Muhammad Ali – When I used to run into Muhammad Ali on occasion back in the 1980s it was a day to remember. Of all the sports stars, politicians and Hollywood celebrities I met during that decade and since, he dwarfs them all.
From 1984 to 1989, a newsstand on Robertson Boulevard was one of the five jobs I needed to keep a roof over my head and my daughter during Reaganomics. At that newsstand I would regularly see Michael Jackson, Milton Berle, Morgan Fairchild, Nia Peeples, Lionel Ritchie, Jody Watley, Victoria Principal, Gene Simmons, to name a few.
Some were extremely nice people like Martin Landau, Chaka Khan and the late Bubba Smith. But of all the people I met, including Hollywood greats like Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Ann Miller, it was Ali who had that special kind of magic.
The brilliance from his personality, accomplishments and humanism can’t be compared.
During the early 80s Ali could be spotted often on the streets of Los Angeles. He bought a home in the Hancock Park area off Wilshire Boulevard and also established an office on Wilshire and Normandie. His offices were one floor above our offices. This was long before I became a boxing beat writer.
Although we shared the same building I seldom saw Ali, but those times I did see him he would be cornered by four or five people. Within seconds, those five would suddenly mushroom into 50 to 60 people. He would patiently sign autographs, hug old ladies and joke with businessmen in ties. It happened every time I saw him in the building.
An ex-girlfriend of mine who also worked at that office was kindly asked one day by Ali to join him for lunch. I was somewhere delivering packages or something when I got a beep on my pager (remember those?) to call her. When I reached her she asked if she could have lunch with Muhammad Ali?
I laughed then and I laugh now.
“Of course!” I answered. “That’s the great Muhammad Ali. It may be your only chance to ever talk to him.”
She used to watch Ali as did millions of others, maybe billions back in those days. Ali crossed all boundaries and cultures. He was loved and adored by everyone regardless of religion, race or culture. I remember when President Jimmy Carter used to send him across the world for damage control. That was amazing to me. Here was a professional boxer asked to represent the President of the United States of America.
I spoke with Ali on several occasions when we happened to walk into the Mid-Wilshire building entrance at the same time. Once I asked him because of his immense popularity if he would ever run for governor.
“No, man. I’m into religion, not politics,” Ali said to me.
That was Ali. He wasn’t into power, he was a people person; a man of tremendous principles and fearless.
I can say with honesty that he influenced me and millions of others to stand up for your rights and be willing to fight, regardless of the possible consequences. When he decided to refuse induction in the military it caused me to look and check my own priorities. Ali lost millions of dollars with his protest at the prime of his athletic career.
Money isn’t everything. I learned a lot from that protest.
The times we crossed paths I felt compelled to tell him how he influenced me, but I quickly realized he probably heard these comments a thousand times. I also wanted to tell him that in 1974, when he was a huge underdog against George Foreman, I was the only one at a Montebello warehouse who picked him to win. Two dozen or more workers there eagerly sought me out to bet money that Foreman would knock out Ali. Of course I won that day when Ali knocked out Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire. I cleaned out that warehouse.
That win against Foreman was an even more shocking than his two victories over the fearsome Sonny Liston.
Later I would meet Joe Frazier the man most associated with Ali because of three epic fights. It always puzzled me how Frazier and Ali were not friends. Both were very gracious to their fans and yet, they seldom were in the same room together after their last battle in 1975.
The first time I met Frazier was the last time I saw Ali and made eye contact with the man known as “the Greatest.”
It was June 2000, at the Staples Center when Oscar De La Hoya and Sugar Shane Mosley met for their first encounter. Ali entered the arena through the tunnel midway during some fight and suddenly the 18,000 people began to roar. I looked around and saw it was Ali coming through.
Ali passed by my seat in a slow shuffle five feet away and looked my way. I’d like to say we made eye contact but he was probably just looking around the crowd. Most of the thousands of people stood up and cheered “Ali bombaye!” That is the last time I saw “the Greatest.”
Later that night, after Mosley was declared the winner, a party was held at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Hollywood. A massive crowd gathered in front and though I was invited, it was difficult to get near the old disco tech. I was with my wife when we literally ran into “Smokin Joe” Frazier who was also trying to get into the party. As we walked toward the entrance door together a L.A. County Deputy Sheriff stopped us from going into the establishment. I told him we were invited and he said “too bad. It’s too crowded.” So I told the deputy “well, if we can’t get in at least let Joe Frazier get in.”
The deputy looked at Frazier and his eyes lit up. “Ok, he can go in.”
That’s the kind of magic Frazier and Ali had on America. It lasted until they passed away.
I ran into Frazier again years later in Temecula. I think it was around June 2011. He was a celebrity guest of the Pechanga Resort and Casino. They sat him next to me on press row. The Philadelphia heavyweight who once floored Ali in front of thousands at Madison Square Garden was a lot thinner. He stumbled getting up from the rickety folding chairs and fell onto me. The great former boxer apologized profusely to me. I helped him get up and told him “Mr. Frazier it was an honor to watch you over the years. I’m privileged to be here sitting next to you champ.”
Five months later I read he had passed away and was sad and glad I got to meet the old warrior again.
His three wars with Ali were among the most historic heavyweight battles ever seen. I saw the “Thrilla in Manila” at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion and can still remember the crowd reaction when both icons were announced. The people sitting in the good seats cheered for Frazier and those sitting in the rafters cheered for Ali. When the brutal fight ended, the entire crowd realized they had witnessed one of the greatest heavyweight fights ever. All 10,000 people left in a kind of daze.
Ali always seemed to be involved in spectacular extravaganzas. The people always wanted to know what Ali did. He had become such a big presence on our sports culture and political culture too.
It didn’t matter if Ali were in Japan or Argentina, I’ll bet he could walk on any spot on the civilized world and immediately be recognized.
This past Saturday, at a fight card in Carson, the StubHub Center was packed to capacity with more than 7,000 fans to watch two Mexican warriors battle. Before their fight, a customary 10-count was given to honor Ali before the main event. The crowd suddenly began chanting in unison “Ali bombaye!”
Someone asked me what I remember most about Ali from those L.A. days in the 1980s?
“He treated everyone like they were special and important,” I said.
Who else does that?
New Ali book
Two weeks ago I began reading an interesting book on Muhammad Ali by Tim Shanahan called “Running With the Champ.” It describes a great friendship between Shanahan and Ali that began in 1975 right after the “Rumble in the Jungle.” If you wonder what Ali did the past 30 years including this last 12 months, its’ a great book to read. They had a unique relationship that paints an excellent picture of the great Ali.