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The Greatest Meets His Greatest Fan
Just about everyone accepts by now that Muhammad Ali is the Greatest Heavyweight Champion of all times. Oh, some old-timers will still sometimes bring up Rocky Marciano or Joe Louis, and some on the younger side of forty will once in awhile bring up Mike Tyson or Lennox Lewis and say they might have beaten Ali. Years ago such blasphemy would have prompted me to launch into a lecture overwhelmingly filled with facts, figures, and statistics to prove such a position faulty, erroneous, and downright wrong. But not any longer.
As I have gotten older and learned a bit more hard-won wisdom, I have gained a number of helpful insights to help my human relationships run more smoothly, perhaps the most important of which is that even fools are entitled to their opinion. Just for the record, however, I cannot resist offering my considered opinion that Marciano was too small, Louis too slow, Tyson too easily frustrated, and Lewis too easily knocked out to ever pose a threat to a prime, or even a near prime, Muhammad Ali. Please forgive my indulgence, but I also cannot resist this opportunity to point out what is to me the obvious fact that if Muhammad Ali - with his lightening fast hands, swift feet, limitless endurance, and elusive, concrete chin - had not existed; we would not know to this day that a heavyweight Sugar Ray Robinson was even possible.
However, it is not my purpose here to discuss Ali's merits as a boxer, as they have been well and often chronicled elsewhere by far more renown writers than myself. My purpose is to shed light on another aspect of this many-faceted man - his kind, warm and generous spirit. I will do this by first recounting my own personal Ali history and then follow it up by recounting one of my most treasured events of my life, a "chance’ meeting with my lifelong hero, Muhammad Ali.
Ever since the age of 12 when I first saw him recite his epic poem, "I Am the Greatest!" I have loved Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. If memory serves me, the poem went something like this:
With so much mediocrity in the world, it inspired me that anyone would have the audacity to claim to be the Greatest at anything. But for a young, skinny, and seemingly good-natured kid to claim to be the greatest in a demanding, cruel sport like boxing bordered on lunacy. Who, I thought, would not want to see such a daring young man succeed? I looked upon Ali’s quixotic quest as a crusade to raise the consciousness of mankind. Why, I thought, should anyone resign himself or herself to living a smaller life then necessary? Why not go for the most brilliant, fabulous, and glorious life possible? By letting his own Inner Light shine, I felt that Ali was somehow giving the rest of us permission to do the same.
My opinion of Ali, however, was in the distinct minority. Just about everyone else in the little world of my neighborhood - and it seemed in the larger world of radio, newspapers, and television- wanted nothing more than to see his arrogant words shoved back down his egotistical throat.
As Cassius Clay, Ali was considered to be nothing more than a conceited pompous clown and a fistic fraud. But when he "shook-up the world" by whupping the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston and changing his name; public sentiment towards him - which had always been bad- turned down-right ugly. I think it is safe to say that when he refused military induction in 1967, Ali was the most hated man in America. This distinction carries considerable significance when one takes into account just how heated public passions ran in that most tumultuous of decades.
But the fact that he was so disliked by others did not effect my certainty in him in the least. From the very beginning I saw something very special within him and the fact that no one else seemed to see it only made me more resolute in my belief.
In my neighborhood growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area , I was considered a bit contrary when it came to sports; I not only rooted for the hated and despised Los Angeles Dodgers, but I was Muhammad Ali’s only fan, as well. Judging from the lack of any cheers other than my own when he was introduced before locally shown closed-circuit telecasts of his fights, I might safely assume I was his only fan not only in my own neighborhood, but in the entire town of San Jose. It was almost as if, because no one else seemed to want him, he belonged all the more to me. He was truly my champion.
Because of my allegiance to Ali, I was the target of much harassment. A lot of it came from the kids at school who, lacking opinions of their own, simply hated Ali because it was the (politically-correct) thing to do and because their parents did. These kids did not faze me, I knew they were merely confirming their ignorance and immaturity when they talked down Ali.
But what did bother me, however, was the frequent and always uninvited counsel of adults who claimed they were only looking out for my best interests. "Barry," they would say, "why do you waste your time rooting for Cassius Clay? Don’t you know that he hates white people? If you were to meet him he wouldn't even talk to you!"
Looking back, I believe they might have meant well. But even then I did not want such small-minded people doing my thinking for me. I would explain that the reason they did not like Muhammad Ali was simply because they did not know as much about him as I did. And if that did not enable them to see the light (and it hardly ever did), I would patiently -but perhaps condescendingly- explain to them that because they had never seen such an evolved soul as Ali before, they couldn't expect to be anything but baffled by what he said and did.
Today, with a maturity that comes from many years of hindsight, I now know that it was disrespectful for me to lecture my elders in such an arrogant manner; but back then all I could think about was how fed up I was with all the unwanted advice I had to endure because of my love for Ali. Luckily, my Mom and Dad understood how much Ali meant to me and would often come to my rescue when things got particularly unpleasant.
The decade of the 1970s, however, saw an almost complete reversal in public opinion towards Ali. When he had first come out against the war in Viet Nam, he stood naked and alone as the first prominent celebrity to take this unpopular stance. For doing so, Ali was immediately stripped of his championship and banned from boxing.
But as causalities mounted and with victory nowhere in sight, more and more Americans began to change their views. The war, they decided, really was wrong. Ali had been right all along!
