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Muhammad Ali 'as kind as he was tough in the ring,' Sen. Hatch recalls

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch, the day after the passing of three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer Muhammad Ali, described his longtime friend as deeply religious, a devoted friend and "as kind as he was tough in the ring."

Hatch met with reporters Saturday afternoon to reflect on the life of his friend who died Friday in Arizona after a 32-year battle with Parkinson's disease. Ali was 74 years old.

Hatch said the two met in 1988. Ali had stopped by Hatch's Senate office and asked a staffer if he could talk to him.

"I've always been a fight fan and actually did some amateur boxing myself, and I said, 'My gosh.' I went out and he grabbed me. He said, 'I like you and I'm supporting you.' I said 'That's good.' So I brought him in the office and we had a great chat and he became a very dear friend," said Hatch, R-Utah.

It was the beginning of long friendship that included Ali making appearances at Hatch's charity golf tournament in Utah, joining him on the campaign trail and even visiting Hatch's parents' home, where Ali reportedly consumed large quantities of his mother Helen's fried chicken.

"We get there and my mom and dad were so enamored with him. She sat him down and he must have eaten two whole chickens. Mom could do fried chicken really well," Hatch said, smiling at the memory.

"He sat there and he was so good to them. I'll tell you, until my dad's dying day. he loved Muhammad Ali, and so did my mother. He was humble, very decent. He didn't have to do that. Once you had his friendship, you had it."

Hatch said Ali's health had been in decline and he had reached out Ali's wife Lonnie to keep tabs on his condition.

"His wife, Lonnie, called me shortly after he died and said 'I want you to be at his funeral and to speak at his funeral if you can.' I hope I can do that. We have a marriage next Saturday. I hope I can put this all together," Hatch said.

Ali was very generous, Hatch said, giving him several of his boxing gloves and one of his smaller championship belt buckles.

"He once gave me his championship ring. I carried it around my neck for a few weeks and then I checked with the (Senate) ethics committee and they said I couldn't have it. So I gave it back," he said.

On one of Ali's visits to Utah, Hatch took him to Temple Square to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Ali, a devout follower of Islam, passed out pamphlets about his religion that he had autographed.

"Every Mormon that was there was trying to grab one," Hatch said.

Hatch also recounted Ali's visits to children at Primary Children's Hospital.

"He'd pick those little kids up and bring them up close to his face and every time they would smile. He got those kids to smile, those little babies. Even the doctors and nurses were amazed. He just had a charm about him, and I think a spiritual presence in his own way," he said.

In the last few years, Parkinson disease had taken its toll, Hatch said. It grew increasingly difficult for Ali to speak and walk.

Among professional fighters, Ali "was the best of the best. In the ring he was a showman as well. He liked to show how he could take punches. I think in the end that's what got to him. It really triggered his illness and caused him great difficulties, but he never complained," Hatch said.

As the nation mourned Ali, Hatch said another dear friend who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, is in his thoughts.

"He's a lot like Ali. They're two of the top champions that I have known. I've known a lot of people, a lot of champions, and these two people are just at the top. You just hate to see them to through that. It was tough for me to see Ali go through it," he said.

Hatch said Ali was deeply devoted to his wife, Lonnie, and she to him.

"Lonnie was his wife for all the ending years. She took tremendous care of him. She loved him dearly, and he loved her," Hatch said.

Hatch said it was one of the great thrill of his life to meet Ali, "the greatest heavyweight fighter ever" and a privilege to cultivate a friendship with a man who was "peaceful and decent.”

"He really was a man of peace. A man of great ability. He was very, very bright. He didn't miss much."

Ali had friends on both sides of the political aisle, although he was not a particularly partisan person.

But the fact that he reached out to Hatch and lent his support to Hatch, then in his second term, was a delight, he said.

"Holy cow, that was thrilling to me. It was absolutely thrilling. I'll never forget it, and I'll never forget him."

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com