ESPN/Showtime boxing analyst Al Bernstein remembers Muhammed Ali's life and legacy
Boxing analyst Al Bernstein had a great vantage point to witness some of Muhammed Ali's legendary bouts during his career.
Whether the champ was fighting Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman or Leon Spinks, the spotlight -- for good or bad -- was always on Ali.
And what always stood out to Bernstein, an member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, was the way Ali used his popularity to his advantage.
"He changed the behavior of athletes in two different ways," said Bernstein, who grew up in Chicago and lived in Wheeling during his career as a boxing analyst. "The first one (was) more about showmanship. No athlete at that time had even been assertive about saying, 'I'm great or I'm gonna win.' He was the first athlete to be flamboyantly optimistic about himself."
Ali's confidence, which crossed over to braggadocio, excited many fans and also brought many detractors, who didn't share his views or embrace his strong-willed personality.
Today's outspoken and confident athletes, Bernstein and others believe, owe much to Ali, who blazed that trail long before they were born.
"The second way (he changed the behavior of athletes) was Ali's willingness to take a stand as it relates to social issues," said Bernstein, who began his career as a newspaper writer before moving on to magazine, books and television (ESPN 1980-2003).
"Athletes or anybody in the public eye are always caught in a conundrum of 'Do I allow my beliefs involving things in society to be a part of my brand?' One thing you can say about Ali, he never seemed to factor any of that in."
Ali's outspokenness about social issues such as the Vietnam War and racial inequality during the 1950s and 1960s were not always supported. He was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 because of his views on the Vietnam War. Whether people agreed with him or not, they heard his message. Ali's stature as a world-class athlete gave him a platform to take a stand for what he believed in.
While Bernstein, 65, knows how much Ali meant to him as a fan of the sport, he also knew him as a fellow Chicagoan and someone who cared about others.
"People just loved him being around and driving around the city," said Bernstein. "Everybody I know involved in boxing in Chicago as well as others felt that connection. It was genuine."