Time flies. It’s hard to believe that Muhammad Ali hit the big 7–0h. Seventy years old for one of the most famous people in the world in our lifetime. He is a man who has been both idolized and vilified over his lifetime.
Ali went from a loud mouthed kid named Cassius Clay, to a man who changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam when he was 22 years old. He was stripped of his heavyweight championship and had his boxing license suspended when he evaded the draft in opposition to the Vietnam War. He said, “No Viet Cong called me a Nigger.” He stood his ground. He did not run off to Canada and hide like many draft dodgers as he appealed a conviction on draft evasion charges. He did not fight for nearly four years while his appeal worked its way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.
Time has healed most of those wounds. The Champ is now one of the most revered American icons. There were many tears when he struggled to light the torch at the Atlanta Olympics. He was named the Kentucky Athlete of the Century. He has been given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has been the United Nations Messenger of Peace.
Ali won and lost some of the most famous fights in history. The “Fight of the Century” against Jerry Quarry. The “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in Zaire. The “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier. “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Unfortunately, Ali fought too many fights and suffers from Parkinson’s syndrome and can barely speak and struggles to walk.
I had a few encounters with Ali. The first was in February, 1978 when he fought St. Louisian Leon Spinks in Las Vegas. Spinks was Olympic Gold Medal winner and former Marine. He was a block of granite. I remember watching him jump rope for about 25 minutes without stopping. He was a brawler not a boxer. But Ali showed up with an cadre of about 50 hangers on and didn’t take Spinks seriously. Leon won in a stunning upset. I’ll never forget the ring announcer yelling, “and the NEW heavyweight champion of the world—Leon Spinks.”
Jim Reddick was a police captain in St. Louis who knew Ali. Whenever he came through town, he would usually visit with Jim. Reddick called me one day and told me Ali was going to be at his precinct the next morning and invited me to stop by with a camera crew from Channel 5. Ali was charming but when the camera was rolling, he went into his act showing me how he was going to beat up his next opponent. It was a riot. Bobbing and weaving and taking punches he played both parts–himself and Chuck Wepner, the “Bayone Bleeder.” NBC distributed the film all over the country.
My most memorable encounter with him came late in his boxing career. He needed money so he was going to fight a Japanese sumo wrestler named Antonio Inoki. As I was leaving work one Friday night about 10:45 at KSDK, a phone caller who refused to identify himself told me that Ali was going the be in town the next morning to join activist Dick Gregory in a “hunger march.” He gave me an address on Page Avenue. I left a request for the assignment desk with the explanation that this could be bogus. The next morning I took may two sons, David and Jeff who were about 9 and 8 years old, and we drove to the address. It was a vacant lot with ankle high weeds. There were two men standing in the lot. Dick Gregory and Muhammad Ali. He shadow boxed with the boys and signed autographs. The camera crew showed up and then a crowd and the police escort gathered. I asked if Ali would do an interview. He said he would only talk about feeding the hungry people of the world. But, I knew if I let him talk, I could get him going. Finally, I said, “Champ, this sumo wrestler could kill you. Why are you doing this. Are you nuts”? He went into his act again and finally said, as he pulled on my hair, “who are you the local Howard Cosell?” (Cosell wore a wig) We had a good laugh and he finished the interview by saying, “I like your show and I like your style, but your pay is so cheap I won’t be back for a while.”
Meeting and sparing with him on camera is one of my most treasured memories.
Harry Birthday, Champ.