Read an Excerpt
Ali, Tyson, The Brown Bomber, and Other Stories of the Boxing Ring
By Ira Berkow
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Ira Berkow
All rights reserved.
Age Hasn't Cooled the Fire Inside Ali
April 28, 1985
The sprawling, three-story house was quiet, except for the tinny too-wa, too-wee of birds in a small aviary next to the office room on the first floor. It was early on a recent morning and the cool, shadowed office was dimly lit by two antique candelabras which had a few of their small bulbs burned out. An antique lamp was also lit and with its slightly crooked shade peered over the large black mahogany desk scattered with letters and an Islamic prayer book. Nearby were several open boxes stuffed with mail.
Behind the desk, three large windows opened onto a back yard, half in sunlight, with cypress trees and pruned bushes and a swimming pool. Along another wall in the office, a pair of black men's shoes stood by themselves in the middle of a brown suede couch. In another corner, a television set, with another on top of it, rested on the Oriental rug that covered most of the floor of the room. On the wall facing the desk was a marble fireplace without a fire.
Suddenly, a torch appeared in the doorway. The fire, burning at the end of a rolled-up newspaper, was followed by a large man in black-stockinged feet who trotted into the room. "Hoo, hoo," he said, as the flame burned closer to his hand, and he tossed the torch into the fireplace. Quickly, the logs in the fireplace crackled with the flame, and Muhammad Ali, the torchbearer, watched them burn. Then he sat down in an armchair in front of his desk and in a moment closed his eyes.
He said something, indistinct, in a gravelly mumble, and the visitor, in a chair facing him, asked Ali if he would repeat it.
"Tired," he said, with a little more effort, his eyes still closed. It was 8:00 in the morning and Ali had been up since 5:30 saying his daily prayers.
He stretched his legs. He wore a light-blue shirt, unbuttoned at the cuffs, which was not tucked into his dark blue slacks. At 43, Ali's face is rounder and his body is thicker than when he first won the world heavyweight championship by knocking out Sonny Liston in Miami in February 1964. The 6'3" Ali weighed 215 then and is now about 240 pounds.
In the ensuing years, he would weigh as much as 230 in the ring as he lost and regained the title two more times — an unprecedented feat in the heavyweight division. Ali, who was stopped in a one-sided bout by Larry Holmes while attempting to win the title yet a fourth time, retired five years ago, but he is hardly forgotten.
A few days before, he had been at ringside at the Hagler-Hearns middleweight title fight in Las Vegas, Nevada. Numerous ex-champions were introduced before the bout. Ali was saved for last.
He was asked now how he felt about that moment. He said nothing, and it appeared he was sleeping. Then: "A-li, A-li, A-li," he said, opening his eyes and mimicking the chant that arose among the 16,000 fans when the ring announcer introduced him.
"I had to go like this," he said softly, raising his right index finger to his lips, "to calm the people down."
"A lot of fighters, when they quit no one ever hears of them again. But I've gotten bigger since I quit boxin'. Look at this," he said, nodding to a box in the corner, "people from all over the world writin' me. Thirty-one boxes full of fan mail in four years."
One was from Bangladesh, sent to "Loos Anjeles," and calling Ali "my unknown Uncle." Another from West Germany asked "Mr. Ali" for his autograph. A third was from Drakefield Road in London and sent to the New York Presbyterian Hospital, where Ali had gone late last summer for a checkup. He has been diagnosed as having Parkinson's Syndrome, a nerve disorder.
Ali asked the visitor to open the letter and read it aloud.
"I am very sorry to know of your temporary problem," wrote the Briton, "and wish you most sincerely a rapid recovery. Many of my friends who are fans of yours are thinking the same, that you will in a very short time be back to your old poetic self and come and see us in dear old London ..."
Do you still write poetry? the visitor asked Ali.
"No," he said, "no more. That was in a different time. Eighteen times callin' the round. 'That's no jive, Cooper will fall in five.' 'Moore in four.'"
The visitor recalled a personal favorite, when Ali predicted how his first fight with Liston would go. It turned out that Liston didn't answer the bell for the seventh round. Did Ali remember the poem?
"Mmmmm," he said. I wasn't sure what he meant by that.
But he began, his voice still very low:
Ali comes out to meet Liston, and then Liston starts to retreat. If he goes back any farther, he'll wind up in a ringside seat.
He paused thoughtfully, then continued:
And Liston keeps backin' but there's not enough room.
"It's a matter of time — There! Ali lowers the boom.
Ali lands with a right — what a beautiful swing!
The punch knocks Liston right out of the ring.
Just then the phone rang. "My phone's ringin," he said. "Hold on." He reached over to his desk. "Yeah, naw, naw," he said sleepily into the phone. "I wouldn't try that for no $5,000, you crazy?" He nodded. "Check ya later." And hung up. "Where was I?"
He was reminded that he had just knocked Liston out of the ring.
