Mr. MUHAMMAD ALI (Former Heavyweight Boxing Champion): I have a poem. It says, This is the legend of Muhammad Ali, the most popular fighter there ever will be.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, known as much for his poetry as his punches.
Mr. ALI: The (unintelligible) world is dull and weary. With a champ like Foreman things got to be dreary.
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Mr. ALI: Now, someone with color, someone with dash, he brings fight fans a'running with cash. This brash boxer is something to see, the heavyweight championship is his destiny. Ali fights great. He's got speed and endurance. If you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.
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ELLIOTT: A new book traces Ali's life through his words. It's written by George Lois, a legend himself in the ad world. And you may remember his iconic cover designs for Esquire magazine in the 1960s, including several of Muhammad Ali. George Lois's new book is called "Ali Rap." He joins us now from our New York bureau.
Thanks for coming in.
Mr. GEORGE LOIS (Author, "Ali Rap"): Thanks so much. It's such a pleasure to hear Ali's voice. Isn't it wonderful? I mean it's just beautiful.
ELLIOTT: You call him the first heavyweight champion of rap. It sounded interesting in your book. This was not something that happened after his success in the ring. This dated back before his first fight as a kid.
Mr. LOIS: Absolutely. When he was 12 years old, in the Louisville Courier there is an article that mentions young Cassius Clay about to have a fight, and they quote him as saying, This guy is done; I'll beat him in one. That was when he was 12 years old.
ELLIOTT: He was called Cassius Clay. That was his given name. He later changes his name. But when he was a kid, was anybody else talking this way? Was there anyway for him to have a role model of this sort of rhyming in your face talk?
Mr. LOIS: I don't think so, other than the fact I'm sure there's some kind of a - something in the South, kind of insulting people in a light-hearted way. Maybe he got it from that. But certainly, I think it's a part of his DNA in some crazy way.
ELLIOTT: Let's listen again. We have another clip of Ali and this is before he's the champion. He's just about to fight Sonny Liston.
Mr. ALI: Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat. If Liston goes back an inch farther, he'll end up in a ringside seat. Clay swings to the left. Clay swings to the right! Look at young Cassius carry the fight. Liston keeps backing but there's not enough room. It's a matter of time and Clay lowers the boom! Now Clay lands with a right. What a beautiful swing, and the punch raises the bear clear out of the ring. Yes, the crowd did not dream when they laid down their money, that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.
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ELLIOTT: Now that is priceless.
Mr. LOIS: It's unbelievable.
ELLIOTT: He seemed to have a little ditty for every one of his opponents.
Mr. LOIS: Oh, yeah. I mean, God. I mean, in fact he said, I took care of the big ugly bear, made a habit to walk the rabbit, turned the washerwoman into a girl, and tamed a clumsy, slippery squirrel. And when I stop Shavers, I'll beg his pardon, but the place for acorns to fall is the garden. Class dismissed, you know.
And the nicknames are incredible. I mean, for Sonny Liston, the big ugly bear, because he's ugly and smells like a bear, you know. George Chuvalo, he said the washerwoman. He punches like a woman washing clothes. Buster Mathis was a lovely one. He called him the mountain because he was as big as a mountain and the mountain will come to Muhammad.
ELLIOTT: What was amazing was how fast he could come up with these little quips or ditties, whatever you want to call them, little rhymes.
Mr. LOIS: Every word - he spoke in soundbites. I was a fan of not only of Ali, but I adored what came out of his mouth. The rap thing is interesting because I'm not sure what the year was, but it was in the early '70s, I believe. And we were driving and a rap song came on. And rap was just starting to become very popular around then. And I said, hey, Muhammad, hey, you're a rapper. And Muhammad said, hey, George, I'm a double rapper; first I rap them with my mouth, then I rap them in the mouth.
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Mr. LOIS: You know, I mean is that fast or what? Just kind of brilliant.
ELLIOTT: Now, you designed one of the most famous images of Ali for cover of Esquire magazine in 1968. And in this image he's taking arrows. It's meant to replicate the Martyr of St. Sebastian. It's not exactly, you know, Ali the Greatest that he usually wanted us to have.
Mr. LOIS: Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, I was doing the covers for Esquire and I wanted to do a cover that supported Muhammad Ali, because at the time he was really controversial. When he converted to Islam and then of course when he refused to step forward and serve in Vietnam, he was taking heat from everybody. So there was a period where I knew I had to do something to help. So I did a cover. I said, Hey, Muhammad, get on a plane, come to New York because I want to take a shot of you as St. Sebastian, because I think you're a martyr. And I explained it all to him, and so he came the next day.
And he brings along his pretty white trunks, (unintelligible) the beautiful white shoes, etc., and he's posing and we affixed arrows to him, six arrows.
But before that, I showed him a postcard that I got - I had done some research on all the St. Sebastians, you know, and there were dozens and dozens of beautiful ones and many Renaissance ones, and the one I liked the best for him to pose him was something by Castano, and he looked at it and he said, Hey, George, this cat's a Christian. And I said, Yeah? It's St. Sebastian. He said, George, I'm a Muslim. I can't pose as a Christian. And I said, Oh, my God. And then I started to explain it and he understood the symbolism, etc. He said, But I just can't. And whoa. I said, Anybody I can talk to? He said, I don't know. I said, Can I talk to Elijah Muhammad? He said, Yeah.
ELLIOTT: Who was his spiritual leader.
Mr. LOIS: And he got him on the phone in the studio with everybody standing around watching us. And I have this theological discussion with Elijah Muhammad. By the end of it, he said, I think it's a wonderful idea, young man. Put Muhammad on it. And he posed as St. Sebastian.
And in the middle of posing, at one point he said, Hey, George. And then he started to point - he pointed to each arrow with his finger and he said, Lyndon Johnson. Pointed to another arrow, General Westmoreland. Pointed to another arrow, Robert McNamara. He pointed to all six arrows and named his tormentors.
ELLIOTT: Do you have a favorite Ali rap?
Mr. LOIS: Well, yeah. There are some incredibly funny ones, but I think my favorite probably, if I have to pick one, in the book I show a visual - I took the James Montgomery flag painting of Uncle Sam - the I Want You poster - and I slapped Muhammad's face - I exchanged it with Uncle Sam, keeping the white arm, keeping the white hand, and I think the quote that I love, he said, I'm America. I am the past you won't recognize. But get used to me - black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goal, my own. Get used to me.
I thought that was just such a moving statement, you know, and that's - I think that kind of defines his life. You know, that's what he was about. He said, I am who I am who I am, you know.
ELLIOTT: George Lois's new book is "Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali, the First Heavyweight Champion of Rap.
Thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. LOIS: Thanks so much. Thanks for inviting me.
ELLIOTT: Muhammad Ali fought his last bout 25 years ago. He'll be celebrating his 65th birthday next month.
You can hear more of George Lois's memories of the champ at our Web site, NPR.org.