Michael Cimino, a controversial figure in the movie industry whose life best serves as a cautionary tale about how ego and hubris can destroy and derail even the most promising career, passed away July 2 from a massive heart attack at what is believed to have been the age of 77.
Hey, wait a minute! How can one say a person is believed to have been a certain age when he or she dies? The answer is simple: no one for sure knows exactly when Cimino was born. The Oscar-winning filmmaker had a penchant throughout his life for changing his birth year and age in an attempt to appear younger than he actually was. Most seem to have settled upon 1939 being his actual birth year.
Not much is known about his early life. Cimino was notoriously tightlipped about his youth, often claiming to remember very little about his childhood. In one interview, he did brag about being a childhood genius that rivaled Renaissance painter Michelangelo’s.
Cimino was also notorious for stretching the truth and lying outright about what he achieved in life, such the false claim that he served a tour of duty with the Green Berets in Vietnam. By the way, the closest he ever got to Vietnam was on the fake sets of The Deer Hunter and he was merely an Army reservist who didn’t travel further than Fort Dix, New Jersey.
So what is known about the young Michael Cimino? Here is what has been proven as genuinely true. Cimino was a native of Long Island, New York, growing up in the town of Old Westbury. He earned three college degrees: a BA from Michigan State University and both a BA and MA from Yale University. Although he liked to claim that his degrees were all in filmmaking, the truth was that his major was painting, with minors in architecture and art history.
He caught the movie bug sometime after graduation, eventually cajoling his way into directing TV commercials for Madison Avenue in the late 60s. His commercials for United Airlines, Pepsi, Kodak, Kool cigarettes and Leggs were highly regarded on the level of craftsmanship but were often criticized for taking too long and spending far too much money to produce them. This was the first sign of the single most recurring problem that would haunt Cimino’s career: the inability or unwillingness to complete a project quickly on time and on budget.
Cimino moved to Los Angeles in 1970 to break into the movies. It was around this time he had first pitched what would later become Heaven’s Gate, but a competing Western project at another studio and the reluctance of stars to sign onto a picture directed by a first time director put an end to that. He turned to screenwriting, earning two huge credits as a co-writer: the 1971 sci-fi classic Silent Running and the Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry vehicle Magnum Force two years later.
Eastwood was impressed enough with Cimino’s work on the latter that he decided to option Cimino’s first solo script. Upon meeting with Cimino, Eastwood decided to take a chance and give him his first directing job. Cimino brought in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot on time and budget, largely because Eastwood ran a tight ship as a producer whom no one dared to cross.
In an interview for the revealing documentary Final Cut (2004), production manager Charles Okun pointed out that Eastwood was the only producer willing to say no to Cimino's demands. Eastwood had no qualms about speeding things along whenever Cimino started to act tardy and to put the kibosh on any unreasonable demands, especially when it came to wasting time and money on unnecessary takes once an acceptable take was completed. The sole exception to the rule would be whenever an actor would ask for another take. That Eastwood was willing to accommodate.
Grossing $9 million at the box office against a $750,000 budget, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was solidly profitable. United Artists considered the gross underwhelming by Eastwood’s box office standards then. For his part, Eastwood blamed United Artists for poor promotion and killed a planned two-picture deal with the studio, moving the remaining two pictures over to Universal. As for Cimino, he had received a few offers, but his arrogance and ego were such that he refused to accept what was offered.
Along came EMI, a British production company headed up by Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings. The duo figured Cimino might be the ideal candidate to fix a project that had been stuck in developmental hell for the past five years. Originally titled The Man Who Came To Play, it became The Deer Hunter after extensive rewriting.