"Who woulda thought," he continued, "when they came to the fight, that they'd witness the launchin' of a hu-man satellite.
"Yes, yes, the crowd did not dream when they laid down their money, that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny."
Ali's voice was fading again. "I wrote that 22 years ago," he said, his words getting lost in a throat. "That was a long time." He is taking voice lessons from Gary Catona, who had come into the room during the recital of the old limerick. Catona is a voice and singing teacher who three weeks ago had come to Los Angeles from Austin, Texas, to try to help Ali speak more clearly.
Ali began to speak more slowly and less distinctly over the last several years. There was much speculation about him suffering a variety of illnesses. During his hospital visit in New York last September, doctors determined that he had Parkinson's Syndrome.
Catona believes that the only problem with Ali's voice is that his vocal muscles are weak, that they lack resonance.
Ali was asked what was wrong with his voice. "I dunno," he said, "somethin'."
"Muhammad never really had strong vocal muscles," said Catona. "He used to scream out his words. His normal speech was never a normal speech."
Ali and his voice teacher schedule a one-hour lesson every day, but Ali travels a lot and they don't always connect. "But he's good when we do it," said Catona. "It's like building body muscles; you've got to work at it. He sings the sounds of the scales. 'Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!'" Catona sang, his voice rising at each 'Ah!'
Catona and Ali had already had the session at the piano in the living room, and beyond this Ali was asked what he's been doing with himself lately.
"People are interested in you," he was told. "You're one of the most popular figures ..."
"Popular niggers?" he interrupted.
"Figures," the visitor repeated.
Ali looked at him playfully out of the corner of his eye.
"What am I doin' now, oh, I'm so busy," he said, growing serious now. "I'm busy every day. I've got all this mail to answer — they're startin' fan clubs for me all over the world, in Asia, in Europe, in Ireland, in China, in Paris. But my mission is to establish Islamic evangelists, and to tour the world spreadin' Islam."
He converted from Christianity to the Islamic faith 21 years ago, changing his name, as the world knows, from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.
On the shelf above the fireplace stood a Sports Illustrated cover from May, 5, 1969, laminated on a wooden plaque. The cover showed the young boxer wearing a crown, with the caption, "Ali-Clay — The Once — and Future? — King."
What's the difference between Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali? he was asked.
"As much difference as night and day," he said. "Cassius Clay was popular in America and Europe. Muhammad Ali has a billion more fans all over the world. Cassius Clay had no knowledge of his self. He thought Clay was his name, but found out it was a slave name. Clay means 'dirt, with no ingredients.' Cassius — I don't know what that means. But Ali means 'The most high,' and Muhammad means 'worthy of praise and praiseworthy.'
"Cassius Clay had Caucasian images of God on his wall. Muhammad Ali was taught to believe that there should be no image of God. No color. That's a big difference."
He rose and got a large briefcase from under his desk. He withdrew several religious pamphlets with pictures of Jesus Christ. All but one was white. Then he took out a Bible and opened it to Exodus 20:4, and asked the visitor to read it. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above ..."
"Ooohh," said Ali. "Powerful, isn't it. But what are all these. Man, you thought boxin' was powerful. Boxin's little. These pictures teach supremacy. The Bible says there should be no pictures of God, no images, he should be no color. But you see that God is white. Tarzan, King of the Jungle, was a white man. Angel's food cake is white, devil's food cake is black. Man, ain't that powerful?
"Cassius Clay would not have the nerve to talk like this — he'd be afraid of what people might say or think. Ali is fearless, he's hopin', prayin' that you print this. Cassius Clay would not have the courage to refuse to be drafted for the Vietnam War. But Muhammad Ali gave up his title, and maybe he would have to go to jail for five years."
He rose again and this time brought back a plastic box, flipped up the latches, and opened the lid. It was a box of magic paraphernalia.
He took two red foam rubber balls and made them become four right before the visitor's eyes, then turned them into a box of matches, then made them disappear altogether. His eyes widened in mock shock. He still has the fastest hands of any heavyweight in history. It was a very good trick. How did he do it? "It's against the law for magicians to tell their tricks," he said. "It's a tricky world," he said. He next transformed three small unstretchable ropes of varying sizes into the same size.
He made a handkerchief disappear, but, on the second showing, he was too obvious about stuffing it into a fake thumb.
"You should only show that trick once," he said, a little embarrassed.
He redeemed his virtuosity by putting four quarters into the visitor's hand, snapping his fingers, and ordering the quarters to become two dimes and two pennies. The quarters obeyed. He snapped his fingers again and the quarters returned; the pennies and dimes vanished.
"It's magic for kids," he said. "It's my hobby. See how easy they can be deceived? But these aren't childish things. They make you think, don't they?"
It was mentioned that perhaps Ali's best magic trick was transforming the small house he lived in as a boy in Louisville into this 22-room house with expensive antique furniture. He made more than $60 million in ring earnings and endorsements. "But the government took 70 percent," he said. He says he is financially secure. He doesn't do commercials, for example, because, he said, "I don't need the money."
