When Muhammad Ali called Elvis Presley “The Greatest”

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Muhammad Ali is considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. “I’m the Greatest” became Ali’s catchphrase even before it was true.

“It’s not bragging if you can back it up,” Ali once said.

But there was one person (besides himself) who Ali also called “The Greatest” – The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley.

Ali was a huge Elvis fan. In the 1970s, when asked who his favorite singer was, Ali said that Presley was his second favorite only to Sam Cooke.

“When I was 15 years old and saw Elvis on TV, I wanted to be Elvis,” recalled Ali to his friend, Tim Shanahan, author of Running with The Champ. “Other kids in the neighborhood were listening to Ray Charles and James Brown, but I listened to Elvis. I admired him so much and I decided that if I was going to be famous, I’d do it just like him. He’s one of the reasons I wanted to entertain people and be loved by the people and make the girls admire me so much.”

As a young teenager, Ali was influenced watching Elvis become successful during his breakthrough year of 1956. He was particularly impacted when Elvis followed through on his promise to buy his mother a car and a house when he became rich.

“I was 14 years old when I heard Elvis say that, and that made me want to do the same thing,” Ali remembered. “I said, ‘When I get rich and famous I’m going to buy my mother a car and then a house.’ After my first pro fight, I bought my mother a pink Cadillac… And after my second fight I bought my folks a house. Just like Elvis.”

Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali first met in February 1973 in Las Vegas and were photographed together. Presley presented Ali with a custom-designed robe made especially for Ali. The bejeweled white robe had a similar look to the jumpsuits that Presley wore on stage at the time. Ali reciprocated by giving Elvis boxing gloves that he signed: “Elvis, You are the Greatest. From Muhammad Ali. Peace 1973.”

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“Ali said he really liked the way Elvis dressed,” explained Presley’s friend, George Klein. “He said they were both originals. So Elvis contacted his designer and ordered a robe made for Ali and presented it to him. It said ‘The People’s Choice.’ It was supposed to say ‘The People’s Champ.’ But Ali wore it anyway. Howard Cosell asked Ali, ‘Where did you get that beautiful robe? Ali told him, ‘Elvis gave it to me.’”

Presley and Ali remained friends until Elvis’ death in 1977. Ali recalled that when they met in Las Vegas in 1973, Elvis was closing his February concert run there and had invited Ali to drive back to Los Angeles with him in his gold-plated Cadillac station wagon. Ali wanted to, but had plans to return to Louisville instead. Years later, he regretted that decision.

“Maaan, that would have been historic,” Ali said. “I always wanted Elvis to drive me down Beale Street in a convertible, so his hometown could see that Muhammad Ali and Elvis Presley were good friends. Then I’d bring him to Louisville and do the same thing.”

During Elvis Week on August 16, 1985, Muhammad Ali agreed to speak at the annual memorial service for Presley sponsored every year in Memphis by George Klein. Ali had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, but he won over the crowd of Elvis fans when he sang a few lines a capella of one of his favorite Presley songs, “Don’t Be Cruel.” Ali then gave a very heartfelt speech about his friend.

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Muhammad Ali with Jack Soden at the Meditation Garden at Graceland, 1985

“We black people are kinda funny about music,” Ali told the crowd of Elvis fans. “We aren’t going to follow someone unless they’ve got soul – Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson – but the only white boy that had soul, who could sing as good as any of them was Elvis… He had singing ability, he had everything – he was pretty, I know. And when it comes to boxing, nobody has the class, the style, the wit, the speed, the beauty of Ali. And when it comes to singing, nobody had everything like Elvis… I’ll tell the world, Elvis was the greatest of all time.”

That day, Ali visited Graceland. He went to the Meditation Garden where Presley is buried to pay respects to the friend that he greatly admired. In 1988, Ali donated the robe that Elvis gave him to the Hard Rock Café in New York. The robe is on display now at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville.

“People don’t realize what they had till it’s gone,” observed Ali. “Like President Kennedy, there was no one like him, The Beatles, and my man Elvis Presley. I was the Elvis of boxing.”

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“Elvis was my close personal friend,” recalled Ali. “He came to my Deer Lake training camp about two years before he died. I don’t admire nobody, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you’d want to know.”

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Find out more fascinating facts about Elvis Presley in the book, ELVIS and THE BEATLES, which discusses The Beatles connection to Muhammad Ali as well.
Read a free excerpt here: https://amzn.to/2NVxSvX

Check out my other book: ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music 
Read a free excerpt here: http://amzn.to/1grwhfd

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