Superman vs. Muhammad Ali: How the Heavyweight Champ and the Man of Steel Saved the World in 1978

How Ali and Superman saved the world!

Training

The Mego toy corporation, arguably best known for its line of World’s Greatest Superheroes from both Marvel and DC, which of course included the Kryptonian alien with the ‘S’ on his chest, had just put out an officially licensed action figure of Muhammad Ali in 1976. It seemed a natural progression, then, for the world’s heavyweight champion to be turned into a comic book character. 

To take that one step further, teaming Muhammad Ali with Superman seems to make perfect sense. It’s a no-brainer when viewed in hindsight anyway. In 1976, there were those who weren’t so sure. In fact, some laughed at the very notion.    

The same year that Mego manufactured its Ali figure, a song called “Black Superman—Muhammad Ali” was released by Johnny Wakelin and the Kinshasa Band which was thought to have inspired the thought process that kickstarted the comic. However, the book’s writer and artist Neal Adams doesn’t recall having heard it. Throughout the years, the origin story behind the creation of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali has been shrouded in rumor and innuendo, or at least indistinct and somewhat faulty memories. 

Adams believed it to be the brainchild of editor Julius Schwartz (known affectionately to friends and family as “Julie”) who raised everyone’s eyebrows at a morning meeting by submitting the proposition of having Superman go toe-to-toe with Muhammad Ali. But, not so fast. 

Although it seems to be as much a work of fiction as the comic book itself, Jenette Kahn, who at the time was DC’s newly hired publisher, credits the concept to none other than Don King. The Barnumesque boxing promoter who wears a perennial fright wig is said to have blustered into DC headquarters at 75 Rockefeller Plaza with his typical pomp and circumstance, but also an intriguing pitch that Jenette felt had considerable merit.  

Having previously paired their Man of Steel with real-life personalities like John F. Kennedy, Orson Welles, Bob Hope, and Jerry Lewis, DC had just the year before partnered with Marvel for a wildly popular crossover called Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man. Nevertheless, no matter whose idea it was or how compelling, there were skeptics on staff who needed convincing that such an ambitious endeavor could be achieved without coming across as preposterous.  

“A Superman/Ali comic book had to be not only an epic entertainment,” said Kahn, “but also an exploration of the ideals and actions that made Superman and Ali heroes around the globe.” 

This project would reunite the acclaimed creative team of Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil. With Julius Schwartz’s editorial touch, the dynamic duo of Adams and O’Neil had brought a darker edge to Batman in the early 70s which, to many, was a welcome change from the frivolous camp of the Adam West TV series. They also collaborated on a joint Green Lantern and Green Arrow story arc called “Hard-Traveling Heroes” which provided readers with a gritty examination of contemporary maladies such as heroin addiction and racism. Later in the run, they introduced DC’s first black superhero by way African American sniper and architect John Stewart’s intense takeover of the Green Lantern character.   

Their biting social commentary revolutionized the manner in which comic book narratives were composed, paving the way for a future generation of hardboiled trailblazers like Frank Miller who followed in their footsteps not long after. But it literally came at a cost, scaring off younger fans not ready for such graphic subject matter and polarizing less progressive readers who wished to be entertained rather than lectured to or reminded of everyday life’s ills and pitfalls. 

Somehow capturing the best of both worlds, stark realism and fantastic escapism, was the challenge presented to O’Neil and Adams for Superman vs. Muhammad Ali—a treasury-sized, 72-page standalone title that would pay homage to America’s preeminent icons.

“Here was our opportunity to say something about the world without actually getting involved in the political arena, but getting involved in the area of humanity and high adventure and fun and enjoyment,” proclaimed Adams. “This was not a comic book that was done by accident. This book rubs shoulders with Ali. It takes him out of the myth and makes him a human being,” he elaborated. “Heroes are meant to be walked down the street with. You walk down the street with them, you find out if they’re good guys. Some heroes are not good guys. Ali, very clearly, was a good guy.”

This labor of love was a very personal and meaningful one for many individuals involved, with the added and assumed responsibility that the project they were undertaking would be not just relevant but highly significant to a diverse portion of society who had long since been disenfranchised. “DC Comics had a lot of liberal New York young Jewish men working for them at the time, who understood prejudice,” professed Adams. “And to depict Ali as on par with a white mythical Superman, was a subtle political act. The pen is mightier than the sword.”

