My grandfather and I had many epic arguments but none more fierce than about Muhammad Ali. Like many in his generation he regarded the former Cassius Clay as a traitor, a loudmouth ... a 'goddamned n****r.' Ali was a brilliant fighter but to me his greatest legacy came from meeting that hatred head on and, like against Foreman in Zaire, absorbing it, taunting it, and knocking it the fuck out. RIP Champ.
Jerry Izenberg, a Star-Ledger sportswriter I was lucky to grow up reading, published a brilliant column on his 50-year friendship with Ali. Here's an anecdote about the night an aging Ali got beat by Larry Holmes:
But my strongest memory of that night applies to a bitter-sweet epitaph offered by an elderly Afro-American men's room attendant at 4 a.m. as he handed me a towel.
"Did you bet the fight?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "I bet on Ali."
"Pardon me for asking, but why?"
"Why? Why? Because he's Muhammad Ali, that's why. Mister, I'm 72 years old. I owe the man for giving me my dignity."
Drizzly Sunday in Melbourne means digesting new and old pieces about Ali. Here's a few excerpts.
Michael Powell, NY Times, 2016:
Here is another outtake from that primal force. He had listened as young white men berated him for resisting the draft. Then, eyes flashing, he came back at them.
“You talking about me about some draft and all you white boys are breaking your neck to get to Switzerland and Canada and London,” he said, adding, “If I’m going to die, I’ll die now right here, fighting you.”
The words speak to a passion forever young, and brave.
Dick Schaap, Sport magazine, 1971:
In the fall of 1969, when the New York Mets finished their championship baseball season in Chicago, Muhammad and I and Tom Seaver had dinner one night at a quiet restaurant called the Red Carpet, a place that demanded a tie of every patron except the dethroned heavyweight champion.
The conversation was loud and animated, dominated by Muhammad as always, and about halfway through the meal, pausing for breath, he turned to Seaver and said, "Hey, you a nice fella. You a sportswriter?"
When we left the restaurant, we climbed into Muhammad's car, an Eldorado coupe, pink with white upholstery, with two telephones. Two telephones in a coupe! "C'mon, man," he said to Seaver. "Use the phone. Where's your wife? In New York? Well, call her up and say hello."
Seaver hesitated, and Muhammad said, "I'll place the call. What's your number?"
Seaver gave Muhammad the phone number, and Muhammad reached the mobile operator and placed the call, and when Nancy Seaver picked up the phone, she heard a deep voice boom. "This is the baddest cat in the world, and I'm with your husband and five hookers."
Nancy Seaver laughed. Her husband had told her he was having dinner with the champ.
Richard Sandomir, NY Times, 2016, writing about the symbiotic relationship between Ali and Howard Cosell:
One man, Ali, understood racism; the other, Cosell, experienced anti-Semitism. And neither could stop talking.
Ali spoke to many other journalists, but he and Cosell seemed inseparable: teasing and challenging each other, and mock-sparring in suits and ties. Ali often threatened to strip off Cosell’s toupee du jour, and in their jokey back-and-forth, each man said the other would have been nothing without him.
“Every time you open your mouth, you should be arrested for air pollution,” Ali once told Cosell, who responded, “You would still be in impoverished anonymity in this country if I hadn’t made you.”
Mike Vaccaro, NY Post, 2016:
This is the one I’ve been thinking about most of the past few days, understandably. This was Gallagher’s Steak House, less than three weeks after I had joined The Post in December 2002. Muhammad Ali was there to promote a magazine to which he had lent his name. Ali was … well, Ali, even though he was slowed by Parkinson’s. He performed magic tricks for the writers. Someone asked him about the reluctance of modern sporting icons — specifically Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods — to take stands about anything, let alone the ones for which Ali paid such a dear price in the prime of his boxing career.
Ali shook his head slowly.
“You can’t do things because I did them,” he told us, the words tumbling in a painful drip-drip-drop. “It’s got to come from the heart.”
More magic tricks. More fans approaching with magic markers and old photos. All at once, he caught my eye. “Hello, young fella,” he said.
I was caught off guard, so I told Ali that my professional mentor was Jerry Izenberg, the longtime columnist in Newark and at The Post, one of the first writers who stood up in print for him. Their friendship was already 40 years old. The stories Jerry had shared with me were priceless. And remain so.
“You know Jerry?” he said, and his face formed into a frown. Then slowly, he raised his right arm, formed a fist, and nudged my jaw with a benign jab. “You’re ugly. Just like him.” And then he smiled. “Tell him I said that.”
Dave Kendrid, Fox Sports, 2016:
How sad that near the end we saw him only in a wheelchair, diminished, a withered old man with Parkinson’s. A pity that two generations of Americans have come of age without understanding how Ali became Ali. He last fought in 1981 and was last seen around the world at the torch-lighting in Atlanta. Saddest of all, in the time after Atlanta, marketers transformed the stricken Ali into a commodity for sale, sanitized, a Disney version of the Ali who once mattered. Some kind of living saint.
