There isn’t much to say about Muhammad Ali that hasn’t already been said in the hours since his death on Friday, for good and for ill, but one aspect of Ali’s towering life and career that begs not to be overlooked is exemplified by his 1974 appearance on Candid Camera. For those of you too young to remember, Candid Camera was like Punk’d, only with less Ashton Kutcher. The setup for this gag was little kids being asked about The Champ, then having him suddenly appear. The reactions were priceless, but especially the boy in the second clip here:
That’s how empowering a figure Muhammad Ali was to kids, that even this little kid’s sister thought she could be anything, including Muhammad Ali. In 1974.
When I was growing up, I never met a kid, black or white, who didn’t love Muhammad Ali, who couldn’t do dead-on impressions of the Champ’s catch-phrases. In the white northeastern suburb we moved to in 1977, the kids’ parents were a different story. Ali fittingly dominated in a field with the most overtly racist fandom in all of sports, which is saying a lot, so most white adults were either openly hostile to Ali, or at best grudgingly acknowledged him with the same coded language they use for all black athletes. White athletes “hustle,” while black players are “hot dogs.”
Over the past few days, there have been many who claimed that Ali“transcended race,” and others who lament that he only gained widespread acceptance when he was “no longer a threat” due to his illness, but there’s something to be said for the possibility that many of these people just got tired of arguing with their kids, whose case was as simple as it was unassailable. He was The Greatest.