Muhammad Ali was famous in our home.
But that doesn’t mean he was popular.
My grandfather, in particular, didn’t like Ali. Grandpa Johnny fought in the Air Force and still owned a pair of weathered, leather gloves he hung in a bar he’d fashioned in the rumpus room of my grandparents’ home in Pocatello, Idaho. Near those old mitts was a photo of Grandpa knocking a guy through the ropes during his days in the service.
We watched a lot of fights together in those days, many of them involving “The Greatest.” It was Ali vs. Jerry Quarry, Ali vs. Kenny Norton, Ali vs. Joe Bugner, Ali vs. Ron Lyle, Ali vs. Earnie Shavers, Ali vs. Leon Spinks. Always, Grandpa rooted against the Greatest.
“Look at him grab!” Grandpa would say, detesting the way Ali would wrap his right arm around his combatants’ necks and pull down, causing the other man to tire out. “That’s not boxing!”
No, Grandpa was more a Joe Louis guy. Ali’s cockiness, his bellowing voice and self-aggrandizing poetry? Grandpa hated it.
And I loved it.
Ali was so different, smart, funny and athletically skilled, you could not help but have your attitude shaped by him if you grew up in his era. He was one who could actually talk down Howard Cosell:
“I’m confident I’ll whup all of ’em,” Ali told Cosell in a 1967 interview before Ali’s bout against Zora Foley. Cosell countered, “You’re being extremely truculent.” Ali answered, “Whatever truculent means, if it’s good, I’m that.”
So it was time to look up “truculent,” and that was a scene in a continuing melodrama starring those two icons of the time.
Ali also sat with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” just before Ali’s bout in Tahoe against Bob Foster in April 1972. Carson asked about a rematch with Joe Frazier, and Ali said the two would “meet for sure” after Frazier’s heavyweight title defense against George Foreman — not anticipating the two-round beating Foreman would administer against Frazier.
“Didn’t you call (Frazier) a no-class street fighter?” Carson asked Ali.
“No,” Ali said, as if firing a counter punch. “Not those words.”
Ali explained that Frazier would “take a whuppin’ until you get tired of whuppin’ him.” It would be that type of ring strategy that Ali employed when he beat Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle,” as Foreman was felled by exhaustion.
Ali’s name was omnipresent away from his title fights, or the promotion of such, arriving from the most unexpected places. I once snuck off to buy a George Carlin comedy album — I say I snuck because I was just a kid, and this album, “Class Clown,” was loaded with adult content.
On that album, Carlin sang the name, “Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali. It’s a nice musical name. … He’s back at work, again. He wasn’t allowed to work for 3 1/2 years. Of course, he has an interesting job — beating people up. It’s a strange calling, but it’s one your entitled to. But the government didn’t see it that way, they wanted him to change jobs. They wanted him to kill people.”
“Ali said, ‘No, that’s where I’ll draw the line. I’ll beat them up, but I won’t kill them.’ And the government said, ‘If you won’t kill them, we won’t let you beat them up! Hahaha!’ ”
This is where the deeper investigation of Ali began,because he was more than just one of the greatest boxers — or even the most poetic trash-talker of all time — he was the leader of a movement. His refusal to enter the U.S. military and join the war in Vietnam for his religious views was a decision rooted purely in principal.
That decision robbed Ali of the prime of his career, costing him several millions in boxing purses and product endorsements, no question. This extraordinary move also cost him millions of fans.
Ali was not quite the same fighter when he returned in 1971, certainly a more stationary target, but his idle time did level the competitive balance of the heavyweight division. Some of his greatest fights were after that layoff, the rivalries with Frazier, Foreman and Norton. Ali fought every top heavyweight of his era, taking a vicious beating particularly in his fights against Frazier.
For an example of what courage in the rink looks like, check out the first and third of those bouts — the left hook that Frazier landed to Ali’s chin in the15th round of the first fight, sending Ali crashing to the canvas, was as devastating a shot as you’ll see in boxing.
Late in his career, Ali ducked nobody, even squaring off against the huge punchers such as Lyle and Shavers, taking some serious punishment even in his victories.
But years after his career ended and even in his declining heath, he was a great spirit, moving hearts and souls around the world and in personal interactions. The only encounter I ever had with Ali was at a party at Rain at the Palms, oddly enough, after the Las Vegas screening of the film “Ali” in 2001. Ali attended that premiere and made a loop around the party, walking slowly while being led by his longtime friend and manager Bernie Yuman.
Ali moved toward our group, on his way out of the event, and a friend who was carrying a camera — in these days before fully outfitted smart phones — called out, “Champ! Can I get a picture?”
And Ali stopped and held up his clenched fists. He waited until my friend got that shot, and after I turned to him and said, “We just saw a legend stop to be photographed by a total stranger.”
When Ali died Friday night, I remembered a conversation I had with my grandfather many years ago. It was just after the passing of Louis, which saddened Grandpa Johnny a great deal.
“But this is nothing,” he said back then. “Wait until Ali dies. There will be sadness all over the world.” Even someone who rooted for the other guy had to appreciate the legend and legacy of Muhammad Ali.