Muhammad Ali will ultimately be remembered as much for what he said and stood for, as for his astonishing feats in the ring. Ali knew early that his skill as a performer wasn’t limited to the Ali shuffle and rope-a-dope — that his tongue could trip the light fantastic. Ali released a spoken word album on Columbia Records in 1963. Hey, everybody was putting out records in ’63 — a group called The Beatles debuted that year on vinyl with “Please Please Me.”
Ali’s effort was entitled, presciently, “I Am The Greatest.” That may be the underlying theme of a lot of rap records today, but it was new then — the winking braggadocio, the charming, swaggering claim on posterity. The amazing thing in retrospect is that Ali didn’t own any title belts at the time he recorded “I Am The Greatest.” (He did, of course, own 1960 Olympic Gold.) A 12-track time capsule, the 45-minute “I Am The Greatest” is also a singular introduction to a young voice that became among the most important voices of the 20th century. And he recorded it when he wasn’t even The Champ. Ali wouldn’t win the heavyweight title by beating Sonny Liston until 1964.