In this clip from 1979, Billy Crystal performs “15 Rounds,” a 12-minute routine at Muhammad Ali’s retirement tribute at the Forum arena in California. The comedian traces the legend’s career, from Ali’s global, professional debut at the 1960 Olympics all the way up until his triumphant rematch against Leon Spinks in 1978, at the age of 36. It’s a fascinating performance—Crystal plays all the parts, switching flawlessly between impressions of sports commentator Howard Cosell, Ali, and others.
Unlike some of Crystal’s other, more questionable impersonations of black celebrities (Prince, Sammy Davis Jr.), this impression of Ali clearly comes from a place of deep affection and highlights just how distinct and singular the boxer was, even in rare defeat. And save for mentioning Ali’s monumental announcements about joining the Nation of Islam and refusing to fight in Vietnam, Crystal focuses on Ali, the athlete.
Meanwhile, Ali is seen smiling and laughing from the audience in the corner of the screen—he was clearly delighted by the impressive tribute, and if you stick around to the end of the video, undoubtedly you will be, too.