clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Muhammad Ali's stage was the world that mourns his passing

From the very first moment I laid eyes on him in the summer of 1974, Muhammad Ali insisted that, win or lose, the forthcoming bout with George Foreman scheduled a few months later in Kinshasa, Zaire, would be his last. It is a pledge he reiterated after he returned home from “The Rumble In The Jungle,” victorious and redeemed at last. “Daddy is home from the war,” he breathed softly into the ears of his darling daughters. “All the fighting is over.”

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s loyal cornerman and physician, is not the only one who believes that if the most perfect human specimen the doctor had ever seen, the quietly brooding then playfully pugilistic Ali, had kept his word to his daughters and many journalists, he surely would still be with us.

Last week the man critics of the 1960s referred to as “The Louisville Lip” and “Gaseous Cassius” passed from this sphere, a victim to the trauma and incessant concussive blows to his near perfect body, particularly his head and kidneys. He was but 74 years old.

Today, the world’s most celebrated and idolized athlete, who was born into humble circumstances in Louisville, Kentucky, and christened Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., will be interred after being eulogized by former President Bill Clinton, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and other dignitaries from around the world, all according to the plan Ali mapped out as his days dwindled down.

Hatch, who has been close friends with Ali since the champ walked into the senator’s Capitol Hill office more than 30 years ago and announced, “I like you,” reminds that his friend “was much more than a boxing champion. He was deeply concerned about personal leadership and kindness, setting an example and influencing others for good, particularly young people.”

A few weeks back, I found three young black men, sitting on the steps to our home at the end of a private cul-de-sac on the side of San Francisco’s Russian Hill, overlooking Ghiradelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf and The Bay. Actually, I smelled them first as they were all smoking cigarettes just a few feet from the door to my office. Their letter jackets linked them to the high school a half-block away. “Hang out for as long as you like,” I invited, “but you can’t smoke here. And, say, real athletes shouldn’t be smoking anyway!”

We joked around and talked sports. Soon they were inside my cramped office inspecting the many pictures, magazine covers and other memorabilia. While they were impressed by the quality of the photography, they did not recognize New York Yankee great Billy Martin jawing with an umpire. They were as clueless about the big league pitcher with the Orphan Annie curls kneeling on the mound and worshipfully smoothing the dirt with a bare hand (Mark “The Bird” Fidrych), as they were tennis great Jimmy Connors flipping off a linesman’s bad call and Chris Evert preening as Groucho Marx. Even Harrison Ford lying on a hotel bed in Manhattan was beyond their ken.

I was thinking “how soon are the mighty forgotten,” when one of the boys fixed his eyes on a small photo directly above my desk. “Wait, I know him: That’s Ali. Muhammad Ali. He’s the greatest. But who’s the white guy behind him? Could that be you? In a backhanded way, the lad confirmed what Ali had chanted four decades earlier — “The whole world knows my name.”

The picture is of a “pretty” young black man at the steering wheel of an interstate bus that had been converted into a mobile home. It was the summer of 1974, and I had been with Muhammad Ali for the better part of a week, tagging along practically everywhere. He was driving the bus to a repair shop several miles away. For days I’d been obliged to listen to his fractured poetry ("He better be fast or / wapbap, he down / He's slow as a cow / got a face like one too / Me, I'm fast and pretty / I float and I sting / can win on points / just dancing and sticking and blinding him / you come and see), his chanted windy incantations (“I am the greatest”) and perplexing religious beliefs, too (“whites are devils” and a gigantic spaceship filled with the “colored” people of the world would return to destroy white people). However, I was moved by his generosity, the ease with which he invited visitors to his mountain training camp and into his cabin home to watch television. I was beginning to size him in full for the genial and simple human being he really was.

As the bus sped down the interstate, Co Rentmeester, the photographer who took the often-imitated LIFE cover of eight-event Olympic swimming gold medalist Mark Spitz (1972, Munich), was pressed into the windshield of the bus to get a better angle on the driver. I unloaded a long-festering question: “How can a man who preaches world brotherhood rationalize support for such patently racist teachings?”

Turning to glare at me, Ali inadvertently pulled the steering wheel; tires caromed off the center divider as the bus lurched down the highway at 70 miles per hour or so (but who was looking?). Regaining control, he coolly teased that if we had all been killed, the newspaper headline would read “Ali, The Greatest, Killed With Two Others In Horrific Bus Rollover.”