Although it would become one of the best films of the 1970’s, the production was frought with problems. Roy Scheider, displeased with Cimino’s dictatorial ways during pre-production, quit. Co-star John Cazale was dying of terminal lung cancer, causing the insurance company to refuse to insure the actor. Only a last minute financial intervention by new leading man Robert De Niro allowed Cazale to say on the picture. Cimino went over budget and over schedule, but since EMI execs were preoccupied with major production problems on their summer blockbuster Convoy, all caused by an out-of-control, cocaine addled Sam Peckinpah, Cimino’s overages were overlooked.
There were also arguments in regard to the length of the final cut. Cimino’s final cut clocked in at slightly over three hours. Universal, who were handling American distribution, felt it was too long to be commercially successful and prepared a two-hour version. Cimino was only assuaged when Universal offered to test the two versions to see which received a better reception. Cimino’s 183 minute cut won out in the end and was the version ultimately released.
The Deer Hunter was also notable for achieving another first later in the 1980s: the first major R-rated motion picture to be presented on network television complete and uncut. Despite the generous use of salty language, harsh realistic violence and the occasional bare breast, The Deer Hunter was deemed socially important enough to allow such content to make the airwaves during a broadcast. Remarkably, no one complained. It would lead to the 1997 uncut broadcast of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List.
At Oscar time, many believed that the vote would be split amongst the seven major categories, especially with The Deer Hunter in direct competition with Hal Ashby’s brilliant Vietnam drama Coming Home. Sure enough, the awards were pretty much evenly split between the two, with Coming Home claiming Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay, while The Deer Hunter took home Best Supporting Actor, Best Director and Best Picture- the latter two of which went to Cimino. When claiming the latter prize, Cimino cried out “Who loves ya, baby!”
Two years later, the answer would be no one.
In the spring of 1979, Michael Cimino was riding high. His second directorial effort, The Deer Hunter was an enormous critical and commercial success. Despite the leisurely paced three hour running time, the heartfelt epic was chalking up major grosses at the box office and sweeping up one major award after another, including three Oscars. The future looked bright as Cimino seemed sure to cement himself as a major force to be reckoned with.
Alas, all it took was one overlong, grossly over-budget Western to derail that dream.
United Artists, still recovering from the shocking exit of the Arthur Krim regime after a spat with then-owner Transamerica, was desperate to reestablish itself as a major player in Hollywood. As detailed in former UA head of production Steven Bach’s production memoir Final Cut, Michael Cimino seemed like the answer to their problems. After all, one would believe that hooking up with the newest Golden Boy of Hollywood was a surefire no-brainer.
What seemed like a no-brainer wound up being the Hollywood equivalent of an ocular migraine: long, slow and painful. After a pair of false starts with The Dogs of War and The Fountainhead, Cimino sold UA production chiefs Bach and David Field on The Johnson County War, later to be rechristened Heaven’s Gate. It wasn’t supposed to take longer than three months and cost more than $12 million to complete.
Little did Bach or Field suspect that Cimino apparently believed that his Oscars gave him invincibility and clout that couldn’t be revoked. Cimino decided that no expense would be spared in the pursuit of perfection. By the end of week one, Cimino five days behind schedule, shot over 1.3 million feet of film, of which only 90 seconds was usable. By June, the entire $12 million budget had been spent with little to show for it. Had steps not finally been taken to stem the bleeding, he was on par to spending two years and $60 million to complete.
The final figures weren’t too far off from the worst-case scenario as the final production cost was $44 million. This figure included the primary filming in Kalispell, Montana that came to a close in October 1979 and an additional April 1980 shoot in England of a prologue and epilogue intended to clarify a few key plot points.
One might wonder how Cimino was allowed to go so out of control. According to Bach’s book, Cimino quickly sized up the UA hierarchy as easy marks and took advantage of the traditional UA laissez-faire business model in which the studio stayed away until the film was ready to be shown to them. The phenomenal success of The Deer Hunter gave Cimino the incorrect perception that he could do whatever he pleased regardless of consequences. There was also his exploitation of a loophole, put in place by UA for an intended Christmas 1979 theatrical release that would never happen, that allowed him to go above and beyond the spending and schedule limits to deliver a finished film.
