By T.J. Schwartz
Muhammad Ali finally succumbed to Parkinson’s and is now scheduled to finally fight Rocky Marciano up there instead of that computer fight years ago. I’m not going to talk about all the great things he did for this country because we all know them. Instead I’m going to tell you a personal story of my one interaction with The Champ.
Some 15 or 20 years ago, I was covering a card show in Los Angeles where Ali, Jim Brown and Roy Campanella were signing. Pretty good lineup, eh? I had purchased a ticket for each and got to talk to The Champ for a few seconds. Ali was pretty lucid then, and it was an amazing few minutes. But what happened later is, as the late Paul Harvey called it, the rest of the story.
The setup was like an old high school auditorium, but without the seats. There was a high stage with steps on either side and a wide open space below where ticket buyers lined up. Well, it was going fine, as The Champ was a great signer and as usual, a great talker. There were at least a thousand people there with tickets. So the time runs out that he was paid for and his handlers come out and tell him he has to go. There were many hundreds of people that were not going to get their autograph. This usually causes some kind of riot.
But not this time!
The Champ rises and greets the next signer, Jim Brown. He immediately starts shadow boxing with Brown, who “puts up his own dukes” in a mock fight. The crowd ate it up.
Then it happened.
The Champ is led down the stairs by his handler. The area in front of the stage had become a mosh pit since everyone had crowded up to watch the action. As soon as The Champ’s feet touched the floor, the crowd split open like the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. Now, no one asked them to do it; they just did because The Champ was about to walk through to his waiting car.
As he walks through this man-made passageway, a little girl runs up to him. The handler knows better, as Ali kneeled on the floor with the girl. He kissed her and did one of his famous magic tricks, bringing a coin out of her ear. We all ate this up. She asked for an autograph and he obliged her as his handler frowned. A few more steps later a little boy ran up to him asking for an autograph, and Ali willingly signed again.
Through all this, the crowd just watched in awe and kept the pathway open. A few more feet and now a ticket holder asked for a freebie and got it. The promoter, who has to refund all these unused tickets, also knows better because this is how the great man was. Meanwhile, I and many others shed a few tears, as I’ve never seen anything like it.
As he finally reached the door some 10 minutes later, he turned and waved at the crowd. We gave him a standing ovation.
I’ve been to signings with all of them – Ted, Joe, Mick, you name him – but I have never seen such reverence. I’ll never forget it, as I shed a tear even writing this story, which is still so vivid in my mind that it seems like it was yesterday.
I’m 62 and saw every important fight he ever had. I grew up in The Bronx, and in the 1960s and ’70s, there was no home pay-per-view. No, no – we had to buy tickets and go to a local movie theater to see them. On Oct. 30, 1974, when he rope-a-doped George Foreman in Zaire and knocked him out in the eighth round in the Rumble in the Jungle, we all ran into the streets shouting, “Ali, Ali, Ali.”
Yes The Rumble in the Jungle was just that.
Three days later, I turned 21, and five days later, I married Linda – still my wife today.
That fight was like my 21st birthday present. So in a way, I feel we’ll always be connected.
Bye Champ. Thanks for the great memories!