When Muhammad Ali stepped into the ring at the City Auditorium in Atlanta to face Jerry Quarry on October 26, 1970, a 13 year-old boy stood next to his father at Angie’s Tavern at 84th and Pulaski on the Southwest side of Chicago, excited to watch the fight. Big, tough men were lined up along the bar, all city workers – cops, fireman, garbage men, water department – men who worked very hard for a living and enjoyed going to the popular neighborhood watering-hole to have a shot and a beer and watch and talk about sports, politics and anything else in the news. Being outspoken was the norm. This was far before political correctness and if PC had been around, it would have shown the door immediately by Mr. Angelo Corso, the tavern's owner.
Back in those days, they wouldn’t broadcast championship boxing matches on free television. It was shown via closed circuit TV, which helped generate revenue for the competitors and promoters. My father knew I was a big fan of Muhammad Ali, loved watching him box. It was so exciting to watch him dance around the ring with such ease throwing those long left-handed jabs as he circled his opponent. Then after wearing his challenger down, he would attack with hard rights, combinations, and vicious right crosses to the nose, inflicting his tremendous punishment on his opponents. He was so fast, so fun to watch. I loved it! Like many young teens of that day, after an Ali fight I could be found in my basement dancing and throwing jabs, trying to copy the great champion.
When the Ali-Quarry fight started, it became clear very quickly, who the city workers along the bar were rooting for when during the second round, I heard one of them yell out, “Kill that n-----!” I looked at my dad whose eyes were fixed on the television mounted to the back wall behind the bar. I thought, “Hey dad, I’m rooting for him.” I decided it might be wise to keep that thought to myself as the vocal chants against Ali continued and became louder and more aggressive during the third round when Ali hit Quarry with a barrage of punches he would never recover from. He didn’t answer the bell for the fourth round and I quickly became aware of various combinations of swear words as they were being launched into the direction of the TV. But despite the verdict from the bar patrons, Ali had won. And that started his comeback that would capture the world’s attention once again.
Ali's win inspired me to step into the boxing ring at Scottsdale Park where my baseball coach Vic Leonard, a former boxer, taught boxing and trained Golden Gloves competitors. He put me in the ring with his son Glenn, my friend and an all-star pitcher on our championship Mets' baseball team. Glenn had been trained well by his dad. But here was my chance to do my Ali shuffle and show the world that I could be like Ali. When Mr. Leonard said, "Box" I danced around Glenn, who had the traditional boxing stance. I threw left jabs at him, just like the champ. But after I threw a left, I noticed Glenn would throw a hard right. I noticed this because I could feel the stinging on my left cheek. After a few minutes of Glenn ducking my jabs and delivering hard rights to my head, I began to notice the ceiling started to swirl a bit. I believe Mr. Leonard noticed this as well and stopped the sparring. My pal Glenn knew how to box and just gave me a lesson in real pugilism, not fantasies of being like Ali.
Mr. Leonard decided to put another newcomer into the ring with me, a kid named Carl, who I also knew from baseball. Despite the tattooing I took from Glenn, I went back into my Ali dance, but this time I was landing all of my left jabs, my hard right, and combinations. I became more confident with each punch that connected. I decided to go for the knockout and threw the hardest right hand I could muster, landing squarely across Carl's left cheek. He fell back and down to the mat and Mr. Leonard ended the bout. I walked away from Scottsdale Park 1-1 and I would live with a .500 record as I returned to the sports I was most competent-- baseball, hockey and basketball. Glenn went on to fight in the Golden Gloves and today runs Glenn Leonard Boxing & Conditioning at 1140 W. Jackson in Chicago.
Fast-forward to April 1997, as I flew over Atlanta in a sleek corporate jet with Muhammad Ali next to me looking out of his window to see the spot where he had lit the Olympic torch only nine months earlier. He pointed down smiling and said, "Right there." For him, that was a great moment to remember. It was also a moment that all Parkinson’s patients would remember as his arm shook when lighting the torch, showing the devastating effects of the neurological disease.
At that time, I was a public relations director for Pharmacia & Upjohn and knowing the company was about to introduce a new Parkinson’s treatment, I contacted Muhammad Ali through his wife Lonnie asking if they would be interested in joining an educational effort for Parkinsons’ disease. The answer was yes and the first event took place in Washington, D.C.
After setting up an exclusive interview with Bryant Gumbel on NBC's Today Show, I was approached by a familiar-looking man as we entered the NBC studio doors. It was Tim Russert who asked if he could bring his 12 year-old son Luke over to get a photo with the champ. We did and I’m betting that today you will find that photo in Luke Russert's office at MSNBC. Back then, Muhammad didn’t do a great deal of talking. His wife Lonnie did most of the communication. But when Gumbel conducted the interview, Ali spoke like a champ. And that was the moment I realized, he could most definitely speak when he wanted to, but was very selective about when to talk.