Despite a contractual obligation to deliver a film no longer than 3 hours long, Cimino handed in a rough cut that was 5 hours and 25 minutes long. When asked by Bach how close to a final cut the picture was, Cimino stalled by stating that it was a little long but it could bear to lose just 15 minutes. Yet rather than fire him, UA bizarrely allowed him to keep editing and retain his final cut. Mere weeks before the New York premiere, the final cut ran 3 hours and 39 minutes with Cimino unwilling to make any additional edits.
Despite the fact that he flagrantly violated his contractual obligation of a final cut between 2 and 3 hours, UA let it slide. Not one UA executive bothered to see the 219 minute cut before granting approval to lock the picture and make prints.
The NY premiere was a disaster. Bach reported that the audience at the Tivoli 1 took their blessed time during intermission to return to their seats rather than be subjected to a slowly paced, yawn inducing extravaganza. The after-party was poorly attended, partly because it started after midnight and partly due to few wanting to discuss what they had just seen. The NY film critics were brutal in their reviews of the picture, with NY Times critic Vincent Canby famously likening the film to a forced four-hour tour of a friend’s living room.
Ego and pride wounded and clearly in a panic to stem further injury, Cimino convinced UA execs to withdraw the film from distribution. He commenced a rush editing job that whittled the almost 4 hour movie to a shorter 2 ½ hours. Despite the last minute rescue operation, the shorter version bombed spectacularly at the box office when released in April 1981, barely grossing $1.3 million when all was said and done.
Disgusted with the entire fiasco, Transamerica decided they had had enough of the movie business, selling United Artists to billionaire Kirk Kerkorian for a reported $300 million. Since there wasn’t a plethora of potential buyers, most believe Kerkorian overpaid by as much as $200 million. Since he owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at the time, he merged the two studios into what would become MGM/UA Entertainment, Co.
It seemed to even the most astute film buff that Heaven’s Gate was consigned to a fate as an occasional late night TV offering or a rare theatrical screening through an obscure film society. However, a funny thing happened along the way to cinematic obscurity. In December 1982, Jerry Harvey, the owner and programmer of the offbeat cineaste cable network The Z Channel, managed to convince MGM/UA to let him show Cimino’s 219 minute long version, which hadn’t been seen outside of New York and Toronto.
To everyone’s shock, the long version received shockingly great reviews, most surprisingly from famed California film critic Charles Champlin, who had famously trashed the short version one year earlier. It was warmly embraced as a masterpiece, which is most certainly is not- although it is nowhere near as bad as the NY critics made it out to be.
The long version earned a surprise theatrical release in Europe in 1983 and was released on videocassette worldwide by MGM/UA Home Video in 1984. The short version remained out of sight until a surprise resurfacing on American television occurred earlier this spring, when This TV aired it several times throughout May and June. A third alternate cut approved by Cimino, which made some strange unwarranted and unnecessary revisions, was released by the Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2012.
Paramount Pictures quickly signed Cimino to direct the Kevin Bacon vehicle Footloose after original choice Herbert Ross proved unavailable. However, it soon became apparent that Cimino had learned nothing from the Heaven’s Gate fiasco. Months before filming commenced, Cimino started making demands, primarily demanding an additional $250,000 for doing an unnecessary rewrite on the script, demanding changes to sets, hordes of additional extras hired and handing in a budget that far exceeded the $7.5 million granted by Paramount. Unlike those in charge of United Artists during Heaven’s Gate, then-Paramount executives Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Barry Diller weren’t willing to twiddle their thumbs and let Cimino turn their low-budget musical into an expensive out-of-control production. Cimino was fired immediately.
He then turned to the black comedy crime caper The Pope of Greenwich Village for MGM/UA, now under the management of Frank Yablans. But once again, Cimino started making demands in regard to money, script changes and production. As per Eisner and Friends at Paramount, Yablans had no tolerance for such shenanigans, promptly firing Cimino.