He lives here in Wilshire with his two children by Veronica Ali, eight-year-old Hana and six-year-old Laila. They employ a live-in housekeeper. His six other children live with his two former wives.
"My wife likes antiques," he said, walking into the living room. He pointed to a tall clock against the wall. "It's 150 years old," he said.
Gary Catona now took his leave, and arranged for a session the following morning. Ali led his visitor for a tour of the house. "I'm not braggin'," he said, "just showin'. I don't like to talk about what I have, because there's so many people hungry, homeless, no food, starvin', sleepin' on the streets."
In the dining room is a long dark table with 12 tall, carved chairs. On the second floor are the bedrooms. In the kids' rooms, toys and stuffed animals tumbled across the floor. There's an Oriental sitting room, and guest room.
The phone rang. "City morgue," he answered. He spoke briefly and hung up.
They ascended the carpeted staircase to the third floor. On a wall are a pair of red boxing gloves encased in glass. One glove is signed, "To the champion of champions — Sylvester Stallone." On an adjoining wall is a robe with multi-colored sequins that bears the inscription, "The People's Choice." In the corner of the case was a photograph of a man with his arm around Ali. It is Elvis Presley, who gave Ali the robe.
In the adjoining room is a large pool table with a zebra skin lying over it. Trophies and plaques and photographs line the wall and cover the floor.
He was asked about recent efforts to ban boxing.
"Too many blacks are doin' well in it, so white people want to ban it," he said. "But how do I live here without boxin'? How would I ever be able to pay for all this? Look at Hearns and Hagler. Two poor black boys, but now they help their mother and father and sisters and brothers. It's from boxin'.
"There's more deaths in football than boxin'. Nobody wants to ban football. You see car races. 'Whoom, whoom.' Cars hit the wall, burn up. Motor boats hit a bump. Bam! Don't ban that, do they?"
Going back down the stairs, the visitor is met by a nearly life-size painting of Ali in the ring wearing white boxing trunks. He is on his toes and his arms are raised in triumph. The signature in the corner of it reads, "LeRoy Neiman, '71."
Did Ali miss fighting? "When the fight's over," he said, "you don't talk about it anymore."
The visitor asked about his health. "I don't feel sick," Ali said. "But I'm always tired."
How did he feel now? "Tired," he said, "tired."
A doctor friend, Martin Ecker of Presbyterian Hospital, has said that if Ali takes his prescribed medication four times a day — the medication is L-Dopa, which in effect peps up the nervous system (the disease does not affect the brain) — then Ali's condition would be improved substantially. The medication does not cure the disease, but it increases alertness.
Ali is inconsistent in taking the medication. He believes it doesn't matter if he takes the medication, because he is in the hands of Allah, and that his fate is sealed. Days go by when he doesn't take the medicine. But when friends urge him to, or when he is going to make a public appearance, then he is more inclined to take his dosage.
Did he feel that after 25 years of amateur and professional fights, of countless hours of sparring, that he had taken too many punches?
He stopped on the second-floor landing. He rubbed his face with his hands. "Uh uh," he said, softly. "Look how smooth. I very rarely got hit."
As the visitor turned from Ali and opened the door to go, he heard an odd cricket sound behind his ear.
The champ smiled kindly but coyly. There was either a cricket in the house or something that sounded like a cricket in his hand.
Walking to his car in this quiet, elegant neighborhood, and then driving out past the security guard at the gate, the visitor realized he would not plumb the mystery of the cricket sound in Muhammad Ali's house. It's a tricky world, he recalled, and he would leave it at that. xxx CHAPTER 2
The Ali Shuffle Is Not Lost!
April 22, 1998
A Jewish Home for the Aged, peopled mainly by Holocaust survivors, was in danger of closing its doors in Upper Manhattan for lack of money. A spot on the television news described the plight. Soon after, a call was received at the home. "This is Muhammad Ali," the voice said, "and I want to donate a hundred thousand dollars so the old folks don't have to move out." The director of the home, who answered the phone, believed it to be a crank call and hung up.
The phone rang again. Same voice: "It's me — I'm the champ." Same hangup.
On the third try, Muhammad Ali convinced the woman that it was really him. And his $100,000 contributed in good measure to saving the home.
That was 20 years ago. "She promised she wouldn't tell anybody," Ali recalled yesterday, in the indistinct voice that his wife, Lonnie, said is the result of Parkinson's disease. "I don't look for praise for good deeds, except from God. God knows what people do. God would say, 'You want them to praise you?'"
The incident with the Jewish "old folks" home, as Ali called it, happened to be remembered by a visitor to Ali's Manhattan hotel suite, and was in keeping with the award he and the writer Thomas Hauser received last night at the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation dinner.
Excerpted from Counterpunch by Ira Berkow. Copyright © 2014 Ira Berkow. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.