Almost overnight, public sentiment turned in Ali’s favor. The very same people that had once despised Ali were now righteously outraged that he had been unjustly denied his constitutional right to pursue his livelihood for four long years. Amazingly, political-correctness now demanded that Ali be allowed to return to the ring, and thus he was.
Ali’s triumphant return took place on October 26, 1970 against the number one contender, Jerry Quarry. Ali looked impressive and the closed-circuit audience in my hometown of San Jose roared their approval with his every blow.
But the long years of enforced idleness came with a price. Ali was no longer the sleek, fleet superman of his youth. Now, he -like the rest of us- was human. He got tired. He missed punches. He had to lie on the ropes to rest. But most surprising of all- he now got hit!
Those "in the know" had always said that Ali was a coward at heart. The reason he danced around his opponents was because he was afraid of getting hit. A couple of good shots to his pretty face and the chicken-hearted draft-dodger would quit, or so said the prevailing wisdom of the previous decade.
But now it was the nineteen-seventies and Ali did get hit- hard and often – but he didn't quit. He fought back with a courage and bravery that even those few who still hated him had to grudgingly admire.
Then, what had once been unthinkable actually happened, Ali lost! That I believed is what humanized him in the public consciousness more than anything else. Who, for God’s sake, has not lost at something?
When he took his loss (a close, hard-fought, controversial decision to Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971) with dignity, the public transformation was complete; Ali was now loved in the homeland that had once scorned him.
The road back to his championship, however, was not to be easy. Ali could not simply be voted back into the World's Heavyweight Championship, he would have to win that title for himself in the ring.
Ali fought and won many times but could not get a shot at the title. Ali was too big a risk! The champion, Joe Frazier, came up with one excuse after another not to give Ali a rematch.
Then, on March 31, 1973, Ali’s boxing career seemed to come to a sad and crushing end. A relatively unknown slugger, Ken Norton, beat him. Worst of all, Ali's jaw was broken. The world’s most famous mouth that had once roared so defiantly was now wired shut. How unfair it all seemed, Muhammad Ali would never win back the title that was rightfully his.
In reality, the loss to Norton turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It looked now as if Ali was finished as a serious contender. Since he was no longer viewed as a dangerous threat, the other top fighters stopped ducking him. They figured they had better fight him quickly and cash in on his big name while they still had the chance.
So on September 10, 1973; Ali took his first step towards redemption with a rematch against Ken Norton. Ali trained with a determination he had not shown in years and was able to seemingly turn back the clock, boxing circles around Norton in he early rounds to build a lead that he never relinquished.
His victory over Norton (more will be said on this most pivotal of all fights later) set the stage for his next step on the comeback trail. In January of 74, Ali finally got his chance to avenge his loss to Joe Frazier. He made the most of it, winning a decisive 12 round decision.
Now the stage was really set! Ali signed a five-million dollar contract to challenge the young, new champion, George Foreman. Big George was the real life Incredible Hulk! He crushed opponent after opponent on his destructive path to the top.
In title fights, Foreman continued to destroy everyone he faced. Among his victims were both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. They both were kayoed in only the second round. These were the same two men that had given Ali so much trouble. In fifty-one total rounds of boxing, Ali had failed to score even a single knockdown against either of them. Foreman, in contrast, had scored eight devastating knockdowns against them and took less than four rounds total to destroy them both. So now, despite his newfound public adoration, Ali was given little more than a snowball’s chance in hell against the young, strong, seemingly invincible George Foreman.
The fight was set for the, until then, little known country of Zaire, Africa. It took place on October 29th 1974, (USA time). In perhaps his greatest of all performances, Ali bewitched, bothered, and bewildered Foreman from the very beginning.
Rather than try to dance out of danger and win on points which had been his expected strategy, Ali did the absolutely, most positively unexpected thing he could have possibly done. He simply leaned back on the ropes and invited Big George to take his best shots.
Against a dynamite puncher like Foreman, such a strategy had all the hazards of walking a tightrope without a safety net. Things might go along fine for awhile, but when disaster struck it would be fatal.
Most of Foreman’s biggest bombs missed, thank God, but some did get through. But rather than fall to the canvas like Foreman’s previous opponents had done, Ali simply smiled a broad grin and taunted, "Is that as hard as you can hit? I thought they told me you could punch. You punch like a sissy!"
This infuriated George! No one had ever had the audacity to question the almighty authority of his punching power before. So he loaded up with everything he had with every shot he threw. He was determined to wipe the cocky grin from Ali’s face and batter him unconscious and defenseless to the canvas.
The fury of Foreman’s onslaught was frightening. Midway through the fifth round I can remember reaching behind me for my coat so I could leave quickly in case Ali pitched forward on his face. But he did not pitch forward like so many had before him; instead he sprung from the ropes and stunned the surprised Foreman with quick, precise combinations of his own.
The action in the last minute of the fifth round was unbelievable! My eyes, of course, remained glued to the closed-circuit television screen, but from the wails and screeches that engulfed me, I knew hysteria reigned supreme.
I would like to say that I was so confident that I never doubted Ali’s strategy for a second. But if I did so, I would be lying. Initially, I was scared to death, pleading along with his trainer Angelo Dundee and everyone else for him to get off of the blankety-blank ropes and get back into the center of the ring.