By 1985, Cimino’s reputation was mud in the movie industry. In an attempt to prove that he wasn’t a difficult out of control filmmaker, he accepted Dino De Laurentiis’s offer to direct a film adaptation of Robert Daley’s highly regarded novel The Year of the Dragon. Partly due to the need to prove to Hollywood that he could be a good boy and partly due to not daring to cross De Laurentiis, who had zero tolerance for egotistical directors making demands, Cimino completed the film on time and on budget.
Although not a blockbuster hit, Year of the Dragon managed to make a respectable profit once home video revenue came in. A deal to direct an adaptation of Truman Capote’s true-crime drama Handcarved Coffins for MGM/UA fell through. Gladden Entertainment, headed up by disgraced former studio head/agent/convicted embezzler David Begelman, offered Cimino a chance to direct the film version of Mario Puzo’s novel The Sicilian. It seemed as if Cimino was back.
However, it soon became apparent that when not held under a tight leash by a strong producer, Cimino soon reverted back to his old tricks. Cimino’s odd miscasting of French actor Christopher Lambert in the lead was the least of the film’s problems, as it once again went over budget and schedule with little in the way of redeeming value to be found in the finished product.
For all intents and purposes, Cimino’s Hollywood career was over. He directed two more films, 1990’s ill-advised remake of the Humphrey Bogart classic Desperate Hours and 1996’s Sunchaser, which went direct-to-VHS in the United States. Neither made much of an impression upon anyone who saw them. Cimino became more famous in recent years for being dogged by rumors that he was transgender, which likely started due to the shock of seeing the reclusive director gaunt, marred by failed attempts at plastic surgery and massive weight loss.
As far as his legacy goes, the feeling on Cimino remains mixed. He was portrayed horribly in three film memoirs: Bach’s Final Cut, Michael Deeley’s Blade Runners and Deer Hunters and Michael Schulman’s Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep. Roger Ebert once declared in frustration that Cimino seemed to fall into the pattern of making a good movie and then making a mess out of every other one he got his hands on. The hardcore cineastes have lavished high praise on Cimino as a master filmmaker in the same league as such all-time greats as Kubrick, Kurosawa, Lean and Hitchcock.
My feeling on Cimino is summed up in two words: wasted potential. He did make some very good movies, although his post-Dragon output is trash. Regardless of whether they were masterpieces or not, the good films at least offered something valuable to cinema. He was a visual stylist with a good eye for screen composition. To his credit, Cimino was unafraid to tackle controversial subjects, which made his work rather daring for the time. The Sicilian notwithstanding, Cimino worked well with actors and more often than not brought out their best work.
However, Cimino’s skills as a storyteller left a lot to be desired. He apparently lacked the discipline or the will to tell a story simply or clearly enough for all to comprehend. Large chunks of Heaven’s Gate are incomprehensible even to the most forgiving moviegoer. Apparently, Cimino believed that the strong visuals would compensate for his narrative shortcomings. They seldom did. Perhaps that summed up his life best: an endless quest for compensation for his shortcomings. It certainly would explain a lot.
Janet Waldo, the longtime voice of Judy Jetson among other classic cartoon characters as well as one of the first female voice actors to receive on-screen credit, passed away Sunday at her Encino, California home after a five year battle with an inoperable brain tumor. She was 96.
Waldo came from a talented family. She was related paternally to the great author Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her mother Jane was a classically trained singer. Her sister Elisabeth, who recently turned 98, was instrumental in introducing authentic pre-Columbian instruments into Western music and created the New Age music genre. Waldo would also marry into talent, as her husband was the great American dramatist Robert E. Lee of Inherit the Wind and Auntie Mame fame.
Waldo’s big break into show business happened in 1938, when she was a freshman at the University of Washington. She caught the eye of Bing Crosby, who was attending a musical revue she was appearing in on campus. Impressed with her raw talent, he convinced a Paramount talent scout to arrange a screen test. The test was successful and Waldo signed a contract with the studio.