The Ali who mattered and matters still was no saint.
The Ali who matters told America to go to hell.
You could look it up. February 27, 1964. It was two days after Sonny Liston, shamed by a fighter so superior as to make him look foolish, quit on his corner stool and gave the heavyweight championship to Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., 22 years old, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali.
America then was an angry, dangerous place burning with the tumult of millions of people demanding civil rights as ordered by law, affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1954, and denied in too many places by too many racists. The summer before the Clay-Liston fight, Birmingham police turned fire hoses and dogs on black protesters. In Mississippi, a black activist, Medgar Evers, was shot and killed at his home. In August of ’63, more than 200,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. Eighteen days later, a bomb killed four young black girls at Sunday school in a Birmingham church often used for civil rights meetings.
So, in February of ’64, the new champion heard reporters’ questions about his connection to the Nation of Islam. The Nation was a bizarre sect led by the self-proclaimed Messenger of God, Elijah Muhammad. The sect was known by mainstream Americans, if known at all, as “the Black Muslims.” Its leaders embraced the firebrand revolutionary, Malcolm X, preached hateful rhetoric about “white, blue-eyed devils,” and argued for separation of the races. The Nation demanded that the U.S. provide it with its own nation carved out Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. On that February day, because Malcolm X had been in Clay’s camp and at ringside for the fight, a reporter asked whether Clay was “a card-carrying member of the Black Muslims.”
“Card-carrying,’ what does that mean?” Clay said.
From there the press conference disintegrated into badgering questions about Malcolm X, the Nation, civil rights, and integration. The sportswriters made it clear they liked neither the Nation nor Clay. Not only had the new champion aligned himself with separatists when integration was the moral high ground, he came with none of the humility and gratitude that America expected of its athletes, especially those who were black.
Finally, exasperated by the reporters’ insistence that something was wrong, Clay said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I want.”
There. Two sentences. Whatever came after that day – an epic saga came after that day – its foundation was Ali’s 18-word rendering of a complex idea. Though he lived in a society that oppressed black people, he would not give away his right to the life of his choice. On that day he foreshadowed a coming generation of African-Americans: black and proud of it. The comedian and civil rights activist, Dick Gregory, told the Ali biographer Thomas Hauser, “He lived a lot of lives for a lot of people. And he was able to tell white folks for us to go to hell.”
That Ali was no saint.
Mike Lupica, NY Daily News, 2016:
But Muhammad Ali, maybe out of memory, or maybe just because of the sheer fun that he had in him when he was young and thrilling the world with his talent and brio, didn’t show up at 4 Penn Plaza. According to Paulie Clogher, Ali had the limousine drop him off on Eighth Ave. where the old Garden had been, and decided, along with the friends he already had with him and the friends he was about to make, to take the subway the rest of the way.
Clogher was waiting outside the building on 31st between Seventh and Eighth when he saw Muhammad Ali coming around the corner from Seventh, followed by what Clogher says looked like a thousand people to him, or maybe more than that, as if Ali were leading a parade.
“As he gets closer to me,” Clogher said, “I hear him shouting out some of those proverbs of his.”
He was asked if he meant poems, and laughed again.
“Proverbs, poems,” he said. “What’s the difference? All I can tell you, all this time later, is that it was some scene.”
He paused again and said, “This guy was Barnum and Bailey, pure and simple. They can talk about all the other great boxing promoters. Forget it. Ali was the greatest promoter of them all.”
They got to the elevators and Ali, Paulie Clogher said, was waving everybody inside, all the members of his entourage and some of his new friends. Paulie got as many members of the entourage into one elevator as he could, somehow got Ali into the second one.
As the doors were closing Ali was still yelling at Paulie to take care of his friends. “Absolutely,” Paulie told him. Finally the doors did close. As soon as they did, Paulie immediately turned to a couple of rent-a-cops in the lobby and tells them to shut the elevators down.
“Then,” he said, “I ran like hell for the stairs.”
He was assigned to the old hockey press box that night, and watched the fight from there, watched it go the distance, watched Ali somehow get up after Frazier put him down with as much left hook and left hand as he ever had. When it was over and Frazier had won, Paulie went downstairs and watched Ali’s press conference in the old rotunda, saw the puffiness in his face and the hurt.
“That night, though,” Paulie Clogher said, “that was as good as I ever heard the Garden. I was there the night Willis limped out and brought the house down. I never thought anybody could touch that. But then came Ali.”
Dave Anderson, NY Times, 2016:
At the end, the mischief was still in his eyes. Even the pall of Parkinson’s disease never took that away, but for too many years before his death, Muhammad Ali was not the Muhammad Ali you wanted to remember. Instead of shouting, “I am the greatest,” he whispered. Instead of whirling in his white boxing shoes with red tassels, he shuffled. And instead of that wonderful face lighting up when he spoke, he wore a cheerless mask.
