Legendary Ali remains a giant among men
Muhammad Ali will be 70 on Tuesday, but he remains, as singer Bob Dylan crooned in his classic 1974 hit, forever young.
The former heavyweight champion is still one of the most revered figures on Earth, inspiring passionate feelings more than 30 years after his final bout, more than 50 years since he won an Olympic gold medal.
His voice, once so resonant, so vibrant, is largely muted now, silenced by the effects of Parkinson’s disease. His days are spent mostly in a chair, his once-dazzling smile just a memory.
The hands that were so blazingly fast, the feet which were so nimble, now betray him. He moves slowly, the tremors making it difficult for him to perform simple acts.
And yet, he remains a hero to many, still an inspirational icon despite his physical decline.
“When I think of him, I think of the verse from scripture, from Genesis, which said, ‘There were giants in the land,’ ” said former heavyweight champion George Foreman, who last week turned 63. “In the Sixties, we had giants in the land, but most of them are gone. The Kennedy brothers, they passed away; Martin Luther King … There is no proof now that there were giants in the land, because they are all dead. Muhammad Ali is the proof that once there were giants in the land.”
Ali means different things to different people, though he’s a towering figure to nearly all.
Author Thomas Hauser, who wrote Ali’s 1992 biography, “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” had long been fascinated by Ali. After working out a deal with Ali to secure his full cooperation on the project, Hauser spent many hours with Ali and his wife while researching the book.
Veteran trainer Dick Sadler told Hauser a story of the time an 18-year-old Ali, full of energy, spent most of a long train ride singing the hit ’60s song by Chubby Checker, “The Twist.”
“I rode with [Cassius] Clay from the West Coast down to Texas, where Archie [Moore] had this fight against Buddy Thurman,” Hauser quoted Sadler in his book. “We went by train and it was a pretty wild ride. First, the kid would be standing, shouting out of the carriage, ‘I am the greatest. I am the greatest.’ He’d shout this at the passing cars and sheeps and fields and stuff. After a while, he started singing this number by Chubby Checker about ‘The Twist.’
“He didn’t know the words. He just kept on singing and singing, ‘Come on, baby. Let’s do the twist. Come on, baby. Let’s do the twist. Come on, baby. Let’s do the twist.’ It got to me. It was driving me crazy, to tell you the truth. I said, ‘Jesus, son. You’ve been twisting all across California and Arizona.’ By the time we got to New Mexico, I told him, ‘Look: Sing the Charleston or the Bugaloo. Any damn thing, but get off the Twist.’ Seven hundred miles of twisting, twisting and ‘I am the greatest.’ It drove me crazy.”
[ Related: Lennox Lewis: Ali ‘still the greatest’]
Hauser, whose book will be re-released as an e-book next month, remembered that. And so, when Ali came to Hauser’s New York apartment to work on the book, Hauser arranged a surprise.
After a long day of interviews, watching fight tapes and going through news clips, Hauser began to prepare dinner. He promised Ali that he would give him a present.
While he was preparing dinner, the doorman in his apartment building buzzed the intercom and told him that there was an Ernest Evans to see him. Hauser asked the doorman to send Evans up, then instructed Ali to answer the door.
“Muhammad opened the door and he was like a kid at Christmas,” Hauser said.
Evans, you see, was known professionally as Chubby Checker. Hauser knew from Sadler how much Ali idolized Checker. He also knew that Checker idolized Ali.
“He literally started jumping up and down, shouting, ‘It’s Chubby Checker! It’s Chubby Checker!’ ” Hauser said. “We had dinner and afterward, I put on a record of Chubby Checker’s greatest hits and Muhammad and Chubby sang them together. We were sitting in the living room and Ali looked at Chubby and said, ‘Did you come all the way from Philadelphia just to see me?’ Chubby said, ‘Sure,’ and Ali shook his head and said, ‘I can’t believe it. I’m honored.’
“And I realized at that point that all his life, Muhammad had put Chubby Checker on a pedestal, and it never had crossed his mind that Chubby might feel the same way about him.”
Ali had that effect on many people. Bob Arum began to promote Ali in 1966, when he fought George Chuvalo, and was around for many of his greatest fights.
He saw the good side of Ali, as well as the bad. Arum, though, was amazed by Ali’s kindness to strangers. He said that at one fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in the 1970s, someone from the casino came to him and told him that a man with the last name Ali had run up a huge tab.