Her early film career was largely uneventful, often confined to B-movies and low-grade Westerns, many times without on-screen credit. In the late 30s and early 1940’s, female talent that weren’t top stars was often treated as poorly as indentured servants. By 1943, Waldo left Paramount and the movies behind.
Waldo had decided to give radio a try in 1941 to fill a lull between movies. Edward G. Robinson gave her a shot on his popular radio show Big Town. With a high profile success under her belt, Waldo caught on as a regular on the Lux Radio Theater program and eventually became a top star with her own series Meet Corliss Archer. It ran for 8 years on the CBS Radio Network, but when the series was purchased by Hollywood for the movies, Waldo would be denied a chance to portray Corliss on film. United Artists decided to give Waldo’s role to Shirley Temple, who was nearing the end of her film career. However, audiences just didn’t want to see Corliss portrayed by anyone else and the intended franchise stalled after two entries.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time Waldo would lose a role she largely created to a has-been falling star.
Waldo made the move to animation in 1960, becoming one of the primary talents in the Hanna-Barbera stable. Amongst the characters she lent her voice to included perennial damsel-in-distress Penelope Pitstop, the eponymous character in Josie and the Pussycats, Yogi Bear’s would-be girlfriend Cindy (after original voice actor Julie Bennett retired) Fred Flintstone’s battle-ax mother-in-law Pearl (another replacement for a retired voice actor), Precious Pupp’s owner Granny, teenage genie sidekick Nancy in Shazzan, shrewish witch Hogatha in The Smurfs, Morticia Addams on the far too brief 1973 Addams Family animated series, child astronaut Jenny on the even shorter-lived Space Kidettes and just about every major and minor female character in the H-B Studios universe.
Waldo had a non-exclusive deal with Hanna-Barbera, allowing her to contribute her vocal talents elsewhere. She provided the voice of Lana Lang in Filmation’s Superboy cartoon. She was also a regular in the Ruby-Spears animation stable, contributing voices to such cartoons as Alvin and the Chipmunks, Plastic Man, Jabberjaw, Captain Caveman and some of their one-shot specials like The Trouble With Miss Switch. Waldo also participated in the English language dubs of several foreign made animated cartoons, most notably Battle of the Planets (1978) and the mind-blowing sci-fi animated film Fantastic Planet (1973).
Voice actors, especially women, were seldom credited during this era of animation. In 1959, June Foray made history as the first female voice actor to receive on-screen credit for voicing Rocket J. Squirrel and other assorted characters in what would be later re-named The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Hanna-Barbera followed suit, listing Waldo in the credits of the various projects she took part in. That made her one of the first women to receive on-screen credit for voice work. It’s a milestone seldom ever mentioned, never mind celebrated.
But it would be her vocal role as the lovable futuristic teenager Judy Jetson that would be Waldo’s prime legacy. Essentially Corliss Archer transferred to an unspecified future America, Judy was a character many kids, especially teenagers, could relate to.
The Jetsons was initially a flop, lasting only a single season on primetime ABC TV from 1962-63. Most of Hanna-Barbera’s attempts at prime time animated TV shows failed then, with Top Cat and Jonny Quest failing to last more than a single season back then. But a funny thing happened along the way. In 1984, with Hanna-Barbera animated programming becoming a hot ticket in the syndication market, the studio decided to haul The Jetsons out of mothballs. The only problem was that there were only 24 original episodes. Syndication TV contracts required at least 65 episodes at the time, so Hanna-Barbera took a genuine risk and ordered the production of 41 additional episodes, enough to satisfy the basic requirement. The original voice cast was brought back for the revival.
In what was a shock to many TV executives and even devoted animation fans, The Jetsons found an enthusiastic audience and good ratings, especially with younger viewers who weren’t around during the 1962-63 network run. Ten more episodes were produced in 1986 for an additional third season, resulting in 75 original episodes altogether.