It was not until the bell rang ending the fifth that the light bulb went off and I could see the wisdom behind Ali’s madness. Foreman, when he returned to his corner, stumbled forward over his own feet.
I had seen that stumble once before and knew immediately what it meant. Foreman had Jell-O in his knees!
You see, before Foreman went to Africa, he did his initial training at the Pleasanton Fair Grounds. Since this site was only about 30 minutes from our home, my best friend Steve and I showed up to watch him train at every opportunity. We would boldly wear our homemade Ali’s Army T-shirts and root openly for the sparring partners, which did not endear either of us to Big George.
One afternoon Foreman showed off for a network television crew by boxing 16 consecutive 4-minute rounds against a fresh opponent each round. To make things even tougher on himself, he stood instead of sitting between rounds and only rested 30 seconds instead of the customary full minute.
Foreman’s exhibition of endurance was impressive, and did nothing to increase my estimates of Ali’s chances against him. But I did notice this one little thing. I noticed that when the workout was finally over and George descended the steps leading out of the ring, he stumbled forward and had to be caught by his handlers.
That little bit of Jell-O in his knees was the first glimpse I had ever had that Big, Bad George Foreman was subject to some of the same human frailties as the rest of us. But, of course, the fight against Ali was only scheduled for 15 three-minute rounds and the idea that Muhammad would survive long enough to get Big George winded seemed remote at best.
But here it was only the fifth round and Foreman was already showing signs of fatigue. So while that raised a glimmer of hope, I can remember thinking that if Foreman was beginning to tire, what must Ali be feeling? Had not he been on the receiving end of this great pounding?
So while things were going better than expected, I never felt comfortable at any point during the entire fight. I was alarmed that Foreman might suddenly land "the big one" and knock Ali unconscious at any moment. However, like a giant wind-up toy, Foreman continued to gradually slow down through rounds six and seven.
The end did come with sudden swiftness, but not in the way I had feared. Towards the end of the eighth round, Ali landed a short, sneaky right hand and Steve grabbed my arm and screamed, "Foreman’s hurt! Foreman’s hurt!"
"No," I snapped back, "that’s impossible!" In the thousands of times I had visualized this fight in my mind’s eye I had never seen it ending this way. In my more optimistic moments I sometimes saw Ali winning on points, but I never saw him knocking Foreman out.
But Foreman was hurt and Ali knocked him off his feet with a combination the like of which he had not thrown in years. There was an astonished silence in the San Jose Civic Auditorium until referee Zack Clayton finished his count and waved his arms signaling that the fight was over. Then the entire place erupted!
Everyone was jumping up and down and dancing in the aisles! The screaming was so loud that I could not tell for certain if I was screaming along with the rest of the crowd or not. My other two great Ali buddies- Milo Drussai and Jim Henzi- celebrated along with Steve and I.
I hugged complete strangers and complete strangers hugged me. I slapped five with so many different people that my hands were sore for days. The Great Man had done it! He slew the monster and regained his cherished championship!
Leaving the closed circuit arena in San Jose, I took a long look back to forever imprint this scene in my mind. The Civic Auditorium looked like a bomb had hit it! In the bedlam that accompanied Foreman’s descent to the canvas, all but a handful of the fold-up seats had crashed to the floor.
I drank the scene deeply into my mind and can remember thinking to myself, "no matter what happens from this point on, no one will ever be able to take this one away from either me or Ali."
Unlike ten years earlier when Ali had won the championship from Sonny Liston, I was not forced to celebrate this great victory alone. My family and friends were so happy for me that my phone rang off the hook for months. I received so many congratulations that I sometimes had to remind myself that I had not knocked Big George out myself. Unlike the first time Ali won the title, this time it seemed the entire world was delirious with joy. The Great Wrong had been righted! The true champion was back on his throne!
Now it seemed everybody loved Ali. I was no longer the lone voice singing out in the wilderness and I could not have been happier. It brought me great satisfaction to see Ali finally getting the recognition he so richly deserved.
But still, there are those whose hatreds die hard. Those that still bitterly claimed that Ali was not the great humanitarian he was cracked up to be. He only cared for black people, they said. The only use he had for whites was for them to buy tickets to his fights.
It was during the years of Ali’s second championship reign, at the age of 26, that the powers that run the universe gave me the opportunity to discover if my many years of devotion to Ali were truly justified.
Were those hateful people really right? Would Ali turn out to be a black racist who would not even talk to me, his most devoted fan, simply because of the whiteness of my skin?
I found out the answer on December 19, 1976. That momentous day began with a bang when gimpy-kneed quarterback Kenny Stabler dove into the end zone with ten seconds left (and no timeouts) to lead my beloved Oakland Raiders to a come from behind victory in the first round of the NFL play-offs. Although I did not know it at the time, this win was especially crucial as the Raiders went on to win their first Super Bowl three weeks later!
On the Raider post game show it was announced that the two-time Heavyweight Champion, Muhammad Ali was believed to have been seen somewhere on the streets of downtown Oakland. That was all I needed to hear. I jumped into my old Buick convertible and took off up the Nimitz freeway determined to somehow find him.
When I got about half way to Oakland, the radio station reversed itself and announced that they had checked out the Ali rumor - and it was definitely false. "Please do not call the station for his whereabouts," the radio voice said, "Muhammad Ali is not in town. We repeat, Muhammad Ali is not in town."
