By Thomas Gerbasi
Since 2003, I go through this every year around Christmas, pulling out a Muhammad Ali DVD or two, checking out some of the memorable moments in the career of “The Greatest,” and then it’s back to whatever the task at hand is.
Why Christmas? Well, it’s an anniversary of sorts, a look back at my lone brush with the man who is probably the most influential in boxing history, and a couple hours I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.
The year was 2002, and yeah, I remember the date too, December 9th. The former heavyweight champ was in New York City to promote the release of a commemorative magazine about his life, and despite the snow that bogged down the Midtown streets, I wasn’t about to miss this press event.
Now I know the rules - you’re a reporter, not a fan, and if you do your job right, every boxer is interchangeable. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a longtime world champion destined for the Hall of Fame or a four round prelim kid; you treat them all the same - go in, get your story, and get out.
But this was Muhammad Ali. So what does that mean? All fanboy bets are off.
And when he walked into the room at Gallagher’s Steakhouse, everyone stood.
It could have been Miami Beach in ‘64, Zaire in ’74, or Manila in ’75. And though his body and speech were ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, it didn’t matter. The presence of the man alone made all pretenses of professionalism fly out the window.
Did I mention that this was ALI?
I gingerly crept closer as he sat, surrounded by more flashbulbs than I had ever seen at a boxing press conference. At Ali’s side was his longtime photographer and friend Howard Bingham. I asked Bingham to ask Ali a question for me, figuring that this was the best course of action. Bingham refused.
“Move closer,’ he kindly instructed. “Ask him yourself.”
The knees went weak, the pen and pad trembled, and the most recognizable man in the world was within talking distance. In that moment I realized why teenage girls cried when they saw the Beatles. All I could picture were the hours spent with my Muhammad Ali Boxing Ring as a kid, recreating ‘The Thrilla in Manila’ every night. But this was no 12-inch plastic replica. This was the man himself. I stammered out a question:
“Muhammad, how does it feel to still bring out a crowd like this after all these years?”
Ali turned his head and gestured me closer.
“This crowd is too small,” he answered.
Game. Set. Match.
Moments like those are what people will always refer to when the name Muhammad Ali comes up. It’s not the fights - though his body of work compares favorably to that of any boxer in history – it’s the human aspect that made this man great.
“When we traveled people stopped and blew their horns,” Ali’s former opponent and sparring partner (and heavyweight great himself) Larry Holmes told me that day. “It was mind-boggling, but I never saw him turn down an autograph. If Ali saw a little kid on the side of the road he would stop, talk with him and take a picture. Athletes these days would probably go by and step on the gas.”
Or run the kid over.
Stories like those are sad reminders that in terms of access and covering events that are front page news, not small print in the transactions section – if covered in a newspaper at all – we have likely seen our last Ali.
The late Bill Gallo, a longtime New York Daily News columnist and cartoonist, had seen all boxing had to offer for over half a century. To him and other veteran boxing scribes, there will never be another time like the Ali era.
“He was exceptional for the press,” said Gallo on that day in 2002. “To follow him around was like nothing I ever did in the boxing field. I covered Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, (Floyd) Patterson, and all those guys. This guy gave you more to write about than any of them. And he was aware of it. That was the greatest thing. He was just a phenomenal guy to be around. The only guy I could compare him to is Casey Stengel. He was an original, a one of a kind. Nobody like him before, or ever.”
Gallo paused, and looked at the man who owned wins over Liston, Frazier, Foreman, Patterson and so many others before beginning again.
“I like to see him because we became friends through the years,” said Gallo. “What I miss is the real Ali, the energetic one. You should have seen him. Just bubbly all the time, kidding you, playing jokes, acting mad when he wasn’t. He had great energy and was a great fighter.”
Ali was still sharp though, answering the press’ queries while performing magic tricks and drawing the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ on the restaurant’s tablecloth. He was closing in on his 61st birthday, but he still had that charisma that can’t truly be described accurately with words. And in my opinion, what truly made Ali the transcendent figure he’s become is that he was different things to different people. He was a supreme athlete, a comic, a rebel, a symbol, an icon, and a man.
And for my generation, Ali still means something. We remember turning on the television at all hours and seeing his face, whether he was fighting, appearing on a talk show, or pitching roach spray. We remember playing with the action figures, watching the movie where he played himself, or seeing him anger our older relatives with whatever stand or outlandish comment he was making at the time.
In other words, Ali was the epitome of ‘cool’ when we were growing up. He didn’t care what you thought about him or what you said, as long as you paid attention. And when he got in the ring, he beat the baddest men on the planet. We got a brief dose of that again when Mike Tyson burst onto the scene in the mid-80’s, but by that time, we were approaching our 20’s and feeling as invincible as ‘Iron Mike’. It wasn’t the same kind of hero worship that we had with Ali. Tyson was one of us. Ali was on a whole different level, and there’s no athlete since who can compare to him. No one knew that better than Holmes, a heavyweight legend himself, but one who never captured the imagination of the public like his former boss.
Holmes told a story of being approached by a woman on the street after beating Ali in 1980.
“Are you Larry Holmes?”
“I hate you.”
“You beat Muhammad.”
Of course, it wasn’t always sunshine, roses, and adulation for Ali. When he took a stand against the Vietnam War and refused induction into the armed forces, he not only lost prime years of his career, he became a hated figure in several segments of society. But he refused to back down from his convictions, something you rarely, if ever, see from today’s pro athletes, many of whom don’t want to risk losing lucrative endorsement deals by being ‘controversial.’
“It was part of his attraction,” said Holmes of Ali at the time. “But he never knew if someone was going to shoot him. These days, the best thing you can do is shut up. That’s what their managers tell them: ‘Don’t take no positions.’”
Ali had his own advice for modern athletes though. “They can’t do it because I did it,” he said. “You’ve got to have the heart to do it.”
Few do though, in or out of the ring. And while Ali, now days away from his 70th birthday on January 17th, has seen his Parkinson’s progress, and there are precious few sightings of him these days, even nearly a decade ago, when he knew what was approaching for him, he had no regrets, no second thoughts about sticking around in the ring after his stirring win over Foreman in 1974 or the brutal third fight with Frazier a year later.
“I’d do it exactly the same,” said Ali. “Everything turned out perfect.”
I got chills typing out that quote, the same chills I got when I heard those words come from “The Louisville Lip” himself. It reminds me that for everything that has gone on over the last nine years since that press conference in New York, I probably won’t ever forget that Christmas. It was the year my gift was meeting Muhammad Ali
And how can you possibly top a gift like that?
Happy 70th Champ!