Muhammad Ali: a life in the media

We look at the 70-year-old fighter's life, as seen on screen

Three times world heavyweight champion Cassius Clay – later Muhammad Ali after his conversion to Islam – is one of the greatest boxers of all time. On Tuesday he turns 70, although the celebrations have already begun, with the first of five birthday parties planned for the year ahead having made headlines in the US last Saturday.


It’s many years since Ali was seen in the ring, but despite his age and continuing struggle with Parkinson’s disease, he remains a charismatic figure who commanded the attention of the world’s media throughout his fighting career.

Tonight, ITV1 is screening When Ali Came to Britain, a documentary about the boxer’s many visits to the UK. Here we remember Ali through a selection of his many appearances in television and film, and through his portrayal in movies about his life.

The Greatest  1977

There have been many books written about Ali, including Norman Mailer’s The Fight. Richard Durham’s biography was co-authored by Ali himself and he also takes a writer’s credit on the film adaptation, in which he plays himself. George Benson sings the title song, Greatest Love of All, later covered by Whitney Houston, but the film played to modest reviews.

When We Were Kings 1996

Ali was a showman with a list of quotes to his name, some of which – “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” – were known even to schoolchildren when he was at the height of his career. Similarly his biggest fights are memorable for their theatrical titles – Rumble in the Jungle, when Ali took on then world heavyweight champion, George Foreman, in Kinshasa, Zaire, remains one of the most famous.  Leon Gast’s documentary follows the fight from the build-up to the event itself – considered one of the greatest boxing matches of all time – and features Ali talking at length about his beliefs.

Ali 2001

Will Smith in a sense took on Ali himself when he accepted the challenge of depicting a man who had already captivated the cameras for four decades. Compared to When We Were Kings, which won an Oscar, it might be said that Smith loses the contest, but he turns in a respectable performance as the legendary fighter who had retired from the ring in 1981.

Commercial: Roach Proof 1980

Just to prove the man wasn’t so scary, and that even sports legends need to earn a living, here is Ali in a now classic commercial celebrating the virtues of a roach trap.


When Ali Came to Britain airs tonight, 10:35pm, ITV1.