Muhammad Ali, the colorful 1960 light-heavyweight Olympic boxing champion who went on to hold the world heavyweight title three times, is known to have uttered many a memorable remark during his time in the spotlight. His personal catch phrase “I am the greatest” came to serve as an identifier of the man, in that whoever voiced it, one knew that person was alluding to Ali. Likewise, his “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” motto stood the test of time as a valid descriptor of his boxing style, even though when he said it (as “I’ll be floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee”), he was offering it as typical pre-fight verbal posturing in the ramp-up to his 1964 heavyweight title fight against Sonny Liston.
However, Ali is to memorable quotes what Yogi Berra is — while he clearly did indeed say some of the things now widely attributed to him, it is doubtful he said all of them. Did the renowned pugilist, for instance, say, “My toughest fight was with my first wife”?
Yet it is another quote of his to which we turn our focus, one that appears in Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes as well as in Karl Evanzz’s 2002 compilation I Am the Greatest: The Best Quotations from Muhammad Ali:
Just before takeoff on an airplane flight, the stewardess reminded Ali to fasten his seat belt. “Superman don’t need no seat belt,” replied Ali.”Superman don’t need no airplane either,” retorted the stewardess.
Did this exchange ever take place? Or is it an item of apocrypha, an oft-repeated story that is more fiction than truth, more embroidery than fabric?
Various newspaper articles throughout the years have presented the anecdote in different ways. Most typically, the story is passed along as above — the action concludes with the flight attendant’s retort, with no further information given about when or where the repartee took place. Yet some tellings work in small accompanying details, such as “an exchange with an Eastern Airlines attendant,” Ali’s “flying from New York to Los Angeles to make a movie,” “this reported exchange at the start of a Washington/New York flight in 1980,” and some accounts conclude with the now-humbled champion meekly doing as told and fastening his seat belt.
On the one hand, Ali was not afraid of flying and so would have been more likely than most to foreswear the wearing of seat belts when on planes. Said sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz: “We once sat next to Ali on a flight from Chicago to Houston, and he confided that he had no fear of flying because Allah would not allow him to die in a plane crash. It was not clear whether this warranty extended to his fellow passengers, but his confidence reassured us.”
On the other, while it is at least believable the champ would arrogantly declare “Superman don’t need no seat belt” if challenged over his wanting to remain unharnessed for the flight (he had no fear of dying in a plane crash and his ego was such that he would have thought nothing of comparing himself to Superman), it is less likely that the other party to the purported quote would have in a split second come up with the perfect squelch. Real life is very rarely as the Hollywood scriptwriters would have it.