The TV series was still garnering strong ratings in syndication. Two made for TV animated movies, 1987’s The Jetsons Meet The Flintstones and 1988’s Rockin’ With Judy Jetson, also performed strongly in syndication. So it was no surprise that Hollywood took notice of the belated popularity of The Jetsons. In 1988, Universal Studios made a deal for a theatrical feature based on The Jetsons.
The production of Jetsons: The Movie was fraught with problems. Daws Butler, who provided the voice of Elroy Jetson, passed away just as production was getting under way. George O’Hanlon, who voiced George Jetson, suffered two strokes while recording his dialogue, the second of which proved to be fatal. Mel Blanc also succumbed to heart disease before completing his work, requiring voice actor Jeff Bergman to finish the job uncredited. Production also dragged interminably, resulting in the anticipated Summer 1989 release date being bumped three times: first to Christmas 1989, then Spring 1990 and finally Summer 1990.
Waldo had completed her voice work as Judy Jetson when a horrible thing happened. MCA Records’ top teen pop act Tiffany was experiencing a career lull in the wake of an acrimonious break with her management and a changing music scene, so Universal decided to remove Waldo’s recorded voice track, destroy it and re-record it with Tiffany. They hoped that being connected to an eagerly anticipated animated feature would help resurrect their falling star and draw teenagers to the theaters.
Tiffany wound up being a poor substitute for Waldo, as her vocal performance lacked the zest and vitality Waldo brought to the role on television. Tiffany sounded bored and out of place. Universal simply didn’t realize that the teenage demographic were already big fans of The Jetsons and wouldn’t need cajoling to a big-screen feature done correctly. Not to mention that when the news eventually broke that this odious plan had the full approval and blessing of Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, these fans- many of whom became hooked during the 1985 revival- became angry.
Waldo rightly took grave exception to being exiled from the voice role that was not only the most synonymous with her career but her personal favorite, in favor of a has-been pop star. She took her anger public, telling the truth to anyone who would listen. Waldo wasn’t the only one involved with the production who was angry. Casting director Andrea Romano abruptly quit the production and demanded her name be removed from the film’s on-screen credits and advertising, especially after Universal and Hanna-Barbera shamefully tried to make her the sole scapegoat for their callous decision to dump Waldo. Animator Iwao Takamoto, who actually did the majority of the film's direction, also asked for his name to be removed from the film’s credits. Hanna and Barbera wound up taking directorial credit.
The voice actor change wound up being all for naught as the film was an expensive box office failure, partly due to plot deficiencies, loyal Jetsons fans being royally ticked off over the callous treatment of Waldo and the animation coming off as second rate when compared to Disney’s resurrection with The Little Mermaid earlier in the year. Tiffany’s career remained on the downturn and a disastrous third album released in October 1990 pretty much finished her off for good.
Disenchanted with the entire situation, Waldo largely retired from voice acting. However, 1993 saw a surprise rapprochement between herself and Hanna-Barbera. Waldo once again voiced Pearl Slaghoople in a pair of Flintstones animated TV movies. She also had a brief role in H-B Studios’ theatrical feature Once Upon A Forest that same year and did additional voices for the final season of H-B Studios’ syndicated series Tom and Jerry Kids. After one final voice role on the Fox animated series King of the Hill, Waldo called it a career by portraying Penelope Pitstop one final time in the video game adaptation of Wacky Races.
Despite her health issues and advanced age, Waldo still eagerly made special appearances and always with a smile on her face. It’s almost as if she was what Judy Jetson would have been like, had she been flesh-and-blood instead of ink-and-paint. Waldo may have left this mortal coil, but her soul will forever live on through her work.
Muhammad Ali, the greatest professional boxer of his era and quite possibly of all time, passed away at age 74. He had been hospitalized last week with Parkinsons- related respiratory problems that grew so severe he was placed on life support. Alas, this was one fight that he couldn’t overcome in the end.