Now, a less optimistic person than myself might have turned around and gone home. But I heard this little voice in my ear saying, "keep going, keep going," so I continued on. I vividly remember driving past the Oakland Coliseum and honking and waving a clinched fist of solidarity to the jubilant Raider fans that were still filing out of the parking lot.
The next thing I remember is seeing the tall tower of the Oakland Tribune building to the right of the freeway. This landmark told me I was deep into downtown Oakland itself. The logical question, now that I had come this far, was just where did I expect to find Muhammad Ali? According to the radio station he was not even here.
When you stop and think about it, I would have had a better chance of finding the proverbial needle in a haystack than I did of finding Ali. At least, with the haystack I'd have known the needle existed; whereas Ali could have been anywhere on the planet for all I knew.
I got off the freeway and meandered up and down the city streets for no more than a minute or two when I suddenly heard loud, frantic screaming! "Barry! Barry! Stop that car and get over here right now!"
I pulled over as quickly as I could. I got out of my car and saw, to my amazement, my buddy and fellow Ali fan, Herbie Townsend, talking with The Man himself- Muhammad Ali!
I can remember my knees shaking a bit as I approached them. My first recollection was that Ali appeared so much bigger in person than he did on television.
"Is your name Barry?" Ali asked pleasantly.
"Yes", I said, reaching out and shaking his massive hand.
"Your friend here was just telling me about you. He said you are my Greatest Fan. And then, just like that, you just happened to drive by. What a coincidence! Do you live around here?"
"No, I live in San Jose- fifty miles away."
"What are you doing here?"
"I heard on the radio you might be in town so I drove up hoping I would find you."
"How did you know where I was going to be?"
"I didn’t," I said. "I just got lucky. If it wasn’t for Herbie seeing my car I would have driven by and never saw you."
"You did get lucky! But luck isn’t enough when you’re claiming to be my Greatest Fan. You’ve got to win a title as big as that! And I’m the onliest one that does the judging."
With that, Ali suddenly pulled himself into a mock boxing stance with his arms dangling down by his sides and his fists rotating in small circles as he looked me over warily, just as he so often did with opponents he was getting ready to destroy in the ring. I knew, of course, that he was just playing with me and the absurdity of me actually fighting Ali immediately put me at ease.
"So you say you’re my Greatest Fan?"
"That’s right, Champ! The Greatest of Allll Tiiiiimes!"
I decided to try to impress him with an impromptu Poem:
It may not have been the most inspired "Ali Poem" I ever ad-libbed, but my inflection and delivery mimicked Ali’s perfectly and his face broke into a broad grin.
"That’s a pretty bold poem," Ali said. "Let’s see if you can back it up. Ever since I kicked Foreman’s behind and regained my title, it seems as if everyone is claiming to be my Greatest Fan. But when I ask them questions about my boxing career, they hardly know anything. Do you mind if I give you my quiz?"
"Bring it on, Champ, bring it on!"
"Man, you are bold!" Ali flashed me that beautiful smile of his and I could see he was enjoying the moment almost as much as I was.
"What round did I knock out Archie Moore?"
I shot back, "Don’t block the aisle, don’t bar the door, Archie Moore falls in four!"
"Hey, that’s good! Sounds just like me. You’re not as dumb as you look.
What round did I knock out Zora Folley?"
"The seventh," I answered back.
"Right! That’s good! But now they are gonna get tougher! If you’re really my Greatest Fan you will know the answers, but no one has ever passed this test yet."
"Who refereed the first Liston fight?"
"Jersey Joe Walcott!"
The first Frazier Fight?"
I was excited and I could see Ali was getting excited, too. Our timing was quick, like a well-rehearsed comedy team. We -or should I only say he-were beginning to draw a crowd.
"All right, Chump! You’re good! But now I’m gonna really make them really tough! What round did I knock out Cleveland Williams?"
"The fifth and then again in the sixth!"
This was a trick question! The Jones fight had been a difficult one early in his career and the then Cassius Clay had to rally in the ninth and tenth round to pull out a close decision. "Gee, Muhammad," I said, " You didn’t knock out Doug Jones. The two judges scored it for you 5-4-1, and the referee scored in 8-1-1 for you. But I want you to know that I scored it ten –zero in your favor!"
Ali’s eyes grew wide and playful. "Ten-zero! I didn’t even score it ten-zero. Maybe you are my Greatest Fan?"
At that point, Ali flipped back my coat collar and uncovered a rather worn "Float Like a Butterfly…Sting Like a Bee" button that had been partially hidden.
"I recognize that button," Ali said. "You got it from Bundini at the second Norton fight in Los Angeles, right?"
"Right," I said. "That was the only time I ever got to see you fight in person. And it’s a good thing I was there, too!"
"Why’s that?" questioned Ali.
"Remember the seventh round," I said. "You had won the first six, but Norton was really coming on in the seventh. He had you backing from corner to corner and he was landing his best overhand shots. The crowd, being all for you was completely silent and the only sound I could hear was the thud of his punches landing on your head and arms. I was in a panic and I wanted to help you, but I didn’t know what to do. But then I thought of something!"
"What did you do," He asked, now seemingly very interested to see what I might say.