The invitation to catch up with him again in Chicago arrived as Ali flew home from his victory in Zaire. We were instructed to come to his manager’s office; then the meeting place was changed to the family’s manse in Hyde Park; then a mosque on the city’s treacherous South Side. When we gave the cab driver the address, he protested loudly, “Are you out of your minds?” A $20 bill proved persuasive.

Two Rolls Royces, engines idling, were double-parked in front of the mosque. No one was standing guard, although Ali’s daughters were fast asleep on the back seat of one of the cars. A few adults lingered outside chatting, casually keeping a watchful eye on the cars and children. Inside the scene was remarkably similar to ones I’d encountered as a boy at Latter-day Saint ward dinners in Salt Lake City. The men, in white shirts, dark ties and jackets, and women in conservative dresses and head scarves, folding banquet tables, heaping trays of food and lots of noisy children.

I had noted other cultural similarities in the first piece I wrote about the man. “Ali's life now seems to revolve around Islam, and he trains with the zeal of a missionary, hoping that his skills will attract black youngsters to the religion he adopted in 1961. What cigarettes there are in camp are kept out of Ali's sight. Liquor and beer are strictly forbidden. Even sex seems to be de-emphasized. For spiritual reasons, Ali's wife Belinda is kept modestly concealed behind long skirts, and most nights he sleeps alone in the gymnasium. He devotes better than half of his earnings to his religion and believes that Islam holds the only salvation for blacks.”

Standing at my side, he voluntarily offered, “There is the evidence of God. Everyone is clean and respectful. No one goes hungry or sleeps in the street,” he said. “We take care of our own. Like the Mormons.”

He studied my face, waiting for a confirming nod. Getting none, he continued on. “We are proud of who we are, and you should be too. We have a lot to learn from your people, as your people do from us.” Ali had done his homework. He caught me unprepared.

Soon we were off to a family home — a rather ordinary raised-ranch-style house in the racially balanced if economically advantaged village of Flossmoor, 25 miles south. Its mirrored living room made it nearly impossible to avoid the eye of the camera. So there I was crawling along the carpet while the television, embedded high on the mirrored living room wall, broadcast “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” A young man from Zaire (he had some connection to royalty) who had returned home with the champ whimpered as pursuers of the fleeing slaves in the movie torched the barn where runaways had sought shelter. “Why?” the young man wailed.

Buried beneath the daughters on his lap, Ali seemed about to comment when someone angrily muttered, “White men. That’s what they do.” Untangling an arm and gesturing toward me crawling along the floor Ali corrected: “Some white men, but not ones like him.”

Over the next year he fought four more times. Media hyperbole aside, no opponent was a Palooka. Yet, along with blows that surely cut his life short, they brought the money to support his growing entourage and his Islamic brothers and sisters. Given the chance for a do-over, I suspect Ali wouldn’t change a thing.

We caught up with him again as he promoted his late June 1975 bout against Joe Bugner, a supposed easy segue to the October Thrilla In Manilla rematch with Joe Frazier, who Ali once meanly mocked (he later apologized) as “a puppet of the white man,” “ugly and stupid with traits of a gorilla.” But first he had promises to keep in Cleveland (he purchased a shopping center complex for local Muslims) and Detroit (he raised serious money for a neighborhood cultural center and gym by pat-a-cake sparring with a few foolish men) before moving on to the big prize, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was slated to speak to Harvard’s graduating class of 1975.

He played off throngs of fans who gathered around him wherever he went: "You may ask me why I keep on fighting at my age?" His practiced responses often seemed self-righteousness even if they were evidence of emerging personal convictions: "I could be off being the baddest Super Fly there is. … But I can make it without doing those alcohol commercials or making love to white women. I've got Allah on my side. …”

His words were as playful and double-edged as the terse poetic summary he offered of his life: “Me? Whee!” Later he heaped backhanded praise on the Harvards: "They told me I would be speaking to future doctors, lawyers and presidents. I said, man that's gotta be heavy.” Baited pause. “So I didn't bring no notes. … The really great man never forgets where he came from.”

These are just a few of the complexities and conundrums that describe a man who will likely remain memorable to the old and young for some time to come, like the boys young enough to be his grandchildren at Galileo High School in San Francisco who eagerly identified Ali correctly as “The Greatest.” Perhaps they no longer smoke!”

In addition to serving as a staff writer for Time Inc.’s magazines — LIFE, Sports Illustrated, Money and People — Ronald B. Scott was a writer and editor for the Deseret News in the 1970s.