 

Preliminary

“I knew of Ali well before the Superman thing, and I guess I admired him, first for his skill as a boxer and later for his work as a peace activist,” recalled writer Denny O’Neil. “When I met him at a mountain resort where he was training for a fight with Ken Norton, I understood what the word charisma meant. When he walked into a room, when he was nearby, you felt it. But he was quiet, and when he shook my hand, his grip was gentle. I don’t know if we spoke. Probably not. He must have been meeting scores of people and I was just another face in the crowd.”

O’Neil visited Ali’s training camp in the Catskills to get an up close and personal look at the champ’s unique mannerisms and speech patterns which would prove useful when it came to rendering an accurate depiction of him in comic book form. “I don’t agree with everything Ali said,” confessed Denny, “but I do not doubt his honesty, nor his sincerity. He used the fame he won by practicing a violent trade to promote peace. No one else has ever done that and I doubt that anyone ever will.”

As assurance that he would not be caricatured in an unflattering manner that might in some way denigrate his public perception or run afoul of the strictures adhered to by the Islamic faith with regard to the reproduction of his image, Ali requested that the folks who would be working directly on the book first travel to the Windy City to meet with, and obtain the approval of, his spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad. Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil did exactly that. 

Before the wheels could be set fully in motion, editor Jenette Kahn had a sit down with the heavyweight champion’s manager Herbert Muhammad and personal lawyer Charles Lomax. To successfully complete the gauntlet, she was finally invited to the Chicago home of Ali himself. He was so charmed by her, Ali dubbed Jenette “Superman Lady.”

The venture officially began, as most journeys do, with an abundance of anticipatory enthusiasm. “Once you realize that you’re going to have Superman and Muhammad Ali fight for the right to save the Earth, the story kind of writes itself,” Adams had boasted. It should go without saying that things didn’t play out quite so effortlessly.

It is still not evident to this day exactly why Dennis O’Neil departed the project a little more than halfway through the plotting and drafting process. In his introduction to the hardcover Deluxe Edition of Superman vs. Muhamad Ali published in 2010, Neal Adams merely stated that “…Denny had to pull out early on.” 

Even O’Neil, who passed away in June 2020 at the age of 81, retrospectively offered no more than a cryptic and dismissive interpretation of the controversy by saying, “there are probably at least two versions of why I bailed early,” and leaving it at that. 

Adams was asked by Julius Schwartz to finish the book on his own, now serving as both writer and artist, only to be told after accepting the unenviable task that he had until the following Monday to complete the script. This, of course, was impossible and Adams made it clear that if he were to proceed as requested, no deadline could be imposed upon him. Schwartz agreed to his open-ended terms and, given the greenlight to go ahead at his own pace, Adams soldiered on and off and on again over the course of subsequent months, with his partner Dick Giordano inking the pages just as fast as Neal could pencil them.

Remaining true to Dennis O’Neil’s overall vision for how the story would develop, Adams approached the writing process as “an amalgam” which he would solve by painstaking degrees through rearranging certain “powerful” portions of the existing narrative, removing some elements he felt were superfluous or bogged down the story’s pace, and adding his own unique contributions.    

Having studied numerous photographs of Ali to use as the template for his remarkably faithful illustrations, Adams additionally employed direct quotes from the champ’s own mouth throughout the book to give his characterization of the man known the world over as ‘The Greatest’ a genuine true to life, and yet fittingly larger than life quality that was undeniable. “Respect for the fighter became tremendously important for me,” Adams said. 

 

Main Event

Fighting out of the blue corner in white trunks with black trim from Louisville, Kentucky is the world’s heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali. Hailing from the planet Krypton, wearing all blue accented by a red cape with tights and boots to match, Kal-El, better known as Superman, fights out of the red corner. Why exactly are these two champions of the people standing in opposing corners? Let’s turn the page and find out.

The story begins with Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen meandering through an urban section of Metropolis tracking down a scoop for The Daily Planet. They have been tipped off that Muhammad Ali is in town and are hoping to score an exclusive interview with the boxing great, whom they indeed encounter playing a pickup basketball game with some neighborhood kids.    

An extraterrestrial being spontaneously materializes from a brilliant burst of light, terminating its impromptu summit in the most unexpected way possible. To the champ, at least. The other three are used to this sort of thing, the way Ali is accustomed to such common interruptions as autograph seekers or photo requests. An overeager Lois Lane rushes forward with a microphone in hand to record the alien’s remarks and is hurled to the ground. The chivalrous Ali jumps to her rescue, knocking the creature off its hovercraft with a powerful blow to the midsection while Clark Kent disappears into an adjacent alleyway to covertly change into his alter ego. 