"I started chanting your name, Ahlee… Ahlee… Ahlee. The next thing I knew my buddy Steve was chanting Ahlee, Ahlee and then his Dad next to him started chanting Ahlee, Ahlee. Within a few seconds the whole place was chanting. It was total pandemonium! Complete bedlam! For a second it crossed my mind that the big chandelier above the ring was going to crash down and kill everybody."
"I remember that chant!" Ali said. "It came at just the right time. It bothered Norton, too. Here it was, California, his home state, and everybody was rooting for me. I felt a burst of energy surge through right then, I remember I spun off the ropes, landed a good combination, and was never in trouble again."
"That’s right!" I said. The next day in the Los Angeles Times, sports writer Wells Trombly, wrote that ‘Muhammad Ali’s boxing career hung in the balance last night when a lone voice from the back of the balcony started chanting his name and saved his career for another day.’ That lone voice from the back of the balcony belonged to me! I cut that article out of the newspaper and put it right into my scrapbook where it is this very minute. " Click here to see copy of article
"Well," Ali said, "I am glad you were there! I would have beaten Norton anyway; but you made it easier for me, that’s for sure!"
"You know," Ali continued, "if I hadn’t of beaten Norton that night, I probably would have never gotten another chance at whuppin’ Joe Frazier! The very thought of that makes my stomach turn."
"And if I hadn’t of whupped Smokin’ Joe at the Garden, I never would have been given the chance to win My Title back in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle!’ Just imagine, there might never have been a Thrilla in Manila either"
"Man, I am glad you were there to chant my name that night! That was a critical moment, kind of like when Angelo pushed me out for the fifth against Liston. If things go differently right then, maybe nothing is ever the same."
I knew that Muhammad might be laying it on thick for my benefit, trying to make me feel more important than I really was. But even though I knew what he was up to, he was definitely succeeding. I still could not believe that I was really talking to him after all these years.
Muhammad than said, "Yes, It's true! You, Barry, are my Greatest Fan!"
"Thanks Muhammad! You don’t know how happy it makes me to hear you say that." I remember wishing that all the people who told me Ali would not even speak to me could see the two of us now.
Then Ali looked me over real serious for a long second and asked, "why do you root for me so hard, anyway?"
"I root for you," I stated firmly, "because I love your spirit! You bring joy and happiness everywhere you go. When I am feeling down it seems like I will always see you on TV and you will say something that will lift me up. I love the way you treat all people with respect, even those who go out of their way to hurt you for no reason. But most of all, when you say you're the Greatest it makes me feel good inside, like I'm the Greatest, too!"
I went on to tell him how I prayed for him whenever he fought, no matter how easy the guy was supposed to be. I said I thought he was too gentle to be a fighter and how I admired his courage to get into the ring with all the meanest and toughest heavyweights in the world. These guys were determined to hurt him any way they could and yet he always found a way to win.
I told him that when he fought it was almost as if I moved out of the way of the punches for him, and when he did get hit it was as if I had gotten hit myself.
I told him that when he won, it felt to me as if I had won. And on those rare occasions that he had lost, I had never been able to get over it until I broke down and had a good cry.
When I finished, Ali looked at me for a long time before he spoke. "Barry," he said, "you understand me. You know what I am about. You see me the same way I see myself!"
Then he looked at me again, as if he was considering something. "Will you do me a favor? He asked.
"My wife doesn’t understand how important I am to so many people. She thinks I fight for the money, but I know you know what I really fight for. Would you be willing to tell her everything you just told me?"
I said I would, and the next thing I remember is Ali leading me to a nearby limousine that, in my excitement, I had not noticed. He motioned for the window to be rolled down and once it was done, there sat his beautiful wife, Veronica.
Muhammad introduced us and then asked if she would hand the baby she was holding out the window so that he could get a picture of his Greatest Fan holding his only baby boy.
My first thought, since I did not have much experience with babies at the time, was what if I drop it? It will make international headlines, for sure. But I held on tightly and out of nowhere someone with a camera materialized and took a picture of me holding Muhammad Ali’s very cute infant son. I handed their baby back to Veronica and then, with Ali urging me on, told her everything I had just told him. She listened politely, but I could see a distant, faraway look in her eyes. She was not really paying attention.
But Ali, because he was standing behind me as I knelt down to speak through the car window, could not see his wife's face. Tell her about this, he would say. And when I finished with this he would ask me to tell her about that. I felt a little uncomfortable because I knew she really was not as interested as I am sure he had hoped she would be. But I was not really speaking to her as much as I was speaking for Ali.
It was only right, I thought, that Muhammad Ali’s wife should hear from her husband’s Greatest Fan just how important he was to so many people. Even then, I knew that sometimes a husband could use an outsider coming to his defense. Finally, to both Veronica’s and my relief, I finished and pulled my head out of the car.
Then Ali said the most astounding thing. Muhammad Ali, the most famous man in the world and arguably the most recognized human that has ever walked the Earth, pulled me close and whispered so only I could hear, "most people don’t know this about me, Barry, but I am kind of shy. There is a party being given tonight in my honor and Veronica isn’t going. I don’t know anybody in Oakland and I really don’t want to go someplace where I don’t know anyone- would you be willing to come?"
I do not know what shocked me the most- that Muhammad Ali, the Louisville Lip, was shy or that he wanted me to go to a party with him.
