A couple of internet pals recently asked me why I don’t write more boxing articles. I’ve been in and out of boxing for a long time. Like an addict, I try to climb out of it from time to time, always and inevitably to fall back in. Boxing confuses me. It’s like a prison which has become so familiar that I no longer possess the will to escape. I’ve seen and experienced the downsides of the sport more often than the upsides. My own boxing life was over a long time ago. In the entire world of boxing, I was never more than mediocre, even at my best.
Nonetheless, I’ve recently returned to the boxing gym to train a young kid I know. The boxing gym keeps me alert and focused. It keeps me from thinking too much ahead of myself. My ribs have been cracked three times in the past five years. My breathing must take a circuitous route through my nasal passages. My wife understands that boxing is my secret mistress but she mustn’t learn that I couldn’t sometimes turn over in bed because of broken ribs.
The boxing world is full of the walking wounded, the crushed, the broken, the vanquished, and the proud. There’s a good British fighter I know who got KO’d by Mikkel Kessler in one round and never quite recovered. He’s just one example of thousands. There are some who came out of boxing okay, too, like Larry Holmes who lives in nearby Easton, Pa and runs a gym on Easton’s south side.
I often used to visit the building where Larry Holmes keeps his office to chat with Mike, the security guard. Larry Holmes keeps in shape today with regular boxing workouts, but he had reached the pinnacle of his boxing career around the time Muhammad Ali was reaching the end of his. Larry Holmes was a former Ali sparring partner, but eventually the student became the teacher when Ali lost to Holmes later in his career.
Meeting celebrities teaches you that some of them possess remarkable gifts, others are quite miserable, and that others are lucky, attractive, or merely competent. All celebs have a mystique about them largely created by the media.
People who meet celebrities are typically bound to compare the images they’ve picked up from the media with the real person standing before them. They go home and tell their friends: “Oh, he/she was very nice…pretty, tall, short, handsome, skinny, drunk, friendly, hostile, abrupt, patient, understanding, arrogant, humble, etc….” and this is followed usually by some personal anecdote of the chance meeting.
It would be hard to find anyone in the world who hasn’t heard of Muhammad Ali-now entering his fifth decade of world-wide celebrity. I met Ali because I’m a boxing junkie. I’m such a boxing junkie that my face was familiar to Ali’s people when I appeared numerous times at his former training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania.
As a kid, I listened to the radio broadcast of Ali’s second fight against the”Big ‘Ole Bear” Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine. Ali had been broadly insulted and denounced by many sportswriters who previously referred to him as the “big mouth Cassius Clay.” As everyone knows, the lean and hungry Cassius changed his name to Muhammad Ali after the first Liston fight.
If the ring doctors threatened to stop that fight because of Ali’s incredibly high pre-fight blood pressure, the doctors should have stopped me from listening because my own blood pressure followed suit as Liston lay on the floor after a 1st round knockout from what boxing writers called a “phantom punch.” My father, hearing me shout out from the upstairs floor, offered to set up a tent in the yard for me if I “hollered” like that again.
So far as “phantom punches” go, you’ve got to get hit with one before you can call it that. In the sparring sessions at Deer Lake, I’d seen Ali lash out with quick, short punches which wobbled the knees and bloodied the faces of sparring partners. Ali could be incredibly mean in the ring one minute and crack you up the next. I remember one Ali sparring session when he took a big left hook and went down on his back in the corner where I was standing. He sort of rolled back his head, looked directly at me, winked and then rolled back up on his feet to administer a beat-down that left his sparring partner gasping against the ropes.
If the sparring partner tired, Ali would do anything to wake them up, whipping them with sharp combinations, haranguing them with sexual insinuations, falling back against the ropes in retreat to let the other guy come on stronger. The Ali banter, the sound of punches thudding…it was intoxicating stuff.
“C’mon, chump… Is that all you’ve got?” he’d taunt a guy.
The taunts were invariably followed up with a facial “shoeshine” or a volley of stinging jabs as Ali waltzed away to the ropes, inviting the sparring partner to hammer away.