Whenever people asked you about him lately, you always preferred to tell them what he was like in all those years when you covered 32 of his fights, what he was like when he really was Muhammad Ali.
To go back to the beginning, you told them what he was like the first time you met him, when he was Cassius Clay in the days before he won a disputed decision over Doug Jones in 1963 at the old Madison Square Garden and you were in his Midtown hotel room.
“Stand up and put your hands up like a boxer,” he ordered, circling and then flicking his left jab inches from your chin as you blinked. “Pop, pop, pop. Ain’t never been a heavyweight fast as me.”
When the Supreme Court reversed his 1967 conviction for refusing Army induction, he was free. But it took three years and a 12-round decision over Frazier before he got another shot at the title, then held by the undefeated knockout puncher George Foreman, in Kinshasa, Zaire. In a 1974 bout that began there at 4 o’clock in the morning to accommodate closed-circuit theater television in the United States, you heard his 60,000 worshipers in a soccer stadium chanting, “Ali, bomaye,” meaning “Ali, kill him.”
In the eighth round, Ali, who had covered up with his back against the ropes while Foreman punched himself out, threw a right hand that spun Foreman onto the canvas. KO 8.
“The surprise is that I did not dance,” you heard him say later outside his villa along the Congo River. “For weeks I kept hollering, ‘Be ready to dance,’ but I didn’t dance. That was the surprise. That was the trick. I told him, ‘You’re the champ, George, and I’m eatin’ you up.’ Don’t ever match no bull against a master boxer. The bull is stronger, but the matador’s smarter.”
Three months later, in what Ali called the Thrilla in Manila, he survived a brutal third fight with Frazier when Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, would not let him answer the bell for the 15th round. Futch explained that Frazier, his left eye closed, could not see Ali’s right hand coming. Minutes later, Frazier was in the interview area, talking about what happened, and he later boogied at his postfight party.
Ali needed nearly an hour to face the news media, and when asked what the fight had been like, you heard him say, “Next to death.” At his postfight party, he sat stiffly and silently.
You’re not a doctor, but you have often thought that if Ali had retired after Manila, maybe Parkinson’s disease would not have hit him harder than even Joe Frazier ever had.
John Schulian, 1978:
He was far from perfect, of course. And month by month and year by year, his speech slurred more and more. Whenever you saw him and you watched him playfully pretend to throw a punch or do his magic tricks, you could see the twinkle in his eyes and you knew the mischief was still there. But he was not the Muhammad Ali you wanted to remember. And he never would be.'
Somehow, someway, Muhammad Ali rediscovered his old magic Friday night and wrote the most unlikely chapter in a story that seemingly has no end.
In the gaudy blue ring of the steaming Louisiana Superdome, Ali took Leon Spinks, the upstart who dethroned him seven months ago, and gave him a lesson in the virtues of combination punching and the evils of training in discotheques. And when Ali was finished pounding out his unanimous decision, he was heavyweight champion of the world for the third time. He was what no other man has ever been.
He has always said that there was never a fighter like him, of course, but he had to be worried about Spinks, 11 years his junior and light years ahead of him in pure savagery. You could see it on his face when his handlers guided him through the howling crowd of 70,000 and into the glare of the ring lights. But with each round, the furrow in his brow lessened and it became clearer and clearer that Spinks was not going to send him to retirement in the disgrace of defeat.
Retirement was supposed to be Ali's destiny, win or lose. But he is a man of surprises, a man who does not tolerate the expected. So it was only natural that he would say afterward: "I will wait eight months and decide. If I retire, I'll have a party. If I don't, I will take somebody else on." As always, his destiny was squarely in his hands.
No matter. Ali was not going to be detoured. As if to prove it, he started the sixth by slamming a stiff left hand upside Spinks' head. No longer would he try to clinch with the 201-pound Spinks and use his 20-pound advantage to wrestle the sinking champion along the ropes. Ali was ready to punch, and as the bell rang to end the seventh, he and Spinks were slugging away in the middle of the ring. Ali danced back to his corner. He knew what was happening. The story was unfolding just as he had planned it. At the end of the eighth, he embraced Bundini Brown, the shaman of his entourage. In the 10th, he did the Ali Shuffle. In the 12th, with Spinks searching desperately for a knockout, he startled the kid from the St. Louis ghetto with a right to the chest and followed it up with a pair of left-right combinations that came straight from a textbook.
Now the final seconds were ticking off on the clock and the crowd was chanting, "Ali, Ali, Ali." Spinks was still stalking him, but the life was out of his movements. He knew what had happened. So did the mob in his corner and the mob in Ali's corner and everybody with any sense at all.
Muhammad Ali had become the greatest again.
A must-watch retrospective of Ali's effect on the 20th century from HBO.