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942. Ali’s father was named after the famed abolitionist and politician Cassius Clay, a fact few know today. Growing up in the thick of some of the worst racial segregation this country has ever been mired in certainly shaped the future Muhammad Ali’s brash anti-establishment personality.
It was a racially motivated crime that caused young Clay to step towards the world of boxing. When his bike was stolen, a 12-year old Clay vowed to whoop the person responsible. Joe E. Martin, a Louisville police officer who was also the local youth boxing coach, told Clay he should learn boxing and guided him towards what would become a bright figure on the amateur and professional circuit.
Making his debut as a boxer in 1954, Clay turned out to be a swift study and a gifted boxer, quickly winning six local Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles and the gold medal in the light heavyweight division in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Despite his success, Ali still experienced the full brunt of racism in the American South.
After the Olympics, Clay made his professional debut defeating Tunney Hunsaker in six rounds. He worked up an undefeated streak of 19-0, winning 15 of those fights via knockout. Some may not realize it, but Ali had a lifelong connection to professional wrestling. It was during this time period that the trademark bombastic Ali persona came to existence. A longtime wrestling fan, Clay was inspired by the legendary pro wrestler Gorgeous George, widely recognized as wrestling’s first colorful heel. George would taunt his opponents during his matches and add a lot of showmanship to his routine. Clay was an eager study, incorporating both into his boxing career.
On February 25, 1964, Clay was granted a shot at legendary boxer Sonny Liston’s World Heavyweight Championship. It was expected to be an easy victory for Liston as no one believed Clay would win the fight or the title. Clay hung on for seven rounds to score the victory with a TKO.
It was a historic win in many ways. At 22 years of age, Clay was the youngest World Heavyweight Champion in boxing history. It would also be the final time he would use the name Cassius Clay. Shortly after his title win, Clay converted to Islam, shedding his “slave name” and adopting the name Muhammad Ali and aligning himself with the controversial Nation of Islam. It was also here where the unified World Heavyweight Championship would splinter into two separate world titles as the WBA decided to strip Ali of the title because of his religious conversion. The WBC refused to go along, still recognizing Ali as their World champion.
By now, we all know the highlights. Such milestones as the Fight of the Century with Joe Frazier in 1971, the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in 1974 and the Thrilla in Manila against Frazier amid record heat conditions in 1975 have taken their rightful place in sports history. So has the milestone of becoming the first man to win the World Heavyweight Championship three times, which no one had even come close to achieving back then. His retirement in 1978 and his failed comebacks afterward are also well known and covered.
There are some important events of Ali’s life that some people may not know about, such as Ali’s dalliance with professional wrestling during and after his boxing career. Ali famously made an appearance during a WWWF (now WWE) TV taping in Philadelphia on June 2, 1976, during which wrestler Gorilla Monsoon grabbed the boxing champ and gave him an airplane spin atop his shoulders. It led to the classic Monsoon line of “he doesn’t know a wristlock from a wristwatch”.
This was largely to hype a huge mixed match-up at Budokan Hall in Japan on June 26, 1976 between Ali and Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki. WWWF promoter Vince McMahon, Sr. was promoting the American closed-circuit presentation in New York’s Shea Stadium. So it made sense for Ali to appear on McMahon’s TV show to hype the fight.
The highly anticipated dream match was a financial success, selling out Budokan and drawing over 32,000 fans in Shea Stadium, but wound up becoming a total nightmare. Ali was still recovering from the brutal Frazier fight in Manila. The styles clashed big time as Ali’s considerable boxing skills didn’t mesh well with Inoki’s attempts at amateur catch-as-catch-can wrestling. Inoki’s kicks were so stiff that Ali wound up suffering from blood clots, deep bruises and hematomas on his legs for months afterward, almost losing one leg in the process. Ali only threw six solid punches throughout the entire 20 minute match.