The otherworldly visitor reveals itself as belonging to a race of warmongers known as the Scrubb which, even as they speak, has its entire armada of spaceships directed toward Earth, poised to attack. Knowing Earthlings to be equally as combative as the Scrubb, the creature expresses admiration for Ali’s “savage” reaction and presents him with the burden of a weighty ultimatum—a battle between his planet’s greatest warrior and their own, with the fate of every living person being the prizefight’s pivotal risk or reward.

After flying into near-Earth orbit to survey the situation, Superman arrives back in Metropolis to debate Ali over who is most fit to represent Earth in this intergalactic throwdown. To demonstrate the grim nature of their intent, the Scrubb destroy an uninhabited island in the Pacific, and their visitor gives the two arguing gladiators 24 hours of Earth time to settle their differences in a preliminary skirmish of their own. 

Superman flies Ali to his Fortress of Solitude deep in the Arctic tundra where, faster than a speeding bullet, he constructs a boxing ring around a Kryptonian Continuum Disruptor which transports them instantly to the fringes of outer space. Here, one Earth minute equals roughly an hour, which will allow them to prolong their allotted training time. 

Furthermore, a glowing orb hangs suspended above the ring which is made from the fragment of a red sun which famously deprives the hero of his super powers, thus levelling the playing field they are being forced to share. Ali takes great delight in enlightening the unschooled Man of Steel on the finer points of varied punch selection. “It’s the sweet science,” the champ playfully scolds him, “an’ I am the professor.” 

Their ruse is discovered by the Scrubb emperor Rat’lar, who immediately summons them to his ship and has Ali and Superman make the acquaintance of Hun’ya, a hulking beast manufactured in a laboratory to create the ideal warrior. Superman’s boxing education continues, as Ali introduces him to the tactics of psychological warfare by brazenly mocking Rat’lar and tickling Hun’ya under his chin. “Sometimes a fight is half-won before you put on the gloves,” the winking champ confides to Superman.   

The battle between Ali and Superman for the right to face Hun’ya and save the Earth takes place on the Scrubb’s home planet of Bodace where Howard Cosell looks properly chagrined at the fact that broadcasting duties for an event of universal magnitude have been given to Jimmy Olsen, with Lois Lane adding color commentary. 

Ali is accompanied to the ring by Angelo Dundee, Herbert Muhammad, and his ever-present hype man Bundini Brown. Working Superman’s corner are Olympic trainer O.J. White and Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White, who can’t believe that Jimmy Olsen failed to mention that he had once been a Metropolis Golden Gloves champion. 

With Superman bereft of his powers, it takes Ali just two rounds to batter the Man of Steel into submission. Mistaking kindness for weakness, the Scrubb cannot comprehend why Ali is exhibiting compassion toward his fallen foe after being the one responsible for striking him down. Superman is carried from the ring on a stretcher and placed in an oxygen tent, and Rat’lar reluctantly agrees to send him back to Earth where the restoration of his super powers may possibly save his life. 

Back on Bodace, the victorious Ali prepares for his scrap with Hun’ya while Bundini Brown conspicuously sneaks away from ringside. The Scrubb emperor demands that Ali make his customary prediction as to when he will knock his opponent out, adding a stipulation that, even if he somehow wins the fight, the Earth will be decimated anyway if his forecast proves to be incorrect. “He’ll hit the floor in four,” gloats Ali who spends the next two pages going on one of his signature pre-fight rants full of bombast and poetry in equal measure. 

After slugging his way through the Scrubb security detail, it is revealed that Bundini Brown is actually Superman in disguise, the two having pulled off the old switcheroo at some point in time. The Man of Steel pilots a stolen spacecraft away from Bodace’s red sun, then abandons the vessel and takes to the skies on his own so that he can begin to disable the formation of Scrubb spaceships standing by to destroy Earth upon command. 

Despite Ali’s knockout blow to Hun’ya, the Scrubb emperor Rat’lar decrees that his orders will be carried out regardless. The only suitable alternative would be for Ali to consent to the enslavement of every last Earthling. For a black man who shunned his “slave name” of Cassius Clay, these terms are not only unacceptable but downright repugnant. Hun’ya unexpectedly defies Rat’lar by smashing through the floating dome in which the emperor is encased while the Scrubb guards stand by in silent solidarity, refusing to aid their deposed leader. 