"Would I be willing? Of course I would!"
Then out of nowhere a burly man that I recognized as Ali’s bodyguard, Pat Patterson, appeared.
"This party is a charity fundraiser, Champ! It costs fifty dollars to get in."
Fifty dollars in those days was like five hundred dollars is today. Ali looked at me and asked, "you don’t have fifty extra dollars on you, do you?"
"No," I said, my heart sinking.
"Don’t worry about it," Ali said. "I’m the guest of honor and I should be able to invite whoever I want. If I want to bring my Greatest Fan, no one should mind."
"Thanks, Muhammad" I said relieved.
"Be at the Lemmington Hotel at 9:00 sharp," Ali said, "and tell the guy taking the tickets to let you in free."
Ali then motioned in the direction of my buddy Herbie and said to me, "it’s all right if you bring a few friends, but don’t bring the whole neighborhood, okay?" With that he was gone.
Herbie and I had some time to kill until nine so we went to the corner McDonald’s to wait.
The first thing Herbie -in his excitement- did when we got inside was announce to everyone that we were going to get to go see Muhammad Ali for free. He added, to my horror, that anyone who wanted to could come along.
I whispered to Herbie to be quiet, but he did not appear to hear me. He kept up non-stop invitations with everyone who walked through the doors. When it came time to leave, at least fifty people got up to go with us. Even two clerks from behind the counter joined us. They threw off their aprons and hats and told their boss, "The city of Oakland can do without french fries for one night- we’re gonna go see the Champ!"
I led the way down the street like a Pied Piper. Ali’s Army was on the march. Thanks to Herbie, our ranks continued to swell. To every person we saw he would sing out, "we’re going to see Muhammad Ali for free, do you want to come along?"
Not surprisingly, It seemed just about everyone did. We were even joined by three sorrowful looking winos who, up until the time Herbie woke them up, were sleeping peacefully in the gutter.
I remember turning a corner and seeing a look of alarm come across the faces of a small group of men who were sitting on their front stoop. We must have looked like a mob in the midst of a street riot (which, of course, was a rather common occurrence during that politically active decade).
When the guys found out that we were harmless and were only on our way to see Muhammad Ali for free, they ran up their steps, hollered something to their wives, slammed their doors shut, and joined us. This same event was repeated over and over again on every street we turned down.
When we reached the hotel there must have been at least three dozen people marching along behind me. Finally, after winding around for what seemed like forever inside the hotel, I remember standing in a dimly lit hallway face to face with a uniformed ticket taker.
"Your ticket?" he asked.
"I don’t have a ticket," I explained, "but Mr. Ali said I could get in for free." I said this as powerfully as I could, but I do not think he was impressed.
"Yeah, right?" he said mockingly.
All of a sudden Pat Patterson appeared and barked in a voice that I bet very few have ever challenged, "Yes, that’s right! Ali said this guy could get in for free- let him in!"
The next thing I remember is standing in a very brightly lit room. While I was trying to adjust my eyes I became aware of the fact that I was now suddenly all alone. "What happened to all my new friends?" I thought. I went back out into the hallway and said to the ticket taker, "what about my friends?
"Do they have tickets?" he asked, eyeing the three winos who had worked their way to the head of the pack.
"No," I said, "but Ali said I could bring some friends!"
"That’s right!" Pat Patterson said, "you better let them in!" And he did.
The next thing I knew, my eyes were adjusting to the bright lights inside the ballroom once again. In the distance I could see Muhammad Ali up on the stage. He was standing, waving his arms in my direction, and hollering, "Barry, Barry, over here!"
That is a moment I will always treasure, the great Muhammad Ali calling out my name, trying to get my attention. It blows my mind to imagine it even to this day. But it was then that I said something that is on -but definitely not at the very top- of the list of most brainless things I have ever said. I tentatively pointed to a sign in front of the seat that Muhammad was motioning for me to sit in. "Are you sure it’s all right if I sit here, it says reserved," I said tentatively.
"Barry," Ali said, shaking his head slowly from side to side "I don’t believe it! You must be as dumb as Joe Frazzzier! Of course it says reserved. I put the sign there myself. It’s reserved for you!"
What followed over the next six hours was simply wonderful. Of course, I do not remember everything that we talked about, but I do remember much of it.
At one point I asked Ali what it felt like when he got hit. Because punches never seemed to effect him much, I half expected him to say that in the heat of battle he did not even feel them. But he did not say what I expected. Instead he asked me if I had ever been punched in the nose.
"Yes," I said, "on numerous occasions, mostly when I am boxing with my hands down trying to imitate you."
"What does it feel like when you get smacked?"
"Well," I said, " when I get hit in the nose I see stars everywhere. My eyes well up with tears and I have a kind of throbbing, sick feeling that reverberates throughout my head."
"That’s pretty much how it feels when I get hit too," he said. "The only difference between you and me is that I have trained myself to smile when I get hit. The harder I’m hit, the bigger my smile."
"My opponent, seeing me smile stops and thinks to himself, that must not have been as good a shot as I thought it was. So he doesn’t follow up and I get a chance to clear my head. It works every time. A lot of people think I’m just playin’ when I do that, but I’m not. I have a purpose for everything I do in the boxing ring"
With that, Muhammad jumped to his feet pulling me up with him. "Common," he said, "let’s box!