At a packed press conference that day to announce a new study for minorities suffering from Parkinson’s, Lonnie did most of the talking until a reporter from ABC network news asked a tough question challenging Ali’s faith. As all eyes turned to Lonnie for the answer, the champ jumped into the ring and delivered the answer clearly and directly, like one of his left jabs letting the reporter know he wouldn’t be bullied by a controversial question. The reporter sprang back with a follow-up question and received an equally energetic response that landed him on the mat as he sat down. I spent enough time with Ali to know he took his faith very seriously and it was a bad idea to challenge him about it.
With the passing of Muhammad Ali, many are now talking about how Cassius Clay (his birth name) was adored by millions across the country until April of 1967 when refused to be inducted into the United States armed forces as the Vietnam War began to escalate. During a war that split the country, Ali became the focal point for both sides. He was hated by millions who supported the war and loved by those who opposed it. Today, the history about the opposition to the Vietnam War is accepted, but back then, it was a serious debate and very controversial among many Americans.
In my neighborhood on the Southwest side of Chicago, most of the men were blue-collar workers who supported the war. Many had fought in World War II or Korea and believed that when the country called upon its young American men to serve in a war, they served with no questions asked. Many of the sons from our neighborhood went off to fight and ended up with gold stars in the windows of their parents homes, having been killed in action. So there was a good deal of resentment toward Ali and complete disrespect for the decision he made.
What we all learned later however, is Vietnam was a different war. It was very hard to see the truth of the situation in April of 1967. It took people like Ali, followed by protests on college campuses, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and in Washington, including a man burning himself to death outside of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's office, to make many Americans start questioning the war. And when those gold stars started appearing in the front windows of homes throughout neighborhoods across the country, sons being killed, and parents watching these protests, that’s when attitudes changed.
After the press event that day in Washington, I had the chance to sit with Ali in his hotel room and talked about those days. He received a five year prison sentence but appealed it and was able to live in a home on the Southside of Chicago. He talked about how tough those days were for him, not really knowing how things would work out in the future. But he had become a Muslim, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and was not going over to Vietnam to kill the Vietcong who he said did nothing to him. I told him my story about watching the Quarry fight, which he loved.
He was eating grapes, his favorite snack. I changed the subject to boxing and asked him how he would fight Mike Tyson, the most feared boxer at that time. Ali’s energy picked up. “Rope-a-dope,” he said in that familiar muffled Ali voice. “I would do the rope-a-dope, let him punch himself out and then attack.” As I watched how much he loved talking about that fight that would never happen, I thought how wonderful it would be if he had never gotten old, if he could have kept boxing, thrilling boxing fans with his incredibly wonderful style of dancing around the ring. If you ever watch his three fights against Joe Frazier, you know exactly what I mean. Thank goodness ESPN airs those great fights on occasion.
As the champ sat there resting, he dozed off, tired from a long day. Drool began coming from his mouth, an effect of Parkinson’s. So there I sat, two feet away from the most famous man on earth, who was holding a bowl of grapes in his right hand, head slumped, now sleeping and drooling. His battle was no longer in a boxing ring, but in the Parkinson’s arena. I spent a good deal of time with Muhammad and Lonnie over the next year and will always be proud to have worked with one of my childhood heroes, watching him fight hard against a neurological disease that has such devastating effects on the human body.
I witnessed his personal battle with Parkinson’s at his home in Berrien Springs, Michigan (Al Capone’s old summer home) as well as in Chicago at another press event. He would never reveal his pain to outsiders, but I’m sure Lonnie knew it all too well. It was a battle much tougher than the “Thrilla in Manilla” against Joe Frazier or “Rumble in the Jungle” against the powerful George Foreman. It was every day, all day for three decades.
When it was reported that Ali had died, I was sad to see him go, but happy he was out of his pain. When people ask me about Muhammad Ali, I tell them he had a great sense of humor, would sign autographs or take photos with anyone who asked, loved magic, loved sports and could not have been nicer and more helpful to me. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, I highly recommend you watch the documentary, “When We Were Kings.”
So farewell to my childhood hero Muhammad Ali, the greatest of all time.
Filed under: 1968 Democratic National Convention, Bryant Gumbel, Golden Gloves, Heavyweight champion, Jerry Quarry, Lonnie Ali, Luke Russert, Lyndon Johnson, Muhammad Ali, NBC News, Parkinson's disease, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, The Today Show, Tim Russert, Uncategorized, Vietnam, Vietnam Protests, Vietnam War
Tags: 1968 Democratic National Convention, ABC News, boxing, Bryant Gumbel, Cassius Clay, Chicago, George Foreman, Glenn Leonard Boxing, heavyweight champ, Joe Frazier, Lonnie Ali, Luke Russert, Lyndon Johnson, Muhammad Ali, National Parkinson's Foundation, NBC, Parkinson's disease, Robert McNamara, Scottsdale Park, Secretary of Defense, The Today Show, Tim Russert, Vietnam War