Muhammad Ali: Why they called him 'The Greatest' and why I called him my friend | Jerry Izenberg

Jerry Izenberg interviews Muhammad Ali in a 1970s file photo. (The Star-Ledger)

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With Muhammad Ali, it was always the people.

It didn't matter whether they were rich or poor, black or white, celebrity-famous, blue-collar weary or welfare poor. It didn't matter what language they spoke, what God they worshiped, what gender they were. Well, in this last group I'd have to say that the ladies had a little edge.

I have been in this business more than 60 years and shared time with most of the great ones — Pele and Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, with Joe Willie Namath and Vince Lombardi, and even Jim Thorpe in his declining years. But in all that time, I never knew an athlete who could stop a room, a building or even a city street dead in its tracks, the way Muhammad Ali could and did.

He went full bore into each fight with a silver tongue and heavyweight gold.

Ali died Friday at age 74, according to a statement from the family. He was hospitalized in the Phoenix area with respiratory problems earlier this week, and his children had flown in from around the country.

I watched Ali press the flesh in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, in Kinshasa and London, in Vegas and New York, saw the magic of his charisma hypnotize Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and enough other entertainment superstars to light up the Hollywood sky. I saw it dwarf the psyches of absolute-power heads of state like Zaire's Mobuto Seseseko and the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos. I saw it turn politicians, captains of industry and Howard Cosell into slack-jawed, Jell-o-kneed sycophants.

His was a bond forged with a constituency that didn't have to meet him to know him, a constituency that transcended all economic, racial, ethnic and political barriers.

With his passing they lost a hero.

With his passing, I lost a friend.

Jerry Izenberg | For The Star-Ledger

Muhammad Ali and I forged a friendship that spanned five decades and endured as time changed both of us. Parkinson's disease began to force him into a prison from which there could be no escape, and the calendar moved my own life from "Spring is Here" to "Autumn Leaves."

It's roughly a decade since we were able to sit down and talk the way we used to talk. I regret the decade we lost, but I celebrate the memories of a friendship that spanned roughly five decades and took us from North America to Europe to Africa and Asia and back again.

IN THE BEGINNING

He was a kid sitting on the steps in the Olympic Village in Rome when I first saw him. The light heavyweight gold was draped around his neck, and Cassius Clay was holding it up for everybody to see.

"I'm the best. I'm the best. I'm gonna be the heavyweight champion of the world ... heavyweight champion of the world ... and I'm pretty, too ..."

On he went in that nonstop staccato banter. Within a few years, it would become the soundtrack to every major heavyweight fight, and the background music to drastic changes in America itself, during the 1960s and '70s.

But it was in those very first moments in Rome that I first saw the effect the future Muhammad Ali had on people. Language barriers being what they are, I'm sure most people in the village had no clue what he was saying. But many of them smiled, and some of them laughed, and more than a few of the women slowed to take a longer look.

Was that really 56 years ago?

Can he win gold in Rio? He'll have a good shot, experts agree.

REQUIEM

It was 1980 and Ali was trying to freeze the calendar. He came to Vegas sporting a brand new mustache, touting himself as "Dark Gable, a pretty man who looks a champion."

He had trimmed himself down through the dangerous overuse of diuretics, shedding his middle-age puffiness so that he looked to be in great shape. But, like the mustache, it was strictly cosmetic.

In the prefight press conference, he was glib and quick-witted. Holmes tried to keep up.

"Your ass is grass and I'm the lawn mower," was about the best Larry could do.

Ali retorted with a celebration of himself in what he called the world's shortest poem.

"Me? Whhheeeee!"

It was the last delightful rerun of the Muhammad Ali Flying Circus. But even as we were entertained, those closest to him began to detect the slur in his speech. And we were afraid of this truth: On fight night, he would emerge not as the Ali of old but as an old Ali, a burned-out and weary shell of a fighter who was risking permanent injury.

For those not close to him, his verbal assault on Holmes, coupled with the not-so-distant memory of his triumphant fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, made them believe they were about to see the Ali who once said:

"If I tell you that a mosquito can pull a plow, don't argue. Hitch him up."

The proof of their belief came in the numbers-don't-lie form of the betting line. Holmes opened and held firm as a 3-1 favorite, but as the fight drew closer, a strange thing began to take shape. Holmes' advantage in the betting line began to erode.

This wasn't the smart money. It was the heart money. It came from the bellhops and desk clerks, the blackjack dealers and craps table stickmen, the bartenders and waitresses, the car parkers and chambermaids. By fight time, the odds were almost even. In the town that invented legal fight bets, the least-powerful economic group in Vegas moved the odds. It never happened before. It hasn't happened since.

On fight night, the glitter crowd, the high rollers and the people who scraped together a week's pay for the cheap seats came together to will him through one more big fight.

In the weeks before the fight, the huge sign in front of Caesars Palace was changed to blare, "MUHAMMAD ALI vs. LARRY HOLMES."

