Muhammad Ali’s first sounds were “Gee-Gee, Gee-Gee.” His beautiful mother Odessa Clay called her son “G-G” for the rest of her life, and years later, Ali would say, “After I won the Golden Gloves, I told Mama that from the very beginning, I was trying to say, ‘Golden Gloves.’ ” So began the life of Muhammad Ali, who celebrates his 70th birthday today.
Though many know him as the greatest boxer of all time, few know that it was actually the theft of his bicycle at age 12 that began his boxing career. After the bike was stolen, Ali ran to the police station, threatening to “whup whoever stole my bike.” Joe Martin, a white Louisville, Ky., policeman, told him he had better learn to fight, and in his spare time, he took Ali under his wing and taught him the ropes. Ali won his first fight six weeks later. When the referee raised his arm in victory, Ali shouted the iconic words that would become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “I’m gonna be the greatest of all time!”
But what was so incredible about Ali was all the courageous and selfless things he did beyond boxing. In 1975 I called Ali to talk to him about the campaign I was doing for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whose book convinced me that he was an innocent man in the slammer. Muhammad was so happy to hear I thought Rubin was innocent. He said, “Absolutely, I’m with you.” Ali literally stopped doing a million things to help someone — a fellow fighter — get out of jail. It was so heroic, and of all the times we worked together, it is still my favorite memory of him. I also can’t tell you how many times, when we were driving on the road, he’d see a school and make me pull over. He’d meet all 200 schoolkids and sign 200 autographs, often with a kid on his lap. That was just his personality, to be so giving of his time. It seriously got to the point that when I saw a school, I’d think, “Oh my God, here we go again. We’re in trouble.”
About 15 years ago, I was a juror in court in downtown Manhattan. After the case was over, the judge asked the jury to enter and talk to him. We go in, and he explains that one of the jurors was a man who changed his life. We’re looking at each other, and he goes, “The juror is George Lois.” Everyone is looking at me, and I’m looking at him like he’s crazy. He told me he was a student at Columbia University in the ’60s, when there were furious debates about Vietnam and draft dodgers, and how that 1968 Esquire cover of Ali as St. Sebastian solidified the argument for Ali’s decision to not participate in the draft. The judge said it changed Columbia University students’ understanding and point of view about the war. I remember that because it speaks to the influence of Ali. From a narcissistic self-promoter who eventually became a man of enduring spirituality through a journey of formidable tests, Ali emerged as a true superhero in the annals of American history and a worldwide ambassador of courage and conviction. A boxing legend who courageously spoke up for black men and civil rights throughout his life! Ali, above all, is the sweetest, nicest person I’ve ever met in my life. And on his glorious 70th birthday, I am privileged to salute him, with the rest of the world.
George Lois is one of advertising’s most famous art directors and cultural provocateurs. From 1962 to ’72, he art-directed several iconic covers for Esquire magazine.