“C’mon, punk!…shoot your load! Is that it? That all you got, chump?”
And so it went. As for me, I would always be looking for someone to make the trip with me to Deer Lake whenever Ali was in camp. After Ali’s “public time,” the Fruit of Islam guards would watch as the crowds dispersed, heading for the parking lot, and I would be in that crowd except for the day my friends Mary Jo, Linda, and I were approached by Gene Kilroy, Ali’s then business manager.
Kilroy was as Ivy League in appearance as you could get, and with an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, was as smooth as silk when he asked if we wanted to visit with The Champ. What? Was I dreaming?
While Ali went off to shower and nurse his bruises, Kilroy took us on a tour of the Deer Lake camp, a compound of spacious log buildings, a cottage, stables, and a basketball court. Mary Jo, Linda, and Il followed the amiable Kilroy around the camp, meeting Ali’s mother in the large kitchen where she supervised Ali’s diet, seeing Ali’s giant poster bed which took up nearly an entire room, and his collection of gym and boxing shoes which rivaled the shoe collection of Imelda Marcos.
A short while later, as we turned a corner around one of the buildings, I came face to face with Muhammad Ali who appraised me with hard eyes and a raised fist.
“What ‘chu’ doin’ here, chump?” Ali scowled.
The pose had already become an iconic media symbol, made famous as Ali stood over a fallen Sonny Liston in Maine. It sounds comical as I think back on that moment now, but there before me was a hero who was every bit as large as the Ali celebrity images which had by then penetrated every corner of the known world. Ali was being playful, of course, but I was, for a moment, stricken dumb with fear.
Kilroy cautioned me against a strong handshake.
“His hands…careful” said Kilroy.
The baddest man in the entire world couldn’t endure a business handshake. We touched fingers, sort of, somewhere between a handshake and a fist bump. I stammered some stupidity as Mary Jo and Linda interceded with that species of greeting and banter which escapes young men unless they’ve had the benefit of prep school. It wasn’t until we’d gone over to the little house where Ali temporarily resided with his wife and children that I fully recovered my powers of speech.
Ali’s then wife, Veronica Porsche, was pretty, charming, and smart, introducing us to her children, chatting with us for about fifteen minutes during which I asked if I could photograph her. Then she retreated demurely to one of the buildings.
There were several other regulars at the Ali camp. I met the great middleweight Eddie Gregory, now known better as trainer Eddie Mustafa Mohammad, and we met the late Drew Bundini Brown, Ali’s incorrigible but devoted cheerleader who coined the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” ditty. There were several children, including two of Ali’s own, and Ali’s reserved brother, Rahman.
While a large part of the Ali crew amused themselves on the basketball court, I watched Ali blowing up balloons for the children, scowling while shaking a fist at them, the children putting up their dukes and giggling. What struck me at that moment, ironically, was the quiet and serenity with which nearly everyone went about their business. The basketball game went on heatedly, and there were a few shouts and exhortations, but because of the respect that Ali inspired, the place had fallen almost silent, like a church in a country town on a Sunday morning.
I snapped a few pictures, and to my lifelong regret, I did not think to have a picture taken of myself with Muhammad Ali, considered by many to be the greatest and most famous boxer of all time. Do I think the same? Yes, but that is not to say that Mike Tyson did not streak like a meteor across the boxing galaxy, or that Joe Louis did not strike at Hitler’s heart with this defeat of Max Schmeling, or that Jack Johnson did not open the flood gates of boxing by refusing to sit in the back of the boxing bus, or that any of the great fighters and not-so-great fighters in boxing history were not part of God’s great scheme of human struggle for redemption.
Muhammad Ali was one great fighter, a giant killer, a man who had come back from the dead of being stripped of his title for three years after refusing the draft. I didn’t agree with Ali who had “no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” but if someone’s beliefs are so strong that they are willing to pay dearly for them, then both sides of the scale of justice are in balance. Shouldn’t Ali be accorded the same deference often extended to many Quakers who become conscientious objectors? At least, in Ali’s case, you didn’t question whether it was for real. “For real” could have been Ali’s middle name.