Rat’lar has long imposed his will upon the Scrubb people, Hun’ya explains, ruling over them through spreading misinformation and instilling fear. They will abide by these wicked, warlike ways no more and Superman, Ali, and Hun’ya symbolically join hands in a show of universal accord.

“You put up a great fight, Clark Kent,” Ali says to Superman after their return to Metropolis. The Man of Steel tries to explain his way out of being called out on his secret identity, but soon realizes that he can’t outtalk the world’s foremost talker. As they shake hands on the last page, Ali happily declares, “Superman, WE are the Greatest!” 

There have been persistent rumors over the years that Ali demanded the insertion of the climactic scenario wherein his character figures out that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same. Neal Adams has insisted time and again that he was never pressured into obliging any such request.

 

The Cover

Every memorable bout deserves a great fight poster. With that in mind, now that we have taken a good long look at what the comic book displayed between its covers, the iconic cover itself is more than deserving of its own discussion.   

Originally tapped to create the wraparound artwork for Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was Joe Kubert, who began his career in comics at the age of eleven in 1938, the very year Superman likewise made his debut, and was best known for his work on World War II-era titles like G.I. Combat and Sgt. Rock as well as Hawkman in the 1960s. Muhammad Ali’s handlers were not terribly happy with Kubert’s sketch, however, deeming his effort too “crude.” Kubert was out as the cover artist, replaced by Neal Adams, as if he didn’t already have enough on his plate with writing and penciling the entire book.

Adams felt in no way compelled to completely alter Kubert’s illustration or start from scratch. Moreover, he wanted the legendary artist’s name to remain attached to the project. Therefore, Neal kept Kubert’s original premise in place depicting the two combatants slugging it out inside a boxing ring on the far right with the left side of the panorama dominated by screaming spectators. “So I essentially took his layout, and just put my own drawing into it,” Adams explained. “And if somebody recognizes the pose of, say, Superman as not being a typical Neal Adams pose, it’s a Joe Kubert pose, adapted to my style.”

Kubert had placed the tagline THE FIGHT TO END ALL FIGHTS above the title, but Adams changed it to the even more sensationally eye-catching THE FIGHT TO SAVE EARTH FROM STAR-WARRIORS. Adams also took advantage of the luxury to do what Kubert had not been given time for, adding in background details such as a Scrubb spaceship racing past its home planet which looms menacingly above the stadium. For his final flourish, Adams decided to have some fun with the crowd gathered together to witness this intergalactic donnybrook.

“Why don’t I put famous people on the cover watching the match?” he wondered. Not content to scatter a handful of familiar faces throughout the audience, Adams drew in a veritable who’s who of 1970s personalities—no fewer than 172, to be exact. Obtaining likeness rights was a concern that produced not so much as a blip on Adams’ radar, so caught up in the moment that he took it for granted the celebrities would all be thrilled to be included in such a monumental pop culture phenomenon. 

Most of them were. Which is why you will immediately recognize President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball, Donnie and Marie Osmond, Joe Namath, Cher, Andy Warhol, Wolfman Jack, Frank Sinatra, members of the Jackson 5, and Ron Howard to name but a few. Members of Muhammad Ali’s inner circle such as Herbert Muhammad, Bundini Brown, Don King, and trainer Angelo Dundee, can be spotted in the crowd, and many have understandably mistaken soccer star Pelé for Ali who appears to be paradoxically watching himself fight The Man of Steel from the second row. Superman cocreators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are part of the action, and Adams made sure to throw himself, Denny O’Neil, and Julius Schwartz into the mix just for fun. 

Other notables were not so keen to play ball with DC’s legal team when it came time to secure their permission, declining to be represented on the cover. Necessity, as they say, being the mother of invention, Neal Adams found some simple solutions which were as practical as they were effective. 

For instance, the back of the bald head prominently featured front row center was supposed to belong to Telly Savalas. The Kojak star failed to respond with the expected “Who loves ya, baby?” so Adams merely erased the character’s trademark lollipop, changing the owner of the gleaming dome seated right next to the cape and cowled Batman into Superman’s archenemy, Lex Luthor. 

A noncompliant George C. Scott was converted into Slaughterhouse-Five author Kurt Vonnegut. John Wayne proved to be another spoil sport, and Henry Winkler gave the request a “nay” rather than a Fonzie-like “Ayy!”, which Adams dealt with by subtly obscuring their faces with 70s-style moustaches. 

