He didn’t don a hometown jersey like Maury Wills, Elgin Baylor or Deacon Jones. He played for the world. That’s why his presence on my block 50 years ago was so memorable.
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was in town for a television appearance and had caught the eye of a neighbor, a lovely debutant and aspiring model/actress named Selestine Bennett. The news was out that he’d be stopping by Saturday afternoon for a date. The magnitude of this brief stop on 50th Street seemed so much bigger as the years went by.
He wasn’t there long, just enough time to greet her parents and chat with a few neighbors who had the “inside scoop” that he’d be stopping by. The old neighborhood was still reeling from the Watts Riots the previous August, but Ali appeared to be at home with his kin. He, too, came from humble origins and his humility demonstrated itself with the way he interacted with the neighbors. Years later I would discover that his oversized personality was specific to the media.
He arrived alone in a new white-on-white Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Man, what a ride! The prestige of the car was appropriate because he was a handsome man–6-foot, three-inches and over 200 pounds–with a neatly trimmed Afro, “tailor-made” suit, and shoes polished to the highest hue.
Mr. & Mrs. Bennett escorted the couple to the car and joked and laughed; my grandmother was introduced as was my Uncle Buddy who couldn’t help complement him on his victory over Sonny Liston. I said nothing and just starred at the sports royalty that graced our block. Our eyes caught and he gave me the famous Ali boxing pose and playful punch then opened the door for Selestine and whirled around to the wheel and, in an instant, they were sailing down the street ready to “paint the town.”
Back at school Monday practically no one would believe me. I was too awestruck to ask for an autograph, although the Bennetts did take a Polaroid snapshot.
Years later I saw Ali at a book signing inside the Arco Towers downtown. This was in the early 1990s and Parkinson’s disease was taking a marked toll on him, although he looked healthy and was in good spirits interacting with the onlookers. And just like that memorable Saturday afternoon of my boyhood, our eyes managed to focus on each other and he gave me that legendary smile and playful punch.
Brief moments with “The Greatest” can last a lifetime.
Muhammad Ali Timeline
by William Covington
1942 Muhammad Ali is born on Jan. 17, in Louisville, Ky. to Cassius Marcellus Clay and Odessa Clay. The newborn is named after his father.
1954 After having his bike stolen, 12-year-old Clay reports the theft to local law enforcement. Informing officer taking report that he was going to “whup whoever stole it.” In an attempt to channel Clay’s aggression, the officer takes Clay under his wing and introduces him to boxing trainer Fred Stoner. Following that introduction, Clay wins six Kentucky Golden Glove championships, two national Golden Glove championships and two AAU titles from 1954 to 1960, becoming one of the most anticipated amateur athletes in the country.
1960 Cassius Clay wins the light-heavyweight gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rome with a 5-0 decision over Zbigniew Pietzykowski.
After returning home to his native Louisville, Clay discovers he is not immune to racism in the United States. After being refused service by a waitress in a Whites-only restaurant, and then fighting with a White gang, Clay throws his gold medal into the Ohio River.
The 18-year-old fighter turns pro soon after the Games and wins his first professional fight on Oct. 29.
He wins 19 total bouts between 1960 and 1963, setting up his first title shot against Sonny Liston in 1964.
1964 Clay challenges Sonny Liston for the WBA world heavyweight title. Liston says he did not believe Clay deserved a title shot. Clay was considered a heavy underdog. Clay stayed focused, acting as if he were the favorite, and this was the birth of the fast-talking, charismatic “people’s champion.” On Feb. 25, Clay defeated Liston by technical knockout when the defending champion failed to answer the bell for the seventh round in Miami Beach. It’s called one of the biggest upsets in boxing history at the time.
After the fight Clay joins the Nation of Islam the following day and begins going by the name Cassius X.
1967 Ali refused induction into the Army due to his religious beliefs. He was criticized by fellow African Americans Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. Ali believed the draft was unfair because most individuals drafted were poor or from working-class families. There were deferments that were based on family status and academic standing that went to individuals like Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump. It was very rare for an African American to get a deferment.
Ali was stripped of his WBA title and his license to fight, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. He remained free pending numerous appeals.
1970 Due to Georgia not having a boxing commission, Ali is able to box there. He returns to the ring there and defeats Jerry Quarry in the third round.
1971 Ali fights heavyweight champ Joe Frazier in March and is defeated. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s draft evasion conviction in an 8-0 ruling.
1974 Ali and Joe Frazier have a rematch in Madison Square Garden. This time, Ali won in 12 rounds. Later that year Ali knocks out George Foreman in the eighth round during the “Rumble in the Jungle” and regains the Heavyweight title. Ali tires out Foreman using the “rope-a-dope” strategy.
