​The poetry of Muhammad Ali

"Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee" -- one of many expressions that turned a kid from Louisville, Kentucky, into a global sensation. Anna Werner looks at Muhammad Ali, wordsmith:

"This poem tells how it feels to be as great as me.
This is it, the greatest short poem of all time: me ... Whee!"

Muhammad Ali -- still known as Cassius Clay at the time -- wowed the audience at "The Steve Allen Show" with that bit of rhyme back in 1963, ahead of his first bout with Sonny Liston.

"He had an amazing flair for words -- anybody could see that," said author Jonathan Eig, who is writing a biography of Muhammad Ali. He says the man known for his verbal dexterity actually was dyslexic.

"Ali was not a great student," he said. "In fact, a lot of the teachers at Central High School thought he should not have been given a diploma because he missed so many classes and he took a lot of time off to compete in boxing tournaments. But they decided to give him the diploma anyway.

"The principal made the argument that they didn't want to be remembered as the people who flunked the heavyweight champion."

"If you like to lose your money,
be a fool and bet on Sonny."

In a CBS interview 10 years ago, Ali's wife, Lonnie, revealed how the champ overcame his reading difficulties: "Muhammad, as a way of compensating, would memorize everything, and that's why he knows poetry so well."

"Ali fights great, he has speed and endurance.
If you decide to fight him, increase your insurance."

"It's funny because a lot of my favorite Ali poems, it turns out he didn't write," Eig said. "You know, 'Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,' that came from Bundini Brown, [who] was one of Ali's cornermen. And Bundini actually trademarked that phrase."

But there was no question that Ali knew how to use his talents:

"I am the man all over the land,
And if you don't believe it,
Just interfere with my plan."

"He was like an actor or a comedian," Eig said. "He knew which lines would get the laughs, which lines would sting. And when he found one, he stuck to it and he used it very effectively almost like he used that big jab."

And as his wife Lonnie said in that interview years ago that Ali kept it all in perspective: "As Muhammad said, 'I never said I was the smartest. I said I was the greatest!'"


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