Fans watching live in Budokan Hall did something no Japanese wrestling fan ever did: they made their disgust well known by showering the ring with boos and garbage.
Despite the match being a total fiasco, Ali and Inoki wound up becoming good friends and both would later have a shared faith in Islam. Ali even flew to Japan to celebrate Inoki’s in-ring retirement in 1998. Ali’s reputation was such that he was immortalized in the classic video game WCW vs. NWO: World Tour as the character “Joe Bruiser”. No official reason was given for the name change, although most suspect it was to avoid having to pay significant royalties for using Ali’s name.
When Vince McMahon launched the inaugural Wrestlemania in March 1985, he decided to bring in all the star power he could. Ali was recruited to be a special guest referee for the much hyped main event of Hulk Hogan & Mr. T against Rowdy Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff. During an out-of-control brawl, Ali restored order by clocking Piper with his trademark right hook.
Ali would make the occasional appearance at a wrestling show. He was originally supposed to be the special guest referee for the Hulk Hogan-Ric Flair steel cage match at WCW Halloween Havoc 1994, but by then, Parkinson's disease and a lifetime of concussions had taken their toll badly on the champ, resulting in him just making an appearance at ringside. Ali was also part of the American delegation taking part in the extremely controversial New Japan/WCW tour of North Korea in April 1995. In his autobiography, Flair mentioned that Ali’s mental fog inconveniently lifted during a testimonial to then-leader Kim Jong-Il, stating “No wonder we hate these mother*****s.”
As illustrious as his great boxing career was and what a superb natural athlete he certainly was, Ali may have made his greatest strides as a bonafide American hero. In 1967, he became the highest profile conscientious objector in American history when he flatly refused to serve in the Vietnam War for moral and religious reasons. He sacrificed three of the prime years of his boxing career to take a brave stand.
While many still vilify Ali to this day about his carefully thought out decision, he wound up paving the way for the anti-war movement. Civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. who were reluctant to oppose the war and the LBJ administration’s involvement in it now felt the freedom and inspiration to do so.
Ali’s anti-establishment stance won over a generation of youth frustrated over what society had become and inspired them to stand up for what they believe in regardless of the fear of reprisal. In a way, Ali paved the way for today’s pro-Bernie Sanders, anti-establishment political youth movement.
Ali also became an example of the danger of concussions on the human brain. Although many believe that Parkinson’s Disease was solely responsible for Ali’s diminished state in the past three decades, it is now believed that boxing while not fully recovering from brain concussions are what led to Ali’s diminished state, even accelerating the onset of Parkinson’s. Rather than retreat into seclusion, Ali took his battle public, giving the dreaded disease a public face and becoming a figure of hope that the disease wasn’t merely a death sentence.
Ali also became an inspirational figure when it came to religion. Taking exception to their extremist anti-white stance after the death of Elijah Muhammad, Ali left the Nation of Islam in 1975. He converted to the more inclusive Sunni Islamic faith, which embraced a more spiritual teaching of peace and understanding amongst one and all. He took his religious faith very seriously, even becoming an official Ambassador of Peace for the United Nations.
I was initially at a loss over how to end this look back at a life as brilliant as Muhammad Ali’s. When discussing the matter with my friend and fellow contributor Koriander Bullard, she suggested perhaps ending it at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when Ali made a special appearance to light the Olympic torch. Despite his health struggles, he valiantly kept going and lit that torch.
I also recalled his final Olympics appearance at the 2012 London games, where he served as the official American flag bearer. His physical condition had deteriorated badly enough that he needed a wheelchair and physical assistance to get up, yet he carried on and proudly bore our nation’s flag.
Thinking back upon those two distinct moments, they serve as the epitome of what Muhammad Ali was as a man. Despite crippling odds against him, time and time again he stood up and carried on to the best of his ability, even at great personal pain. I can’t think of a greater epitaph than that.