There comes a time in every person’s life when he has to choose the course his life will take.—Muhammad Ali
A Facebook friend recently asked me for details about my four interviews with Muhammad Ali among many interviews with others of lesser or equal rank. Since I probably will never get around to writing my memoirs … here goes:
It was 1978. I was working weekends doing radio news while finishing up my degree in Journalism at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. The sports guy was going on vacation for two weeks and I had to take over. I really knew nothing about sports. The news director said to do something spectacular with it. I said, “What? Should I interview Muhammad Ali?” He said, “Sure!” (This guy was unique, and I learned a lot from him. His own career was bizarre, but he was fearless, which later became his undoing—but that’s another story.) Anyway, by playing “big man” and “little man,” in less than a week I had worked my way through and got the right phone number for the Ali training camp. When someone answered, I said, “I know Muhammad talks to the big guys in the sports reporting world, Howard Cosell and so on, but would he give a chance to the little guy and talk to a small-town radio reporter in little Eugene, Oregon?” The next voice on the phone was: “This is the greatest fighter of all time!”
No, I didn’t save the tapes. I’ve got a small segment on a highlight reel, and somewhere there is a UPI broadcast wire piece with a few details of the first interview.
One thing he revealed, which I think was the part UPI took, is that when the press was in attendance at a recent sparring match with Floyd Patterson, he staged a knockdown: “I just told him to hit me and I’d fall down.” He wanted to look like he could be beat before he scheduled his next fight in order to “sell more tickets.”
But it was the last interview, at another radio station in Eugene that I had switched to, that was the most revealing. I’m not sure whether or not this story has been told in books about him, though I kind of think it has (the Gorgeous George part), but the Leon Spinks part and my part in it have not been revealed until now.
I was running out of questions. I figured I had one more possible interview. I called up my brother Terry, who was a big Ali fan as he did some amateur boxing himself, and asked for suggestions.
To Ali, I was always the reporter from that “one-horse town.” (I had intentionally played down the size of Eugene, and although it was a medium-size market, it was still a town Ali had never heard of.) I relayed the Gorgeous George story to him and asked if it was really true. There was a huge long pause, and then his voice changed—entirely.
(If you listen to interviews with Ali when he was Cassius Clay, you can hear that voice: soft, articulate—he was always articulate but a different kind of articulation—and, most of all, not bombastic.)
Well, since you are in that one-horse town and not well-known, I’ll tell you the truth. Yes, I was riding in a limo in New York City and I heard this guy on the radio—Gorgeous George the wrestler. He was outrageous! A huge braggart, but he had made a name for himself—put himself on top among the wrestling game, so I went to see him at Madison Square Garden.
(One has to remember who George was and how he alone transformed the wrestling game: from sweaty men in tights in semi-real fights to a “show” in which he had long—very long for the time, well before hippie days—blond hair and may have been the first wrestler to wear a cape.)
And he said to me, ‘Here’s the deal, kid, be a braggart. Everyone hates a braggart. Tell them how good you are. Put on a show—they’ll come to see you get beat and you’ll be a millionaire. There’s one catch: Don’t get beat.’ Well, I can tell you, since it’s not going anywhere, yeah, that story is true.
We talked for a bit more, and since we were no longer in “Muhammad Ali the act” mode, I got even bolder.
Since 1975, Ali had fought a number of people, Englishman Joe Bugner among them. They weren’t pushovers, even though the roster had included an aging Ken Norton. Anyway, Ali had beat them all. On the other hand, Ali was getting older, and in the latest fights, who was left? So I asked the leading and pointed questions: “Isn’t it true that the latest fights have been with bums? Isn’t it time to take on a real challenge with maybe someone younger?”
He went back into “act” mode for a bit—defending himself—“The People’s Champion” fought the greatest fighters there were, etc.
But I said, “That was then, this is now, if you’re going to continue fighting … and that’s up to you … how about Leon Spinks? He’s young and, in the scheme of things, not ranked high enough for you yet, but he did win in the Olympics, just like you did. What about giving him a chance?”
(Another big pause … non-“act” mode voice.) “Spinks, huh? Well, you think so?”
“Yeah, I think so. A real challenge.”
(Big pause again.) “Well, I might give him a shot.”
Less than six months later, Ali announced that his next fight for the title would be with Leon Spinks. Spinks was definitely a lower-ranked contender. It was only his eighth fight. I think Ali thought that if a “one-horse town” sports guy like me thought this way, maybe the big-town sports guys thought this way too. So Spinks got a shot at the champion at least a year or two earlier than he normally would have in the general scheme of the fighting game rankings. Spinks beat Ali to win the world heavyweight title in the shortest time in history on February 15, 1978. It was one of the few occasions when Ali left the ring with a bruised and puffy face.
