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Reviewing Muhammad Ali’s 1977 Appearance on Johnny Carson

Days after defeating 22 year old Spaniard Alfredo Evangelista in Landover,  MD on May 16,  1977,  Muhammad Ali made a guest appearance on ‘The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.’ The 35 year old Ali immediately began by cracking jokes about Carson’s white hair and wrinkles and considerable aging since first being on his show a decade earlier.  Ali revealed that he earned $2.75 million for beating Evangelista. Carson politely but respectfully noted that Ali did not quite perform up to his typical high standards and Ali “didn’t look very good”,  and Ali admitted he was getting older which is natural for everybody. Ali also noted that he was surprised that he was still on top of the sport after “fourteen years” which was a remarkable feat to which the live studio audience applauded. Carson also asked the motive behind Ali’s laying on the ropes style and enduring the punches of Evangelista to which Ali replied that it was a tactical move. When asked by Carson how to offset his lay on the ropes strategy, Ali actually started to with hand gestures by his head but then he abruptly changed his mind and refused – adding that if he did disclose his secrets the other heavyweight contenders like Shavers and Norton would use the information against him in future fights. Carson also questioned Ali if his rumored marriage troubles contributed to the less than sensational performance and Ali waved off the probe and,  with a slightly hushed tone with eyes looking down, requested to talk about something else. Ali also noted about his boxing future:  “I’m good for about two more fights (he actually had five more – against Shavers later that year, Spinks twice, Holmes, and Berbick).”
After a commercial break, Carson point blank asked Ali if he and Howard Cosell were friends? Ali paused and then countered with one of the funniest moments of the night: “Johnny,  he gets paid to be an idiot, what’s your excuse? Let’s talk about something else.” Ali then talked about his new movie “The Greatest” and about the possibilities of being an actor someday:  “I don’t know if I’d want to be an actor, I like the real life drama.”  After showing a short preview of “The Greatest”,  Ali told the story about renting the bus and driving from Chicago to Denver which was the home of Sonny Liston. Ali explained about the crank call to the police about the fake riots at Liston’s house to draw the police and the media to the scene where Ali was taunting Liston into their future fight. Interestingly, Ali revealed that it took “six months of campaigning,  then he (Liston) had to negotiate.” Historical accounts of Liston vs Clay l often neglect to mention that it took six months of media pressure by young Clay to force and pressure Liston into doing the fight.
Ali looked good and was dressed in a dark suit and tie but he did have that tired aura which became more pronounced in the following years. Carson and co-host Ed McMahon were very graciously respectful and clearly honored to have Ali as a guest – it seemed it was Ali who had done Carson the favor by appearing and not the other way around of Carson doing Ali the favor of giving him the platform to promote his new movie. When Ali was finished, he stood up and shook hands with Johnny and Ed and then quietly departed the stage and exited to the curtain – it was as if Ali was in a bit of a hurry to another engagement or appointment. –Artwork and article by Scoop Malinowskialicosell

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