Below, it said, "Frank Sinatra."

It had been a long time since Sinatra was second banana.

Physically, Ali did look good. I had been in Ali's room the night before the fight and he suddenly stripped off his shirt and said to me, "How do you like my chances now?"

It was eerie. He looked like he did the night he won the title from Sonny Liston, 16 years before. But I knew his conditioning was only skin-deep: cosmetic deception at its health spa best. What I did not know was that he had been fed a steady diet of diuretics He was in beach shape, not fighting shape.

It didn't take long for Holmes to exploit the difference. Ali had no answer to Holmes' jab or the left hooks he threw off of it. Or the rights Holmes bombed him with as Ali stood there, hands in a peek-a-boo protective stance. He barely threw a punch. The footwork that had bewildered dozens of opponents was gone; his legs had turned old. The red tassels on his white boxing shoes never danced. He was a man too rusty to fight and too proud to quit.

As Muhammad absorbed more and more punishment, A-list celebrities and high rollers at ringside shared the suffering with the everyday blue-collar people in the top tiers. He was a battered shell of the champion we had once known.

And here, I admit, I committed the most unprofessional act of my entire journalistic career.

Seeing the battered state of a man who had been my friend for so long, I jumped out of my ringside seat on press row and shouted up at referee Richard Greene.

"For God's sake, Richard, stop it now!"

Later, when I told Holmes what I had asked the ref to stop the fight, Holmes smiled sadly and said, "Me, too."

But my strongest memory of that night applies to a bitter-sweet epitaph offered by an elderly Afro-American men's room attendant at 4 a.m. as he handed me a towel.

"Did you bet the fight?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. "I bet on Ali."

"Pardon me for asking, but why?"

"Why? Why? Because he's Muhammad Ali, that's why. Mister, I'm 72 years old. I owe the man for giving me my dignity."

The iconic fight promoter found his niche among the lighter-weight champions and contenders and, in the process, has all but cornered the market on Hispanic fight fans.

HONESTY AT A PRICE

So how did he get to become that Muhammad Ali, that national treasure?

It sure as hell wasn't always that way.

America first embraced him in his initial incarnation as the good-looking, big-mouthed kid who turned monster-slayer when he stopped Sonny Liston. But when Cassius Clay became enmeshed with the Nation of Islam — a group that was more Afrocentric cult than religion —Judeo-Christian America, both black and white, grew uneasy.

When he tried to classify himself as conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, chauvinistic America, both black and white, got furious and called him a coward and traitor. The anti-war factions anointed him as an icon.

In truth, he was neither. He was simply a guy who said what he thought.

And I wrote what I thought, even before his refusal to step forward for induction in Houston, defending his right to free speech. I wrote what I thought after the self-serving boxing commissions took away his title, denying him the right to work.

I didn't defend Ali because he was my friend. I defended him because of the U.S. Constitution. I defended him because, when I was 14 years old, I heard Alben W. Barkley, who was then a U.S. senator and who would later become the vice president under Harry Truman, on a radio debate about government. What he said stuck with me:

"The Constitution of the United States is a living document, not something gathering dust on a shelf. Be assured if it ever comes to that, the people will consign it to that shelf and write a new one."

Jerry Izenberg | For The Star-Ledger

I believe that now, I believed it then.

So I did not defend Ali out of friendship. I defended him because my father instilled in me an appreciation and love of this country's freedom of speech and religion, something his father brought him halfway around the world at age 8 to find. I defended him because of the slice of social conscience that my old boss Stanley Woodward burned into my newspaperman's soul. I defended him because I believed it was right.

Some papers that carried my column regularly dropped it. Bomb threats emptied our office, making the staff stand out in the snow. My car windshield was smashed with a sledgehammer. Among the thousand of pieces of hate mail I received, two required the attention of postal inspectors. One turned out to be nothing but a ticking alarm clock, and the second contained what I hoped was dog feces — as opposed to the alternative.

These were ugly times.

In 1966, he was supposed to defend his title in the hometown of Ernie Terrell, but Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who knew a political clay pigeon when he saw one, called Ali "a disgrace to America" and canceled the fight.

Ali headed to Toronto to fight George Chuvalo, whose courage outweighed his skills by several light-years. I went to see Muhammad in his last days of training at place called Sully's A.C. Gym. I walked into a desultory room, dominated by a sagging ring and windows that looked as though they hadn't been washed since John L. Sullivan was champ. The only occupant was a teenaged kid whaling away on a heavy bag. I heard faint sounds coming from a back room, so I walked past the "Gym Dues" and "No Spitting" signs until I saw Ali, face down on a rubbing table while his masseur Luis Saria worked him over Ali propped himself up on an elbow.

"Hey, what are you doing here?"

"Somebody said there's going to be a fight," I replied.

"Aw, you know this ain't no fight."

Then I hit him with the question I came to ask. Was he planning to join the swelling ranks of war objectors in Canada?