1975 Ali took on Frazier for a third (and final) time, this time in the Philippines. Ali beat Frazier in a TKO in the 14th round in what will be forever known as “The Thrilla in Manila”.
Ali’s biography, “The Greatest: My Own Story,” by Richard Durham, is published. Among the topics in the book is the mention that Ali threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River. There have been various reports about Ali losing his medal since.
1978 Ali loses to 1976 Olympic champion Leon Spinks in 15 rounds by a split decision.
Ali later avenges his loss against Spinks and became the first three-time world heavyweight champion by defeating Spinks in the Louisiana Superdome.
1979 Ali announces his retirement.
1980 Ali comes out of retirement to face Larry Holmes in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Holmes overmatched Ali, and Ali’s corner stopped the fight after 10 rounds.
1984 Although Ali had shown some signs he might have Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disease of the brain, leading up to the Holmes fight in 1980, he officially is diagnosed with the ailment.
1996 Ali lights the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. He also received a replacement gold medal for the one he won in 1960.
2016 Muhammad Ali dies in Phoenix Ariz., after being hospitalized with respiratory issues. He was 74 years old.
A Brush with Greatness
By Gregg Reese
Here in southern California the presence of celebrity is so omnipresent that we’ve become jaded, with scores of media icons and would be icons within the radius of the “thirty mile zone” (or ‘TMZ’). Out in the rest of the world though, and especially in the “fly over states” of Middle America this is not the case. The prospect of interacting with one of the outsized personas typically encountered via electronic media or on the printed page is still very much a novelty, a remarkable deviation from the numbing grind of life’s routine.
Back in 1986 or 87, I was toiling for Uncle Sam in the deep, dark nether regions of rural Kansas. By this time, the end of my enlistment was still months away, but the novelty of defending the heartland had worn off, and I was merely bidding my time until I could take off my uniform and take up the challenges of civilian life.
To break the monotony one evening, a friend of mine talked me into going to a public appearance by Muhammad Ali, several years past his prime. The prospect of avoiding another beer soaked night of playing cards and trading war stories about our amorous exploits, real and imagined, won out and so we ambled down to one of the many watering holes out in the foothills, strategically placed to drain the paychecks of unwary servicemen.
Once inside this drinking establishment whose name I’ve now forgotten, we found a generous crowd already packed around this former pillar of pugilism, now reduced to various card tricks and sleight of hand techniques that were his vocation after he’d hung up his gloves (I later learned he had his own private magician under contract for a time). Scores of G.I. s crowded around Ali, laughing at this new avenue for his showmanship, and posing for photos with my fallen icon.
For me however, the spectacle was a bittersweet experience, as I was caught up in the memory of what this man had meant for youngsters of color on the threshold of manhood during my generation, and I signaled my buddy I was gone, and began to make the trek up the hill to my barracks.
Several minutes of road marching later, I came across a gas station and a large stretch limousine being refueled. My mind was blank, perhaps contemplating the next of an endless series of inspections that comprised my existence as I walked around the vehicle to continue my hike towards home.
Suddenly a figure appeared before me, not a giant, but a formidable specimen none-the-less, who’d apparently climbed from the automobile in my path. The individual was backlit from the glare of the streetlamps behind him, his facial features cloaked in darkness as he held his arms in the familiar stance of a boxer ready to face an opponent before taking a step or two in my direct.
My brain reeled in recognition of a persona I’d gazed upon countless times in print and on the small screen, but never in public.
Confused by the absurdity of what was transpiring, I stammered a response:
“I got too much respect for you to throw my hands up, Champ-but I’ll take a hug,” as the two of us embraced with a familiarity that belied the fact that we’d never met before, and would never cross paths again, at least in this life.
Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American life, and he was probably right for the vast majority of us in our brief existence on the planet. But Ali, befitting his outsized being, lived a life that required additional addendums to the standard three-act structure.
The brash upstart who offended White America and frightened conservative Blacks by going against the niceties of acceptable humility in the ethos of sportsmanship; the religious dissenter who embraced a strange belief that many found hostile and ominous in a time of racial turbulence; the iconoclast who turned his back on conventional patriotism by aspiring to a higher morality and put his career and earning potential on line to prove it; and finally the elder statesman who won out against the critics of his youth to emerge as paragon of virtue, the master of a violent sport who became a giant of humanity.
Muhammad Ali meant many things to many people, often stirring up dissimilar emotions to individuals at different times in their lives. His outsized personality transcended his adopted profession of prize fighting, and even (for him) the narrow definition of “athlete.” It is then, especially iconic that my own personal recollection of him transpired far from the bright lights of celebrity in the American heartland.