June 6, 2016
I heard the news that Muhammad Ali had finally succumbed to the ravages brought on by years of fighting Parkinson’s. He had devloped a respiratory illness. Finally, he could breathe no longer.
As I listened to the news, many fond memories and images came flowing back. I had the pleasure of working with and knowing Ali over a long period of time. For the most part, it was the Halcyon days.
All of us who were part of the inner circle basked in his reflected glory. Of that group there are only two of us left… Dr. Ferdie Pacheco and myself. Ferdie is the last of the men who made up Ali’s corner.
Ferdie who ran two clinics in the heart of Miami’s ghetto was a perfect fit for Ali. Ali, a gentle giant of a man, learned early what it was to give back to a community. He saw Ferdie treat indigent patients who could not afford his services, for nothing. Ali, a happy spirit, learned early the reward of caring for others.
Ali lived by the biblical principle that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”. Wherever we were, be it Tokyo, Manila, New York, Kinshasha, Vancouver, London, the Bahamas, or Seoul, Ali always had time for people.
He understood the mantel of humanity that he was wearing and the responsibility that had been placed on his shoulders. He was loved and adored, both up close and from afar.
Over the years, my life has been filled with big personages. However, no one for me has ever approached the majesty, as a person, that Ali possessed.
The world was shocked when in 1967, he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army. He pleaded that it was against his religion. Many of us labeled him a “draft dodger. He was vilified, even burned in effigy. However, he stood tall! He never deviated from his belief that the war was wrong.
Many of the days great Black Leaders begged him not to do this. In fact, at one point a meeting was held in Cleveland. At that meeting, many sports giants asked him to reconsider… go into the service and do exhibitions. Among those at the meeting were Lew Alcindor, who would later become Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns, (considered the NFL’s greatest running back). They feared a backlash against the Black Community. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.
I was among those who were unhappy with him. After all, I and most of my friends had served in the Military. However, as I got to know him and realize that he was so genuine in his belief, I could do nothing but respect him and envy him in his courage.
Behind the scenes Ali was a gentle caring man. I can never forget sitting in his room at Houston’s Astroworld watching Jerry Quarry fight Jack O’Halloran from the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva. It was a bloody and savage battle.
He turned to my late wife Mollie and said profoundly, “What a terrible way to make a living. My son will carry a briefcase”. Two days later, Ali fought Buster Mathis at the Astrodome across the street and won a unanimous decision as he pounded Buster without mercy.
Speaking of the Astrodome, in 1972 I flew from L.A. with Wilt Chamberlain and his lawyer Seymour Goldberg to meet with Ali and Bob Arum. The idea was that Ali would fight the 7’2” Wilt.
We posed for pictures in Judge Hofheinz’ office when Wilt received a call from Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Lakers. The press was assembled upstairs and waiting for the announcement about Ali’s next fight. They had no idea whom it might be.
Wilt had to take the call, but we could not hold up the press conference. So Angelo Dundee, Ali and myself went up to meet the press. For a half hour, Wilt did not appear. During all that time, Ali entertained the assemblage with the doggerel, (the poems), that became his trademark before each fight. It was that poetry which got him the award of a literary seat at prestigious Oxford University.
Wilt did not show up. He had taken a plane back to Los Angeles. We learned, he had been in a contract dispute with the Lakers and used the fight ploy to achieve his goal which was settled when Jack Kent Cooke called. Hastily, Jimmy Ellis, a former Ali sparring partner and boyhood friend who had briefly been champion during Ali’s suspension, took the fight.
A picture of Ali posing with Wilt was published in the Guiness Book of Records.
During Ali’s 1976 down period, he agreed to fight Antonio Inouki. Inouki was a Japanese wrestling champion, as well as a holder of a 10th degree Karate Black Belt. When Angelo saw Inouki train he was afraid for the injury that Ali might incur.
Angelo wanted out! But the promoters, (Yakuza) would have no part of it, so they made special rules.
According to Inouki, Ali believed he had signed on for it to be an exhibition of Wrestler versus Boxer. When Angelo saw Inouki training with a series of brutal drop-kicks and violent grapples on sparring partners, Angelo realized he was training for a real fight.
Ali’s management renegotiated the rules. A list of restrictions was imposed on Inouki. The fight went off and to the TV audience it seemed boring. However, in Tokyo’s Budokan, Japan’s Madison Square Garden, the atmosphere was tense. It was ruled a 15 round Draw.
After the fight, I sat in Ali’s hotel room with Dr. Ferdie as I helped him apply Ice Pack after Ice Pack on Ali’s swollen legs which were a mass of Black and Blue. He had Hematomas from ankle to thigh as a result of Inoki’s kicking.
Ferdie wanted Ali to stay in the hotel room and rest for a few days before traveling anywhere. Ali would have none of it. Despite Ferdie’s warnings, Ali flew to Korea to honor his commitment to U.S. Troops stationed there. He fought exhibitions in seven different camps.
He then flew home to Los Angeles. His leg conditioned had worsened. Upon arriving, we were met with an ambulance. Ali was taken to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. There he hovered between life and death for almost two weeks. A fact that most of the public did not know until this day.
I was also there for his last fight against Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas. Ali, as they say, had nothing left in his tank. Berbick who under normal conditions would never deserve to be in the ring with Ali, hurt him badly. Along with my associates, Bob Block, Phil Gillen, Burt Sugar and Clair Higgins, I cried.
Ali passed the other day. I had not seen him in over 20 years. He was a kind, gentle man. He loved people, especially children.
There will be many eulogies attesting to his greatness and everyone of them will be true. He touched all of our lives… even those who never met him.
He was a man of great courage, honesty and humility. His overt braggadocio was only for the purpose of building interest in his fights. He always had a sparkle in his eye and a spring in his step until he was felled by Parkinson’s.
Ali’s inspirational legacy will live on for generations to come.I shall never forget him!
Grantland Rice, the great sportswriter, once wrote; “It’s not who wins, or loses, but how you play the game that counts!”
In the ring, Ali mostly won, but on rare occasion also lost. He always played at his best. The real winner is us, mankind. We are better off for his having been part of our lives.