Muhammad Ali was not the first athlete to understand and exploit modern media hype, but no one came close to mastering the art in its early form quite like the famed boxer, who died Friday night at age 74.
Some journalists of the era were baffled by him. Others were offended, a common occurrence for unconventional public figures of the 1960s as society underwent radical upheaval and generations clashed.
But for those who got Ali’s jokes, and who accepted his serious side, he was a media gift that kept on giving and who did well by his chroniclers.
At the top of that list was Howard Cosell, a Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn who revered Jackie Robinson and later stumbled into a career in radio and television and became one of the most prominent media figures in America.
Cosell and Ali formed a symbiotic relationship that lifted both their profiles and fostered a public face that mixed (mostly) good-natured joshing with important topics of their era.
Although Cosell was not alone in defending Ali’s right to be a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, a stance that eventually cost the boxer several prime years of his career, he was perhaps his most visible and outspoken ally.
Cosell also was an early adopter of Ali’s name change from Cassius Clay.
“It was a bumpy ride,’’ Dave Kindred wrote in a 2006 book, “Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship,’’ about Ali’s relationship with Cosell.
“Athletically, sociologically and politically, Ali mattered more to his times than any athlete who ever lived. Only the rare journalist stood with him, though, and Cosell did it on national television.’’
One of the duo’s most memorable exchanges came during a 1967 interview and illustrated their respective styles.
Said Cosell: “You’re being extremely truculent.’’
Said Ali, “Whatever truculent means, if that’s good, I’m that.’’
Ali did not only seek out sympathetic questioners, though.
In 1968 he turned up on “Firing Line,’’ debating issues of the day with the conservative commentator William F. Buckley and a panel that included a young Jeff Greenfield.
The exchanges were extraordinarily blunt and frank as it touched on sensitive racial issues, yet the tone remained calm and reasoned throughout, which can be jarring to a 21st-century viewer accustomed to yelling on 24/7 TV news channels.
Beyond his interviews and news conferences, Ali was a significant pop culture presence for more than a half-century, featured in numerous movies, television shows, books and other platforms.
In 1977, the movie “The Greatest’’ used the most charismatic person possible to play Ali on screen: Ali himself.
That same year, he starred in an animated NBC series called “I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali.’’ That starred Ali as himself, too.
Ali’s interviews diminished over his last quarter century as his boxing career receded further into the past and the effects of Parkinson’s affected his ability to speak clearly.
To mark his 70th birthday in 2012, David Frost, who interviewed Ali on more than one occasion during the glory days, sat down with him for a rare extended, wide-ranging chat.
“I’m still doing interviews; I’m still hot,’’ Ali said.
Ali was difficult enough to understand that his answers were accompanied by captioning, but his mind seemed relatively sharp. He also flashed his old magic touch in front of a camera, microphone or notepad.
In the middle of the interview he ignored Frost’s questions and started snoring loudly. Frost seemed concerned.
“Teasing,’’ Ali said, finally. “Did I fool you?’’ When Frost said he had, Ali said, “You’re as dumb as you look.’’