny Liston. And he concedes that in 1965, "I really didn't like him" for his taunting treatment of former champ Floyd Patterson.

The show explores Ali's subsequent embrace of the Muslim faith and his remarkable adherence to its pacifist tenets by defying the Vietnam-era draft.

In contrast, there is also some mention of his personal family difficulties: four marriages which produced six children, as well as two other out-of-wedlock children.

Sportscaster Dick Schaap sums up the Ali story perhaps best when he notes the 1975 victory over Joe Frazier in the "Thrilla' in Manila": "It should have ended right there, that was the best moment," says Schaap.

Instead, we saw the public Ali diminished by a succession of not-classic fights and the onset of Parkinson's Syndrome, a disease brought on by repeated blows to the brain stem during his fighting career.


GOOBER ALERT! -- Fans of George Lindsey take note: The TBS cable network's nightly screenings of "The Andy Griffith Show" (6:36 p.m.) are into a week-long celebration of gas station jockey Goober Pyle.

Trivia buffs know that Goober was cousin on the show to Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), who left the series in 1968 for his own show, "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." Goober took Gomer's job for the final three seasons.

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