In any case, it was boxing which brought me to the Ali camp, not religion. Boxing is the antithesis of the philosophy of “no chance.” Muhammad Ali, son of Cassius and Odessa Clay, was to have no chance against the menacing Sonny Liston, as he was to have no chance of regaining the Heavyweight title from Joe Frasier after losing the first of three epic and violent battles. And when George Foreman held the title and defended it in the “Rumble in the Jungle” of Zaire, Ali again was to have “no chance” against devastating puncher George Foreman. I screamed myself hoarse at a big-screen close-circuit broadcast in Scranton, PA as Ali leaned against the ropes to escape the George Foreman bombs exploding around his head. What was Ali doing? Was he crazy?
Yeah, he was crazy alright, just as crazy as he’d always been, and just as always he knew exactly what he was doing. It was the rest of the world that didn’t know what Ali was doing, as he came off the ropes in the 8th with a slick, short right hand lead which staggered and dazed Foreman, and dropped him to the canvas.
I knew a lot about Ali even before that day but there was something more I learned when later on we went into Ali’s three-bedroom Deer Lake house. Ali has this great sense, not only of other boxers, punches, and ring space, but of people in general. Having met people by the thousands, Ali knew what people were about, what they thought, what they feared, what they loved. Muhammad made us comfortable on chairs in his living room, flipped on the TV, and then sprawled out on the couch with his feet up, a man very much at home in the world.
We talked off and on for a couple of hours while watching a television show called “Different Strokes.” It was during that chattering bit when Mary Jo embarrassed me by mentioning to Ali that I was a writer and that I’d boxed, too. I was no more a writer than I was a credible heavyweight challenger. I scribbled a little, boxed in clubs, and read a lot, that’s all. But Ali gave all appearances of being interested and asked me what I liked to write about.
I was tempted to tell him that I’d like to write about Muhammad Ali but then I thought of the thousands of people around the world who had written books, films, newspaper and magazine articles about Ali, about the high mountains of paper and film that would rise up from the earth should all the stuff written about Muhammad Ali be piled up in one place. So I told Ali that I liked to write about anything and everything.
Well, then I could help him out, he tells me, getting up from the sofa, going into another room, and returning with a manuscript.
“I got to go on up to Harvard on Sunday to make a speech. Been workin’ on it. Could use some help, Turk.”
That was my nickname in those days-“Turk.” I pick up nicknames the way clothing picks up lint. I’ve got a different nickname for each and every different era of my life. My wife calls me by my birth name: Anthony. Who cares? I have a personality, that’s what’s important.
Ali’s speech was also pretty good, I remember. As Ali himself told me, he was the world’s greatest speech writer as well as the world’s greatest boxer. But would I please read it over and make some suggestions as to how he could make it better? The speech was important to him and he wanted to make it something that those “Harvards” would remember. Fact is, Ali could be reading the label on a soup can and he would make it sound exciting or contentious in some way.
Ali was serious though, and I read the speech in detail. I made just one or two little suggestions which Ali said were “important” and then he gave a little reading performance, reciting part of it for us as if we numbered in the thousands.
“I am the greatest speech giver in the world but you could be pretty good yourself, Turk,” said Ali.
So I now can be confident of the knowledge that, through Muhammad Ali, some little bit of my own wisdom was imparted to a 1980s graduating class of Harvard University. If Ali said it, it was so. Because that’s what Ali did, and that’s why he is remembered and revered. That’s why half of Africa and much of the civilized world was cheering for him at the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire. For the confidence he gives them. For getting up off the canvas time and time again, to struggle and fight against losing odds. For his courage and his ability to raise people up, the lowly and the mighty. Because he makes people see they can lose every battle and win the war.
I’m grateful to Ali for giving me a “boost of confidence” in that rare visit. He raised us up, right up there with presidents and kings.