NEWARK, N.J. – Time and again during Richard Sherman's hour-plus Super Bowl media day session, the conversation reverted back to Muhammad Ali.
This was apparently because Sherman's trash-talk rant after the NFC championship game and the backlash that followed, we guess, turned the Seattle cornerback into the modern Ali. Or something like that.
Sherman himself scoffed at any comparison of their "struggles." Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title, banned from the sport and nearly thrown in prison for refusing to enter the U.S. Army and fight in Vietnam. Sherman was called names on Twitter.
"His situation was a lot more brave and a lot more serious than my situation is now," Sherman said. "He had to deal with a lot more scrutiny."
Indeed. Which isn't to say there aren't similarities between the two, but focusing on being bombastic in certain interviews is too simple of an analysis.
Ali was a masterful fighter in part because of his versatility and ability to make opponents think they were getting one kind of battle only to wind up in another. Fifteen rounds of rope-a-dopes, bee stings and butterfly floats later, he was still the champ.
You couldn't figure what was coming next. He made the people that hated him the most flounder about and look foolish in the ring.
In terms of public relations, redemptive image building and post-conflict news conferences, Richard Sherman has been equally dominant. On Tuesday, in the biggest spotlight imaginable – one hour of unscripted, unpredictable questioning just across the river from the nation's largest media market – Sherman gave one of his finest performances.
"The Mouth That Bored" is how the New York Daily News described his introspective, thoughtful and perspective-laden comments this week. Genius might be more appropriate.
The guy who some thought was a thug, a punk and an uneducated fool? He's turned the tables completely on those folks by making every perfect comment and hitting every imaginable note.
On Tuesday alone, he faced a mass of cameras and microphones 10 to 15 deep by arriving early, smiling and attacking every question.
He took blame for his postgame comments: "I understand the mistakes I made."
He was direct in his regret that he tore down San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree: "I regretted just attacking a man. You never want to talk down on a man to build yourself up and things like that."
He acknowledged his emotional outburst drew attention away from the accomplishments of the team and his teammates, and then he repeatedly went on a long speech that singled out player after player for their performances:
"I really think these cameras should go to my teammates, especially after Bobby Wagner's 15-tackle game in the NFC championship, Kam Chancellor's interception and multiple pass deflections and his 11 tackles. …I think these cameras can be around anyone. I think that what happened after the game, the situation that occurred, forced them to be around me and forced everybody's attention, but I think I have the best teammates in the world."
He continually placed himself not above the fray, but as part of a group, bringing up the nickname of the defense, "The Legion of Boom."
"I'm one of 22 out there. I'm one of 53 on my team."
He deftly managed to turn the tables on his critics, making those who spouted off at him come across as small-minded or even bigoted. This is no small feat.
Especially "the comments delivered immediately after the game," Sherman said. "[I was] really taken aback that people had time to contemplate their answers and to thoroughly understand the message they were putting out there and that was the message they were putting out there…
"A good amount has to do with misconceptions. I think if you took a picture of me and didn't have any background information and just [asked] 'what was captured in this picture,' I think people would pass judgment."
Sherman even found a way to make the criticism positive, noting how it's produced a moment of positive dialogue about the issues of stereotyping – an aggressive black guy with dreadlocks is also a highly intelligent Stanford Man.
"I think that discussion is happening. …And I think people are trying to break down those walls and really get to know people before they pass judgment."
See, America is a better place now.
On and on it went, Sherman absolutely taking control of a media pack that has crumbled plenty of strong-minded men. This is Super Bowl week and this is about football – Seattle vs. Denver, the Legion of Boom vs. Peyton Manning – but as a tactical celebrity damage control event, it was a Hall of Fame performance.
It takes one heck of a closed mind to still see Richard Sherman the same way a lot of people did when Erin Andrews threw it back to the guy in the Fox booth.
"The more people look, they'll see that I've been working to help people in the world," said Sherman, a Compton, Calif., native. "And the more people see that, the less they'll judge me about those 20 seconds."
It might have been more fun – certainly for the tabloid headline writers – had Sherman stayed with his role of chief trash talker and antagonist of this Super Bowl. Maybe Ali would've doubled down. Richard Sherman chose otherwise, so he spun the entire thing around, rope-a-doping those critics until they were punched out and boxed in.
That arrogant man screaming on TV about how he's the greatest was long gone.
Now he was a man of wisdom and respect for all. When asked what he would tell area strippers (media day brings out bizarre questions), he became a concerned philosopher: "There are other avenues to make money. Women can do anything they want."
Mostly, Sherman was likable. He was just like you – "Beyonce is everyone's crush, isn't she?" – a humble, hardworking man of the people who sees the glitz and glamour of Manhattan across the way and whose only request involved public transportation – not a stretch limo to a hot nightclub.
"I just hope I get to ride the subway," he said.
Here's guessing even The Greatest is impressed by all of this.
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