Holding my left hand low with my right hand loosely cocked; I was the mirror image of Ali. The only difference between us was that he was twice as big as me and knew what he was doing, while I was just playacting.
"Show me your left! He commanded. I dutifully fired out a jab. The punch, harmless as it was, was thrown more in Ali's vicinity than really at him.
"That’s good!" said the Heavyweight Champion, "but snap it a little more at the end, like this."
With that, his left shot out like lightening! I did not actually see the punch in its flight; his jab was much too quick for that. I just felt it when it arrived at its destination, the very tip of my nose.
It did not hurt me in any way; it had not been intended to hurt me. His only intention, I intuitively knew, was to discourage me from ever thinking of making my living in a boxing ring. I had the impression that he had performed this same service for many others in the past.
"Is that what you did with Jim Brown when he was thinking about quitting football and taking up boxing?" I asked.
"How’d you know about that?" Ali asked.
"I read in a magazine that you dissuaded him from taking up boxing by showing him how easily you could hit him and how impossible it would be for him to hit you back."
"That’s just my point, Ali said, "you can read! So I never want you to even think about boxing, except maybe with friends for fun. You okay about that?"
"Oh yeah," I assured him with obvious humor in my voice. "I already have a job, and besides, you already have the only boxing championship I would really want."
Just then I heard a lot of commotion behind me and turned to see a throng of excited people pushing up close against us. Everyone was jostling for position trying to get a glimpse of the great Muhammad Ali boxing – even if it was only with me.
"Lay a whuppin on him, Champ!"
"Don’t knock him out quick, Muhammad, play with him first!"
I recognized that second voice; it was Herbie’s.
"Do you really want to see me hit your friend? Muhammad asked Herbie, with playful chastisement in his voice.
"Yeah!" said Herbie, a bright look of expectancy on his beaming face.
Muhammad stood still for a second, then flinched his left arm ever so slightly. Then with mock seriousness, he turned to Herbie and said, "do you want to see me hit him again?"
There was an awkward silence for a brief instant until it dawned on everybody that Ali was joking, pretending that he had hit me so fast that no one had even seen it.
"I’m so quick," he said, "I can turn out the light and be asleep before the room gets dark!" Everyone roared their appreciation! With that, Ali put a tender arm around my shoulder and we both sat back down.
It was then that Muhammad told me this story about fighting Joe Frazier in the famed "Thrilla in Manila."
"During the tenth round, he began, "I thought I might be dying. I really had to struggle to gain control of my mind, not to panic. So to give me something else to think about besides how much I hurt, I kept repeating to myself, "I am the champion of the world and no man can take my crown!"
I kept on saying this over and over inside my head. "I am the champion of the world and no man can take my crown… I am the champion of the world and no man can take my crown!
I kept saying it but at first nothing happened. Frazier was still hitting me. But then, in the thirteenth round, I started feeling this power build within me every time I said it.
"I AM THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD AND NO MAN CAN TAKE MY CROWN!"
Ali looked me square in the eye and asked; "Do you remember what happened then?"
"You landed that right hand lead that knocked his mouthpiece up into the seats?"
"That’s right!" said Muhammad. "After that he was mine. And don’t believe all that rubbish about me not coming out for the 15th! I was coming out! I only said I might be too tired to be nice. I didn’t expect anyone to take me seriously. Frazier knew I was coming out- that’s why he didn’t."
"But I will say one thing for Old Joe," Ali continued, "he always brought out the best in me. All those years when I said I was the Greatest I didn’t really know for sure if I really was. And to be honest with you, I never really wanted to find out."
"Every time I would shave before a fight I would look into the mirror and wonder if this was the night I was going to be pushed to the limit, if this were the night I would find out if I was really the Greatest after all."
"Well, during that third fight with Frazier I realized that this was the moment I had been dreading all my life. But once I realized that the terrible moment was really upon me, I felt a strange calmness come over me. I think what saved me was that I embraced the moment rather than trying to escape it."
"In a way it was a gift. I respect Joe Frazier because I know that he’s the onliest one in the whole world who could push me like that. If it wasn’t for Joe, nobody –not even myself- would know how great I really am."
Later, Ali brought up another subject. "Have you ever seen a picture of my mother and father?"
"Sure," I answered.
"Good," he said, "because I am going to be able to use my Mom and Dad to prove to you a very scientific point about the power of the human mind."
"You see, my Mom is about five feet tall and my Dad is only about five-six, yet all my life I was running around saying I was gonna be the Heavyweight Champion of the World. I didn’t say I was simply going to be a champion, like welterweight or middleweight. I was very specific! I said I was going to be the Heavyweight Champion!"
"Do you know how I became a heavyweight?" Ali asked me.
"How?" I asked, looking at him somewhat quizzically.
"Through the power of my mind! He said, tapping the side of his head. "I willed it!"
"Every day I would picture myself tall, strong, and fast! Oh, sooo fast! I became the fastest heavyweight of all times with nothing but the power of my mind. You know, Barry, everybody could do things like that if they only believed enough to try."
About mid-way through the evening, the emcee that was in charge of the proceedings asked Ali to say a few words to the crowd. Muhammad, to my astonishment, told the man that he really did not want to talk as he had nothing prepared to say. I could tell he was not play acting and that Ali really meant it.