Arum checked his rooming list and had no one with such a name on it.
“I had never met this guy and he had this enormous, I mean, huge, bill,” Arum said. “We got in touch with the guy and he kept saying, brother Muhammad will vouch for me. We all knew it was [expletive], so we sent someone to go and get Ali. When Ali came in, it was pretty obvious that he never met the guy. We explain how this guy has been charging up all sorts of things and has this enormous bill and Ali says, ‘He’s with me. Put his stuff on my bill.’ Clearly, the guy was just pulling a scam, but it didn’t bother Ali. He was very generous and would do things like that all the time.”
[ Related: In the face of adversity, Ali continues to persevere ]
Chuvalo fought Ali twice, once in 1966 and again in 1972, losing a pair of decisions. Chuvalo fought 93 professional fights, compiling a record of 73-18-2 with 64 knockouts, but virtually all he’s known for are those two losses.
He’s 74 now, and to this day, whenever he is introduced to someone, it’s always as George Chuvalo, the guy who fought Muhammad Ali.
“You wonder sometimes about how big he really was,” Chuvalo said. “I’ll tell you this: What is it now, 40 years, since I last fought him? Whatever it is, it’s been a long, long time. But that always comes up. I’ll be in a restaurant and someone recognizes me and they tell the person they’re with, ‘Hey look, that’s George Chuvalo. He fought Ali.’
“All these other guys, everything I did, it’s like none of it mattered. I’m the guy who fought Ali.”
Chuvalo said he sees Ali occasionally and plans to attend a celebration in honor of Ali on Feb. 18 in Las Vegas. He said about 10 years ago, he received a call from a reporter telling him that Ali had died.
Chuvalo didn’t know any better, and after hanging up the phone, he began to cry.
“I’m a pretty big, tough guy and here I was, bawling,” Chuvalo said. “Thank God it wasn’t true, but I was just torn up until I found out the truth.”
Gene Kilroy, a long-time Las Vegas casino host, has been a 50-year friend and said he saw that story played out repeatedly.
Kilroy said he’s met some of the world’s most influential people, all of whom went to him to try to get to Ali.
“When you think about it, here I am, I’ve literally sat with presidents, with kings, queens, emperors, all these rich and famous and powerful people, and they all wanted to meet Ali or be around Ali,” Kilroy said. “I don’t think there have been a lot of people who have walked this Earth who have had that kind of impact upon people the way Ali had.”
Ali, though, wasn’t smitten by power or influence. At a luncheon at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the mayor of New York, Hauser witnessed a scene that describes just that.
The luncheon was on the lawn in front of the home, and then-Mayor David Dinkins wanted to bring Ali inside to meet some important campaign contributors.
They walked in the house, but Ali bypassed the room where the men were waiting. The mayor shouted to Ali that there were important people in this room to meet, but Ali headed for the kitchen, saying: “There are important people in here to meet, too.”
It was Ali’s habit to always meet the kitchen staff at such an event to thank them for what they’d done.
That was Ali, Hauser said, who got used to Ali yakking it up with average Joes during the period from 1988 to 1990 when he was working on the book. He would make trips to the grocery store or to the gas station with Ali that should have taken 10 minutes but instead wound up taking hours.
“There were times we had planes to catch and we started to worry about making the plane, because he just wouldn’t leave,” Hauser said.
Jonathan Swift, the 18th century author, once wrote, “May you live all the days of your life,” and, without question, Ali has lived all the days of his.
Foreman said that even though Ali is fighting Parkinson’s now, his mind is still sharp and he makes a point to thoroughly enjoy his life.
The one-time rivals have become fast friends. Foreman said there was a time in his life when he hated Ali, but said he came to love him because of the type of man Ali is.
“He became my best friend and now, I’m closer to him than I ever was with any of my brothers,” Foreman said.
Foreman, who is an ordained minister, said Ali has helped him to learn what it means to be a friend and what it means to be a man.
“Getting close to him and getting to know him has been one of the great privileges of my life,” Foreman said. “In my time on this Earth, there have been only a few of these towering figures, and he’s one of them.
“Everyone still wants to be around him. Movie stars get old, and no one recognizes them or wants to take a picture with them. But everyone wants to be around Ali. There’s no more poems and no more Ali Shuffle, but it don’t matter. They love the guy. I love the guy. We all do. He is really and truly ‘The Greatest.’ “
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