For me personally, I wish Ali had quit the game earlier than he did. But that was his choice.
In Ali’s second match with Spinks, in September 1978, an in-shape Ali won back his title in a 15-round decision. He became the first three-time heavyweight champion. Ali was knocked out by Larry Holmes in 1980. In 1981, Ali fought his last bout, losing his heavyweight title to Trevor Berbick. He announced his retirement from boxing the next day.
I admire Ali not just for coming back after being unfairly kicked out of the game during his prime due to his anti–Vietnam War stance—though that was maybe his greatest triumph: coming back and still winning.
There is another more important reason for my admiration. Ali is like Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Gorgeous George, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Buffalo Bill, P.T. Barnum, The Beatles, Pussy Riot, and the many others who not only have talent but are also not afraid—as most of us are—of taking huge chances, being outrageous, being incredibly bold, and putting oneself before the public in a new kind of way and saying, in effect: “I can back up what I’m showing. Sure, it’s entertainment [or ideas] and good enough just for that reason, but there’s something more here—something special—take a look.”
Pugilism today has fallen by the wayside since Ali. We now have mixed martial arts in a cage as the most popular form. I believe we should just go all the way—send in the lions! More blood for the amusement of the crowd in a gladiator spectacle.
I do not know how long Ali will be with us, and I wanted to write this paean to his boldness before he left us rather than after.
He is a special person, not only for his talent, not only for the art of his craft, but also for demonstrating to us all that it takes only one person to make a difference. One person to stand, as William F. Buckley said, “athwart history, yelling Stop!”
One person who refuses to go to the back of the bus or who, with a small number of friends, demands to sit at the lunch counter and be served.
My friend Staley Green recently wrote to me, remarking on the recent death of former National Organization for Women (NOW) President Karen DeCrow:
Around 1987, Karen DeCrow provided me with free and very helpful advice in my effort to get fathers’ access to diaper-changing facilities in San Diego Airport and the then-new Nordstrom store in downtown San Diego. She represented a fathers’ rights group on the same issue with the Syracuse, NY, airport. The group which is now the National Organization of Men Against Sexism (NOMAS) decried these efforts towards equality of access to diaper-changing facilities as ‘taking something away from women.’ As it turns out, Nordstrom required no additional persuasion following my initially carrying my baby to their customer service desk and asking: ‘Where can I change my son’s diaper?’ Within months, Nordstrom had a policy of providing a diaper-changing table in at least one men’s restroom in each of their stores. The Port of San Diego was initially recalcitrant, but eventually changed their policy.
Today, of course, there are diaper-changing stations in as many men’s restrooms as there are in women’s restrooms.
Paul Simon says, “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” Every generation is starving for the same. What we lack is boldness. The ability to confront what is not popular. To confront, as Walter Cronkite said, “Our friends and colleagues at the 19th hole. To tell the story that needs to be told if that community, that state, that nation, is to prosper and survive.”
One person, for example, who asks of the domestic violence shelters: Where are the services for men and their children as well as women? (Even the National Violence Against Women Survey—note the title—found that nearly 40% of the victims are men.) How can one practice and support such discrimination? How can corporations and government support organizations such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which supports and condones such discrimination?
It is a long road to Montgomery or elsewhere, but it is a road that always needs more people on it.
Every generation is faced with challenges. Surely, this generation’s greatest challenge is confronting the Marxist-oriented sexists currently in control of family courts, the legislatures, congress, and campus policies. After all, there are no men’s centers, plenty of women’s centers and even graduate studies “women’s studies” but no men’s studies. Every man is now labeled a potential rapist, and federal government policies insist on the presumption of guilt rather than the presumption of innocence on college campuses throughout the nation. Add to this the new definition of rape from the U.S. Justice Department (provably formulated and orchestrated by the “Feminist Majority,” which removes the word “forcible” from the very definition itself so that more men can be classified as rapist), and we have a long road to travel indeed. Other issues of blatant discrimination also exist, of course, such as the draft, health care, and roadblocks to shared parenting.
What is needed most is simply to show up. Testify, write to representatives, get out from posting just on the net and calling it good enough. We all need to take a cue from Ali and Cronkite and even Lady Gaga and not be afraid to be bold. To put it another way, as Davy Crockett said, “Be sure you are right”—get your facts straight and listen most of all to views opposed to your own—“then go ahead!”
Feature image of Muhammad Ali by Charly W. Karl