How Muhammad Ali Hoaxed Life Magazine

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2016 has been a shit year for celebrity deaths, and it got even shittier recently when the world lost “The Greatest,” boxer Muhammad Ali. If you’re not into boxing, it’s understandable that you may not be mourning the loss, so I wanted to make a quick video telling you some of the reasons he was so great. Sure, he was a fantastic boxer, obviously. He was very, very good at punching people. But he was also so much more than that.

You might expect me to not be the biggest fan, considering what an ardent religious believer he was, even to the point of changing his name. And yes, I think Islam is just as stupid and misogynistic as Christianity. But many of his beliefs were downright inspirational: he was unapologetically black and proud at a time when black sports stars were expected to be quiet and humble. He was virulently anti-war even though conscientiously objecting to Vietnam resulted in him spending millions of dollars, facing jail time, losing titles, and being denounced. And he spoke out often against Islamic extremism, encouraging other Muslims to be peaceful and focus on charity and good works.

All of that is great, but my favorite thing about Muhammad Ali was his intelligence. He was a champion because of his fists, but he was a legend because of his brain.

With his passing, a lot of people have been sharing the most iconic images from his life, and the ones I see more than any others are of him training in a pool. These were published in Life Magazine in 1961, when he was just 19 years old and still known as Cassius Clay. The photos were taken by Flip Schulke, originally meant for Sports Illustrated. Schulke went to see Clay as he was training for a big fight. Schulke showed Clay some of his past work to impress him, and when he showed off photos he took of water skiers shot from below the surface, Clay mentioned that part of his training was shadow boxing in a pool. The water added resistance, which made him a faster fighter out of water.

So Schulke shot photos of Clay boxing in a pool, but Sports Illustrated thought the pics were too weird and suggested he sell the story to Life instead. Schulke pitched the story to Life, who loved it. The images plus the story helped build Clay’s legendary status, and obviously they still inspire a lot of wonder today.

I’m not telling that story because of how smart it is to train underwater–I’m telling it because of how smart it was of Ali to make up the entire story of training underwater in order to convince a photographer to take those iconic photos. In 1997 Schulke revealed that years after the photoshoot, he learned that Ali and his trainer came up with the idea of underwater training specifically to get attention, and that at the time, Ali couldn’t even swim.

Who knew the story behind those pics could be even better? So here’s to Muhammad Ali, a truly brilliant bullshit artist.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. That is incredible. I am a Louisville resident, long-time Ali fan, and immersed myself in the mourning/celebration of his death last week. And I have seen those photos often, but never knew the real story behind them.

    Well, another piece of brilliance from someone vastly underrated for his absolute creative genius. He will be missed.

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