1996: 60 Minutes profiles Muhammad Ali

"He called himself 'The Greatest,' and few argued," is how Ed Bradley began this 1996 profile of Muhammad Ali, who has died at age 74

Muhammad Ali, former boxing heavyweight champion, has died at age 74. In 1996, correspondent Ed Bradley profiled Ali, and the piece became a classic -- in part because of Ali's spirit, story, and struggle, and in part because of the prank that Ali played on Ed.

The Greatest

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Muhammad Ali CBS News

The following is the script from the March 1996 story, "The Greatest." Ed Bradley was the correspondent. John Hamlin, producer.

He called himself "The Greatest" and few argued. For a while he was quite simply the most recognizable person in the world. Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, he won his country a gold medal in boxing at the 1960 Olympics and then threw it into the Ohio River as a protest against his country's racism.

At 54, it is not surprising that he no longer, as he used to say, "floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee." What is surprising about this most famous of all heavyweight champions who ever lived is how he has come to terms with the Parkinson's syndrome that doctors say came from his years in the ring and by all rights should have laid him low, and probably would have if he weren't Muhammad Ali.

You're the best, Muhammad.

Today it is increasingly difficult for him to talk. There is a constant shaking of his hands, rigid walk, sometimes a vacant stare. Still, people tend to dismiss his physical limitations and are respectful of the sometimes-awkward silence their questions receive.

Ali, you're still the prettiest. How are you doing?

Many are people deeply touched by his presence.

We met you in Atlantic City and you were wonderful to me and my husband. Thank you. You are the champ.

Ali is sensitive to both their adulation and their concern for him, often breaking the ice by reaching back to the familiar.

The great one. The great one.

Lonnie Ali: When people perceive Muhammad, they want to see that fire. They want to see what they saw 20 years ago.

Lonnie Ali is Muhammad's fourth wife. They've been married for eight years.

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Muhammad Ali CBS News

Lonnie Ali: Muhammad has a way of communicating with people, and I think he knows this. And that's one of the reasons why he really doesn't really bother with the speech as much. He can communicate with the heart and with his face, and he knows that.

Champ, I just wanted to meet you and wish you the best. We love you.

Yet it's hard not to see the Muhammad Ali of today without remembering the Ali of yesterday.

Muhammad Ali: I am the king of the world.

Reporter: Hold it. Hold it. Hold it.

Muhammad Ali: I'm pretty.

Reporter: Hold it. You're not that pretty.

Muhammad Ali: I'm a man's man.

Reporter: Wait. Wait.

Ali was a magnificent fighter. He had the speed of a lightweight in the body of a heavyweight. He fought as no one had before him. Fearless in the ring, time and time again he seemed unwilling to accept defeat. Three times over his 20-year career he was heavyweight champion.

Reporter: A ripping right at the end of the round sends Foreman tumbling like a tree struck by lightning.

During his time, Ali was a boxer without parallel. He also was a talker without parallel.

Muhammad Ali: I'm the fastest thing on two feet, man.

Muhammad Ali: I don't care how small the ring is, I'll fight that chump in a telephone booth.

He was known as the "Louisville Lip."

Reporter: Let me see you close your mouth and just keep it closed.

Muhammad Ali: Well, you know that's impossible.

Reporter: No, no, now keep it closed.

Muhammad Ali: You know that's impossible. I'm the greatest.

But today if the "Louisville Lip" is not forgotten, it is gone forever. Dr. Dennis Cope has been Ali's physician for 16 years. Ali asked him to talk to us.

Dr. Dennis Cope: He has had a development of what's called Parkinson's syndrome. And from our testing on him, our conclusion has been that that has been due to pugilistic brain syndrome resulting from boxing.

Ed Bradley: Pugilistic brain syndrome?

Dr. Dennis Cope: That's correct.

Ed Bradley: What is--is that what people call punch-drunk?

Dr. Dennis Cope: That is a common term that was used for it in the past. I think with regard to his particular case, it doesn't fit because all of our testing has indicated that his cognitive function, his ability to think clearly, to understand what's going on, to really analyze situations hasn't deteriorated at all.

Ed Bradley: So his mind's OK?

Dr. Dennis Cope: His mind is fine.

I don't box. I don't box.