So when the emcee left, I encouraged Ali to go ahead and speak. "Barry," he said softly, "I told you I was shy. I don’t have anything to say."
"Common, Champ! Just go up and do the shuffle and say what ever pops into your mind. Everyone will love it! If you don’t talk everybody will go home disappointed."
I must have been persuasive because the next thing I knew Ali was up on stage, his highly polished black shoes shuffling quickly back and forth while his body remained completely motionless. It was awesome! Everyone went nuts! When things calmed down, Ali did it again and the roof almost came down.
Then he began to talk! The funniest comedian I have ever seen is Bill Cosby. I saw him before he made it big, when he used to rehearse and polish his material, and he was hilarious. Yet, Ali was every bit Cosby's equal on this night.
Ali spoke for about twenty minutes. As soon as one roar of laughter would die out another would begin. He set up each punch line perfectly, like the solid right-hand that followed a stiff left lead. Each was followed by loud war hoops and hollering from the men, and squeals of glee from the adoring ladies.
I can not honestly say I remember exactly what he said, although I do remember that Howard Cosell’s toupee figured prominently in his remarks. The one thing I will never forget was the feeling of being very blessed. I had finally gotten the opportunity to witness, first hand, this marvelous human being in all his glory.
After he was through speaking, Ali turned to me and said, with obvious relief, "that went pretty good, didn’t it?"
"Yes, it did," I assured him, "yes, it did!"
Without doubt, my most future-altering event of the evening occurred when Ali noticed me admiring some of the very beautiful young women at the party.
"A fellow needs to know how to flirt," he told me. "If a guy doesn’t know how to talk to the ladies he is going to be lonely more often than he should."
So with those words of wisdom and encouragement, Ali sent me across the room to talk to a pretty girl in a pink dress. Each time after I came back and reported in, he would send me off to talk to another pretty girl, perhaps the one in the blue dress.
"I’m married," he said jokingly, "I have to live vicariously through young single guys like you."
After Muhammad ran out of pretty girls for me to talk to, he asked me if I had a girlfriend of my own. I said no, that I had just broken up with one and felt very bad about it.
"Look," he said, "I am going to tell you something. I have been all over the world and I have met a lot of people. Some good and some bad- but you, Barry, are a quality person! Any girl would be lucky to know a guy like you."
"Look at it this way- you have a job. You don’t make five million dollars a night like I do, but you do have a job. And you’re not bad looking. You’re not as preeetty as me, but your not ugly. Any girl would be lucky to know you."
"So next time you see a pretty girl you think might be really special - and it will happen, believe me- go up and introduce yourself to her with confidence! Remember, it will be her lucky day to meet a quality guy like you and don’t you ever forget that I told you so!"
Well, I never did. A few years later I "accidentally" chanced upon the girl of my dreams, just as Ali predicted I would. I introduced myself to her with Ali’s words of encouragement ringing in my ears. Things have worked out very nicely. Roxanne and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this September.
After awhile somebody looked at a watch. When we discovered it was 3:30 in the morning everyone agreed it was time to go home. So I gathered up my stuff and prepared to say goodbye.
One of the items I put under my arm was a copy of Ali’s bright yellow autobiography entitled "The Greatest." Because of the bright color, Ali could not help but recognize the book.
"Why did you bring that?" he asked.
"Its not important," I replied.
"Yes, it is important- why did you bring it?"
"Really, Champ, its not important," I insisted.
"Look, Chump! I am the Heavyweight Champion of the World and I am asking you a question, why did you bring that book?"
I knew Ali was not really upset. But I also knew he expected an honest answer to his question. "I brought the book because I was going to ask you to autograph it."
"Well, why didn’t you ask?" he said.
"I could see your hands were hurting and I didn’t want to ask anything of you that might cause you pain."
"Yes," he said, rubbing his hands together gently. "My hands have been aching for over ten weeks, ever since I beat Norton in Yankee Stadium. But I really want you to have my autograph."
With that he took my book and, with a flourish, signed a beautiful autograph (along with his address) inside the front cover. "That didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would," he said in surprise. "I can sign more autographs."
And that is exactly what he did. He signed autographs for everyone that was still at the party. Herbie and I stood and watched while Ali signed autographs for the next ninety minutes.
This scene of the most famous man in the world signing autographs far into the night continues to amaze me to this day. I sometimes reflect upon it whenever I hear a present day athlete complaining about the many burdens of fame.
No one has ever been, nor will ever be, bigger than Muhammad Ali. He gave unselfishly to others and it is this quality above all others which, in my opinion, makes him the Greatest of All Times! What he accomplished in the boxing ring could conceivably be equaled by another. But no other athlete will ever likely match the splendid magnificence of Ali’s benevolent spirit. Ali is the original, the one that all others can only hope to imitate.
When I woke up the next day in the early afternoon, Steve asked me if I had gone to sleep when I had gotten home.
"Yeah," I said, "I was completely exhausted and went right to sleep without even taking my clothes off.
"That’s curious!" Steve replied. "I got up and sat outside your door and listened for hours this morning. Over and over again you would smack your hands together and exclaim, "Alllll Right! Allll Right!"’
Yes, I guess even while sound asleep I was so excited that I could not help but to shout out in exultation. My faith had been vindicated. Muhammad Ali was, indeed, the person I had always believed him to be.
Copyright © 2005 Barry Tesar
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