On a day when I have had no calls from one of my many grown children, which often sound like this: “Dad, can you come over and babysit for a few hours?” and no gym requirements, I like to write. It’s relaxing. During a coffee break while working on my “Gentleman Gerry” chapter for my upcoming book, I started to think about all the fighters I have grown up with since I started watching boxing at the age of 10.
While having my coffee (black, please!) I wrote some more. I began jotting down names onto my iPad (I can still recall the days when I used a pen or pencil!). I typed in their names as fast as I could, thinking of who I enjoyed watching the most. I stopped when I got to 15. If I didn’t, I’d still be going.
Here is the list I came up with:
1. Floyd Patterson
2. Joe Frazier
3. Muhammad Ali
4. Emile Griffith
5. Alexis Arguello
6. Mark Breland
7. Howard Davis Jr.
8. Sugar Ray Leonard
9. Eddie Mustafa Muhammad
10. Larry Holmes
11. Hector Camacho
12. Alex Ramos
13. Arturo Gatti
14. Mike Tyson
15. Kostya Tszyu
It’s funny, but the first four names are my all-time favorites. I grew up watching them. Emile Griffith was my first sports hero, not just my first boxing hero. Floyd Patterson was my second. I followed their every move through Ring Magazine. I celebrated their wins by buying my friends 8-cent “egg creams” at the local candy store (egg creams and candy stores were very New York kind of things in the ’60’s). When they lost, I was best left alone.
Joe Frazier and Cassius Clay followed. When Clay told the world he wanted to be called Muhammad Ali, that was fine with me. It wasn’t fine with Ring Magazine boss Nat Fleischer, who insisted on calling him Clay and rating him as Cassius Clay. Then, when Ali refused military induction in 1967, Fleischer not only removed Cassius Clay from the ratings, he stripped him of the title as recognized by The Ring. I really disliked old Nat for doing that. I was then a high school senior. I continued to watch as New York State Boxing Commissioner Edwin Dooley then stripped Ali of New York recognition of the title. I decided then and there, that one day, I would take both their jobs and perhaps get to apologize to Mr. Ali for the wrong Fleischer and Dooley had done to him. I knew right then and there, that I wanted to be in boxing. I wanted to work in boxing. I wanted to make my life in and around these special men. It became my life’s dream.
Dreams DO come true.
Within 12 years after Nat Fleischer stripped “Cassius Clay” of the title, I was sitting in his chair at The Ring. Nine years after that, I sat in Commissioner Dooley’s chair at the New York State Athletic Commission. I was the boss.
Of the 15 men on my list, I became friends with every one except Kostya Tszyu. That’s because I only met him once, when I was announcing the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle, Washington. I had the fortune to watch and announce every one of his victories, including his gold medal performance in those games. What skill! GGG reminds me a lot of Tszyu.
In 1992, I attended a luncheon honoring Muhammad Ali. As Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, I was seated, not just at the dais with Ali, I was seated NEXT to him. He found it funny that the Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission–the same position as the one which stripped him of the title 25 years earlier–would be seated next to him and acting so friendly.
When it was my turn to speak, I walked to the podium, knowing I was about to realize one of my life’s major dreams. I was about to apologize to Muhammad Ali for the injustice done to him by the heads of both Ring Magazine and the New York State Athletic Commission.
After being introduced to the crowd of around 1,000, I first looked at Ali and smiled. He smiled back. I placed both hands on the podium and began speaking.
“In 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title by boxing’s regulatory bodies,” I said. “He was stripped of the title for his failure to step forward when called for induction into the United States’ military. The first of those regulatory bodies to take Ali’s title was the New York State Athletic Commission. At that time, an 18-year-old high school senior out on Long Island, who happened to be a huge boxing fan, was among those who felt it was wrong to strip Ali of the title he won in the ring, just because he was exercising his religious and political beliefs. So this high school senior wrote letters to the Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission–Edwin Dooley–and to Nat Fleischer, the Editor-in-Chief of Ring Magazine, which also stripped Ali of the title. He told Commissioner Dooley and Mr. Fleischer just how unfair he thought it was to take Ali’s title away. He also told Mr. Fleischer that the magazine had not only lost a heavyweight champion, but a loyal reader, as well. He signed his name to both letters and included his phone number. It surprised the high school senior that he received phone calls from both Commissioner Dooley and from Mr. Fleischer. They each explained how they had a responsibility to the public to punish Ali for his illegal and anti-U.S. actions.
The teenager then said to each man, ‘But you’re not a court of law. ‘ To Commissioner Dooley he said, ‘You are there to regulate boxing.’ To Mr. Fleischer he said, ‘You are there to write about boxing, to report on boxing and to give us the ratings.’ To each he said, ‘What you are doing in unconstitutional. You can’t just take the title away from Ali. He won it in the ring. He should be allowed to lose it in the ring.’
“Ring Magazine’s boss told the youngster it wasn’t unconstitutional. Commissioner Dooley said, ‘Stop listening to Howard Cosell. Ali broke the law and now must pay for his actions.'”
I looked out at the crowd. I had everyone’s attention. Each of them knew the story of Ali and his three-and-a-half-year exile from boxing. I watched them as they watched me. Their eyes were either transfixed on me or Ali, who sat there, staring at one person: Me!
I then turned to Ali, who was sitting there tall and majestically. I said to him, “Muhammad, that high school senior from Long Island now stands before you as the former Editor-in-Chief of Ring Magazine, the same magazine which stripped him of the title, and stands before you as the Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, the same regulatory body which was the first boxing commission to take your license away. I cannot undo what they have already done, but for what it’s worth, I want you to know that if I had been in either position when that situation came up, I would have honored you for standing up for your rights and not vilified you. You are, and always will be, the ‘People’s Champion.'”
The moment I said that, the entire room not only applauded, but stood as they applauded. Then Ali stood and walked over to me. He embraced me and said in a low voice, “I love you, Commissioner.”
“I love you, too, Muhammad,” I said.
He stood behind me and took my hands, lifting my arms into the air. It was a very special moment.
So, Ali joins 14 other of my favorite fighters to watch as I moved on in my dream-come-true career.
Alexis Arguello, Joe Frazier and Emile Griffith became three of my best friends, guys I spoke to at least once a week. I’m sure we’d still be speaking that much if they still were here to grace us with their presence.
The other living names on my list are all still men I cherish as friends, not just as favorite fighters to have watched. The only one I never became friends with–and that’s only because the opportunity never presented itself–was Konstantin “Kostya” Tszyu. I still dream of meeting this incredible Hall-of-Famer one day.
I’ll continue to dream.
As I well know, dreams most certainly do come true.