‘The Greatest’ to appear on Sports Illustrated cover for 40th time

Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, who died on Friday at 74, will appear on the Sports Illustrated cover for the 40th time next week. Reporter Tim Layden, who wrote the 39th cover story last fall about Ali’s life and his outspoken approach to social issues, joins Hari Sreenivasan in New York to discuss.

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    To discuss the life and times of Muhammad Ali, "Sports Illustrated" writer Tim Layden joins me now from Hartford, Connecticut. Layden wrote the last "S.I." cover story on Ali published last year. Ali will appear on the magazine's cover for the 40th time next week.

    Tim, you had the good fortune of meeting him just not too long ago. But is it possible to overestimate the impact that Muhammad Ali had?

    TIM LAYDEN, "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED" WRITER: I think back to when I saw him, which was in October, in Louisville. His wife, Lonnie, gave me some access to Muhammad in order to write the story that I did in "Sports Illustrated".

    And at that point, really, I view Ali's influence over the course of his life through the prism of the people that met with him that night. It was a small group of people at a private function that were allowed to meet with him, and they were of all ages, both genders, many different races. And everybody was moved to some emotional level that you wouldn't normally see — tears, laughter, just to see the way that he touched people at the age of 74 at the time, and it was just overwhelming.

    And to think that, really, he had been out of the public eye for 20 years at that point, really, even longer — 32 since he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's. So, I found it hard to wrap my arm around it that night and that is a small microcosm of what his life has been.


    What is it about him that has made people across generation look up to him as a hero?


    I think that what he is to people almost depends on who that person is and how old that person is, and when that person came into contact with Ali, either personally or just through images on a television screen or somewhere else. I think, obviously, to a generation of boxing fans in the '60s and '70s, he's one of the greatest athletes in history. To the African American community of the '60s, he is a representation of the social battle that they were involved in at the time, and are still involved in today.

    To people that are attuned to political society in America, his stance against the Vietnam War at that same time was hugely significant, and eventually confirmed by the Supreme Court of America.

    And then I think as Ali got older — and, obviously, was in an immense battle with Parkinson's disease, and yet refused to surrender to it — I think that people became empathetic to what he was doing and admiring of his courage and his dignity in the face of a debilitating illness that in many ways he's brought upon himself with the courage for which he cheered for him in the ring. So, I think that it really comes down to who you are and when you knew Ali. And that's why he touched so many people.


    I mean, there's a younger generation of people who probably only know this guy as the one who lit that Olympic torch so famously. I mean, what — you know, the type of stances and positions he took at the time that he took them, it's almost unimaginable to think of an athlete that is that dominant sports today, with all of the corporate backing that might come with it and all of the money, taking huge positions on socially controversial issues of the day.


    It's almost impossible to convey that to an audience of young people who might be fans of a Cam Newton or Steph Curry or LeBron James or Bryce Harper, to try and make them understand how much Muhammad Ali put at risk in the 1960s, not only by refusing induction into the selective service but also by his conversion to the Nation of Islam, to the Muslim faith, at a time when that was a hugely unpopular stance as well.

    He gave up everything and Muhammad Ali enjoyed fame and celebrity and money, and he put those things at risk. For the modern athlete, really, it is about their performance on the field, but every bit as much it's about furthering and buttressing the brand that their name represents. And, obviously, any controversial position is going to put that at risk, and they would never do that.


    All right. Tim Layden of "Sports illustrated", joining us from Hartford, Connecticut, today — thanks so much.


    You're welcome.