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco: Just look in his eyes. His eyes will tell you what--what he's thinking. You can see a twinkle in the eye all the time. He's mischievous. He's like a little kid. He's still laughing. He's still thinking. He's a wonderful person.

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco and trainer Angelo Dundee worked with Ali during his career in the ring.

Angelo Dundee: He's going to do some--a magic trick for you.

Ali was always a trickster, partial to elementary magic tricks and practical jokes. He hasn't changed.

Angelo Dundee: Did you catch it?

Ed Bradley: He's too tricky. Oh, man. Oh, yeah. I thought it was in that hand.

Angelo Dundee: He loves magic. Watch the levitation thing. Watch his feet. Looks like he's taking off. Watch. All right.

Dr. Dennis Cope: Just as he was a champion in the ring, so has he brought this quality of indomitable spirit to his sickness. He acts like he doesn't have anything, and that's the way to do it. That's the way to do it, no matter what kind of disease you've got. Act like you haven't got it. Keep on going. And that's what he does.

He keeps on going, on the road more often than not and mostly for charity, but also for business commitments that generate close to $1 million a year. His schedule only allowed him 90 free days last year to spend at his farm in southwestern Michigan, where he and Lonnie raise their five-year-old son Assad, Ali's ninth child.

Here, his day begins before dawn with prayer, the first of five prayers during the day, which is part of the normal day for all Muslims. Today Ali is a follower of conventional Islam. For a time, he was a member of the separatist Nation of Islam. Following those beliefs, he changed his name from Cassius Clay and refused to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. For that, he risked a jail sentence and was forced out of the ring at the peak of his career, denied a license, unable to fight for three years.

Muhammad Ali: Now draft is another thing that's against my religious beliefs.

He is just as serious about his religion now. He spends hours each day autographing Islamic literature to pass out on the road to explain his beliefs. And the rest of his day? Well, if he's home, there is the seemingly endless stream of mail.

Ed Bradley: How many letters do you get a week?

Lonnie Ali: I don't know; about 200 to 300 pieces.

Ed Bradley: Wow. Even after all of these years?

Lonnie Ali: After all of these years. And from all over. Most of them are individual photos that they have, that they've collected, that they want signed of Muhammad.

Ed Bradley: Huh. And he'll go through these and do all of them?

Lonnie Ali: Yes. We have asked Muhammad, actually to be efficient, if we could get a stamp or a machine that will do his autograph, but he refuses. He insists on doing every one himself. So if they get something in the mail, they can rest assured that Muhammad sat there and signed it.

Here would be great, if you could.

Much of Ali's time is spent signing his name. The fan mail and religious literature are only part of it. He does do some autograph shows where he's paid a minimum of $100 for each signature. But for the most part he signs for free, responding to the endless requests from people he sees in his travels.

Muhammad.

All right.

Ed Bradley: We watched him at one event signing --it must have been a couple hundred autographs...not at a card show, where he was being paid, but for free.

Lonnie Ali: Yes.

Ed Bradley: And he--when asked about it afterwards, he said, "I'm just"--he whispered, "I'm just trying to get to heaven."

Lonnie Ali: That's right. Every deed he performs--he believes every signature he signs is a good deed and will be counted. And it's very difficult sometimes to get Muhammad away from his fans because he usually never says "no" to anybody unless he's just extremely tired.

All right?

Even when he is tired, he often says yes to another trip for charity. We went with him on this one, a five-day humanitarian mission to accompany a relief group delivering medical supplies to Cuba. They were seeking publicity for the trip and paid his expenses.

Muhammad Ali!

Ali's host for the trip was Cuba's own boxing hero, three-time Olympic gold medalist Teofilo Stevenson. But Ali's fame even eclipses the native son, proof that his legend--that he's recognized in every corner of the world--still holds 15 years after his last fight; that he still knows how to captivate a crowd helps.

Knock him down!

The job of shepherding Ali through the demands of his fans falls to Lonnie and Ali's best friend of 35 years, photographer Howard Bingham.

Howard Bingham: All right. Great.

Bingham is also Ali's Ed McMahon, his sidekick and straight man.

Howard Bingham: Hit him here where it hurts. Hit him right...

Their responsibility for Ali is a labor of love for both Bingham and Lonnie. They play their roles well. They've rehearsed their parts in Ali's routines.

