ST. LOUIS (KMOX)- St. Louis was not one of former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s adopted hometowns, but that doesn’t mean the sporting and cultural icon’s death isn’t being felt here.
A retired professional boxer in the Metro-East grew up idolizing Ali.
East St. Louis native Arthur Johnson says the legend’s legacy will live on through those he inspired, “He gave a kid like me aspiration to climb to the highest level possible in the game of boxing. It wasn’t so much what he did in the ring as what he did outside the ring.”
The 50-year-old Johnson says Ali broke the mold when it came to the way professional athletes acted, “Even to this day, you probably have people who never got over the things he did, because it was totally unacceptable. But, he made it OK. And, if you weren’t a fan, he made you become a fan.”
Johnson shared a trainer with Ali, Boxing Hall of Famer Angelo Dundee.
Johnson says for many, what Ali did in his humanitarian work outside the ring left a larger impression on society than his epic boxing career did, “That stuff comes dime a dozen. But, it’s what you do after that, how much you impact humanity as he did, that’s what’s going to make his name still be honored long after he’s gone.”
Retired KMOX sports director Ron Jacober interviewed Muhammad Ali three times over his career in television and radio, but it was the final time that stands out.
Jacober got a secretive tip to meet Ali on a vacant lot in north St. Louis, late in the boxer’s career, when he was in town for a world hunger march with activist Dick Gregory.
Jacober says Ali was training to fight a Japanese sumo wrestler, “After he talked about feeding hungry people, I said ‘Champ, this guy weighs 450 pounds. He’s going to kill you.’ He said, ‘Who are you, the local Howard Cosell?’ and pulled my hair. I told him my hair doesn’t come off (Cosell famously wore a toupee).”
Jacober says Ali left him with some poetry, “He said, ‘I like your show and I like your style. But, your pay is so cheap, I won’t be back for awhile.”
Ali died Friday at age 74.
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