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“Jaws,” they say, invented the blockbuster. But damn if Muhammad Ali didn’t get there first. From 1971 to 1974, he starred in two of the greatest events in the history of American sports, fights with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden and George Foreman in Kinshasa that had names that belonged on a movie studio’s release schedule: “The Fight of the Century” and “The Rumble in the Jungle.”

In October 1975 came a rematch with Frazier. They called that one “The Thrilla in Manila.” But with all due respect to Francis Ford Coppola, everyone who saw Ali and Frazier nearly kill each other that oppressively sticky Manila morning knew it was the original “Apocalypse Now.”

In 1965, the photographer Neil Leifer captured Ali after he had knocked out Sonny Liston two minutes into their match — Ali stands over a laid-out Liston, roaring in conquest, making you think the man is playing a totally different sport. To stick with the “Jaws” comparison, he was the shark, the ocean and the boat captain, and if he was fighting, you were going to need a bigger bout — the biggest.

It wasn’t just the matches that were blockbusters. It was Ali himself. He was the most important political-cultural figure to survive the deadly tumult of the 1960s and flourish in the 1970s. Ali licked Liston, Frazier, Foreman and dozens of other men. But he was at the center of American culture in part because he had turned boxing into a condition of the American self: Punch or be punched. With him, boxing wasn’t just a sport but a referendum on the state of the country.

He had become larger than life, but without forgetting how much black lives matter. The legacy of his bodacious charisma was built to last well beyond his death on Friday. Ali was telegenic, funny, clever, blunt, fearless and, above all, politically principled. His beliefs transfixed and polarized the country: What would he say next; where would he take us? The short answer to that second question is “on a public journey.”

Ali was a politically black Zelig, but instead of merely lurking within the times, he shaped them. He was complicated and contradictory as both a man and an African-American, embracing and shedding radical black Islam, wielding racist imagery to rile opponents, refusing to play the black clown for the press.

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The journey led the baddest boxer in the world to shake hands with Gerald R. Ford, one of the blander presidents. He acted on Broadway and wrote braggadocio raps that we called poetry because, at the time, we didn’t know what rap was. By the time he lit the Olympic torch for the Atlanta Games in 1996, he was an elder statesman, visibly shuddering with signs of Parkinson’s disease, a powerful, poignant distance from his 1960s self but still media-ready.

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Related Coverage

MUHAMMAD ALI, 1942-2016

Muhammad Ali Dies at 74: Titan of Boxing and the 20th Century JUNE 4, 2016

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A Look Back at the Greatest JUNE 4, 2016

SPORTS OF THE TIMES

As Butterfly or as a Bee, Muhammad Ali Always Made an Impression JUNE 4, 2016

Muhammad Ali’s Words Stung Like a Bee, Too JUNE 4, 2016

SPORTS OF THE TIMES

When Muhammad Ali’s Twinkle Shone Brightest JUNE 4, 2016

The day after he upset Liston in 1964, he hooked up with the Nation of Islam and announced that he would no longer be going by his birth name, Cassius Clay. Sure, it was the name of a white abolitionist — from Ali’s own Kentucky, no less — but it felt like a slave name, too.

The news media took its sweet time coming around to “Muhammad Ali.” Many reporters kept calling him Cassius, in a childish, bear-poking style. So he had to fight for that, too. By 1977, when LeVar Burton’s Kunta Kinte chose in “Roots” to be whipped for refusing to repeat his new name, you can imagine a portion of the 30 million people who watched exhaling something like, “Oh. I get it!”

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