Howard Bingham: That's right.

Ed Bradley: I've heard you do this clucking sound.

Howard Bingham: Yeah. That's is--OK, say, like, if I'm over here and Ali's over there...and--it is easier to say (noise). Then he looks at me and then I say, 'Oh, yeah, all right, come this way,' you know. So that's mainly what that is. It is better than calling, 'Hey, Ali, Ali,' you know.

Howard Bingham: Hey, Ali. Ali. Ali. Touch him. Touch him.

Lonnie Ali: Sometimes he does that.

Ed Bradley: Yeah?

Lonnie Ali: It happened after the Frazier fight in Manila.

Ed Bradley: What happened?

Lonnie Ali: I don't know. I wasn't there. But ever since the Frazier fight in Manila, Muhammad will--it's sort of like--like narcolepsy. He'll just start sleeping, but he'll have these flashbacks. And he'll have--it's like nightmares. And his face will twist up, like he's boxing, and he'll throw punches at people. And he does it at night sometimes. Sometimes--I figured out the thing. Whenever he starts snoring heavily, I have to get out of the bed because I know it's going to start.

Ed Bradley: Is that right? So when he starts...

Howard Bingham: This is his next round.

Ed Bradley: He's not putting on when he's doing this?

Muhammad Ali pranks 60 Minutes' Ed Bradley

Lonnie Ali: No. This actually happens. And the doctor told us not to really try to wake him if that does happen because he might end up with a heart attack because it might frighten him. So I don't. I just get up and move. That's the hard part. You have to sort of...

Ed Bradley: You got me.

Ali gets everybody with practical jokes or his magic tricks--the bellman at the hotel, the crowd on the street, even Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro (translator): Where did you put it?

That's a fake thumb he uses to hide the handkerchief. Ali always shows people how he does his tricks. He believes it's against Islam to deceive people.

Fidel Castro (translator): I will try. I will try.

Castro's reaction to Ali is the same as most: respectful admiration undiminished by his illness. While we were in Cuba, Ali said he wanted to talk to us about his life now and said he'd try to do it after he got back home to the farm.

Ed Bradley: So maybe when we get up there, we can sit you down in a chair and you can talk.

Muhammad Ali: Probably.

Ed Bradley: That be OK?

Muhammad Ali: Probably.

Ed Bradley: Probably?

Muhammad Ali: According to how I feel.

Ed Bradley: According to how you feel?

Muhammad Ali: Mm-hmm.

Ed Bradley: Some days better than others for talking?

Muhammad Ali: Yeah.

Lonnie Ali: I think he is very aware of how he sounds. And coming from where Muhammad came from--the Louisville Lip--and being as audible and as boastful as he used to be when he was boxing--I mean, he was always talking. And now to have a problem with his voice and his speaking, I think it bothers him a great deal.

Ed Bradley: Is he embarrassed by it?

Lonnie Ali: I would say yes. Some--to some degree, he is.

And perhaps that's why when we sat down in Michigan for an interview, he changed his mind about talking to us when the camera was rolling.

Ed Bradley: I'm just going to show you a picture and you can react to it any way you want to.

Muhammad Ali: Can't talk.

Ed Bradley: You can't talk? Now I know you can talk. You've talked to me, you talk to Lonnie, you talked to Howard. Muhammad?

But on this day he didn't want to talk. In his kitchen, away from the microphone, Ali explained that he didn't want people to feel sorry for him; didn't want to be pitied; didn't want people to say, "Poor Ali, he fought too long." He still has no regrets about what boxing did to him because of what boxing has done for him.

Lonnie Ali: Muhammad feels that everything he did prior to now was to prepare him for where he is now in life. He is very much more a spiritual being. He is very aware of his time here on Earth. And he has sort of planned the rest of his life to do things so that he is assured a place in heaven.

Ed Bradley: People shouldn't feel sorry for him?

Lonnie Ali: Oh, absolutely not. Absolutely not. Muhammad is very well taken care of. He is a very independent individual, probably always will be to the day he dies. He makes his own decisions. He's not destitute.

Time!

Lonnie Ali: There are people who are more deserving of the public's sympathy than Muhammad. Muhammad's a very happy man. And if you relate to him in that way...if you have a smile on your face, you'll see a smile on his face.