I knew his answer before I asked the question, but I was stunned by the vehemence with which he expressed it.

He jumped off the table.

"I thought you knew me better than that. America is my home. Do you think I would let somebody chase me out of my home? Nobody is going to chase me out of my birthplace. If they say I have to go to jail, then I will. But I'm not gonna run away, and you should know it."

He stayed and fought and was vindicated by the courts.

He stayed and fought, through the losses to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, who broke his jaw.

He stayed and fought until he won back the title the bureaucrats took away.

America loves heroes who overcome overwhelming odds, and no odds were steeper than the night in Zaire, when he came full circle and knocked out George Foreman, the Sonny Liston of his generation.

He stayed and fought. He retired and unretired. In his later years, he entertained more than he outraged.

He charmed the world and walked its streets. He displayed an intense love for the elderly and the children. I will never forget his quiet acts of giving, the ones that he pledged me not to write. Three nights before he fought Earnie Shavers in the Garden, he was watching the TV news in his hotel room with his close friend and camp business manager, Gene Kilroy.

They heard a story about a Jewish old age home in the Bronx. The elderly residents were about to be evicted into the snow and cold of December .. "and don't tell nobody," he told Kilroy. He handed the director two checks. The first was for $300,000. The second was for $150,000. Kilroy said, "Hold the second one for a week so we can transfer the money."

This wasn't the photo op of a superstar at a boy's hospital bedside. There was no fable here. He would never have spoken to me again if I had written it.

"Life begins at 40," he later told me in his Los Angeles home one month after the Holmes fight. "And I'm only 39. Boxing was my pass to center stage. Now I want to help folks who have no money and no hope."

The tragic irony is that he never got the chance. Boxing, and all he gave it, brought on Parkinson's, which, in another irony, made him more vulnerable and more beloved.

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FIGHTERS HEAVEN

When I reach back in my memory to define him, my fondest memories are of the quiet times in his Deer Lake, Pa., training camp.

I remember a day when we sat there in a fine drizzle and talked about how his view of America had changed.

"It's not about color. I know black people who are devils and white people who are good and caring. And I know plenty of both who are the reverse."

I brought my own kids up there one day, and Ali shook hands with my son, then swooped down to pick up my little daughter and held her high over his head as she giggled.

"Is that your daddy? Don't lie to me. Is that your daddy?That's not your daddy That man is ugly and you are beautiful. The Gypsies musta brung you. Gimme a kiss."

It was in Deer Lake that hot paraffin baths healed his arthritic hands and watching him hit the heavy bag after two years, convinced me he would knock Foreman out — and I wrote it. He told me:

"Listen, Jerry, if you think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned, just wait until I kick Foreman's behind."

It was here that he chopped wood and moved boulders to build himself up. There was a lane he called Fighters Heaven, lined with 18 boulders on which he personally painted the names of the greatest fighters who ever lived — Dempsey, Louis, Marciano — except his own. I suspected he believed there was no boulder big enough.

It was here the famed entourage lived together like frat boys: Gene Kilroy, the personal business manager and camp facilitator, keeper of the checkbook, restorer of order; Pat Patterson, the Chicago cop turned security chief; Angelo Dundee, the venerable trainer; Drew Bundini Brown, the witch doctor/cheerleader who coined the phrase "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," and Wali Muhammad, the bucket man and timekeeper.

There never was and never will be a group that belonged together as much as this one did. In my mind, they are eternally young.

Twenty five years ago, I went back to the camp at Deer Lake, long deserted.

I wandered into the old camp kitchen where the wall plaque with a list of kitchen rules was thick with dust. The long wooden table and chairs were empty. I walked down the hill to the little gym that surely must remain a refuge to the ghosts and echoes of a younger Ali at work. The thump of gloved fist against heavy bag and the rat-tat-tat of the speed bag.

The sound of the three-minute bell ringing and Wali Muhammad, a towel around his neck and a stopwatch in his hand, yelling, "Time!"

The rickety sign was still there, swaying back and forth in the wind:

"Muhammad Ali Training Camp."

Beneath it, another wooden slat read:

"No Training Today."

He was the center of a universe he created.He loved people and people loved him.
What else can you ask from a life?

Only once in all those years can I think back to a moment when he did not share himself, a moment all his own on the bank of the Zaire River. He had chased a dream to Africa and into the very heart of that continent. And there, within a mortar shot of the historic spot where Stanley found Livingstone, he faced a bigger, stronger opponent, with little more than faith in himself and a good fight plan, and George Foreman came tumbling down.

Two hours later, I saw him as I had never seen him before. He was alone. No retinue. No spectators. No one. He was alone with his thoughts as he stood by the river.

The day before, he had stood in that same spot as a heavy underdog, an aging ex-champ and a man who, without whining, had taken more crap from his own government than all the white-collar criminals in America.

Now he turned and walked toward us as heavyweight champion of the world again. Proud. Strong. Both arms raised skyward.

Each time I think of him, I will remember him that way.

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