A numbered cheat sheet printed inside the comic helps readers identify each and every celebrity. All things considered, Adams’ new and improved cover received the thumbs up from Ali and his entourage and work on the book was soon after completed to the satisfaction of all. 

 

The Verdict

The release date for Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was unfortunate in that by the time it was published in late February 1978, the comic book’s real-life namesake had just recently lost his heavyweight title to Leon Spinks in an unthinkable upset. Competing in only his eighth professional fight, Neon Leon was a mere eighteen months removed from having won an Olympic gold medal as part of the celebrated 1976 U.S. Dream Team which included his brother Michael, Leo Randolph, Howard Davis Jr., and Ray Leonard.    

“Part of my job was to publicize the book, and like most publicists I was trying to think up a gimmick,” said DC staffer Mike Gold, recalling his role in manifesting some cross promotional hype to put the comic over during an Ali/Spinks pre-fight media event to be held at New York’s Time-Life Building. 

“Ali was globally known as a man who could out-talk a Dexedrine fiend. The proverbial light bulb lit up over my head, and I called Larry Schlam (a personal friend and famed juvenile rights attorney turned law professor) and asked him to put me in touch with Ali’s lawyer,” Gold continued. “I discussed my planned stunt and he was all in favor, and he added a few bells and whistles of his own. He also added the obvious admonition that The Champ might not agree or, if he did, he could change his mind right there at the press conference. Que sera, sera, as both Doris Day and Sly and the Family Stone used to sing.”

To the consternation of the sportswriters no doubt anxious to scribble down the heavyweight champion’s latest compilation of rhyming prognostications, DC Comics editor Jenette Kahn brought Ali onto the auditorium’s stage where he stood uncharacteristically mute in the face of a barrage of questions concerning his upcoming title defense. Showing off an advanced copy of his comic book, Ali made it abundantly clear that it was his showdown with Superman, not Leon Spinks, that he wanted to talk about. And talk about it he did.  

“It was on the front page of literally hundreds of newspapers across the planet,” bragged Mike Gold. “Most carried a shot of Neal’s meticulous and beautiful wraparound cover.” The ploy worked like a charm. So much so that, as a direct result, Gold received overtures from both Don King and Bob Arum to leave DC and come work for them as a publicist. 

“His life speaks for itself, in a tone much louder than any pre-fight couplet ever uttered by the three-time heavyweight champion of the world,” Gold rhapsodized about Ali. “He was a man of conviction, a man of principle who overcame racism and anti-Muslim sentiments and pro-war hysterics who took his crown for nearly four years during his prime in payment for standing up for his beliefs. Yeah, that always carries a price. Deal with it. Muhammad Ali did, and he won back his title. Twice.”

Neal Adams was on hand in New Orleans seven months later when Ali reclaimed the heavyweight championship from Leon Spinks at the Superdome to begin his third and final world title reign. “I fought my way through the crowd to Ali’s side for a photograph,” Adams said about the post-fight press conference. “I put my hand on his shoulder and it felt like stone. He radiated power and strength.” Neal remembers Ali telling him how he would proudly pull out his copy of the comic every time someone came to visit his home, whether or not his guest had already read it or even asked to see it. 

“It meant so much to so many people,” reflected Adams more recently. “To this day, I have African Americans come up to me at comic book conventions with their old, weathered copy of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali for me to sign. It’s still extremely emotional.”

 

Sources: 

Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali: Deluxe Edition (DC Comics, November 16, 2010)

Dante A. Ciampaglia. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali: The Origin of the Greatest, Strangest Team-Up in Comic Book History (Sports Illustrated Extra Mustard, June 16, 2016)

Mike Gold. Muhammad Ali…And Me? (Comic Mix, June 8, 2016)

Megha Mohan. When Muhammad Ali Took On Superman (BBC, June 7, 2016) 

Dennis O’Neil. Superman, Muhammad Ali, and Me (Comic Mix, June 9, 2016) 

Matthew Peterson. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali: Analysis of a Cover (Major Spoilers, June 6, 2016)

Arlen Schumer, transcribed by Jon B. Knutson. The Greatest: Neal Adams and Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (TwoMorrows, interview conducted November 12, 1999)

Yaron Steinbuch. Rare Superman—Muhammad Ali Comic Art on Display in NYC (New York Post, February 16, 2017)

Sista ToFunky. Superman’s Greatest Opponent: Muhammad Ali (Museum of Uncut Funk, June 1, 2009) 

Comic Book Men: Mr. Adams (AMC, original airdate February 15, 2015)

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