The first time I met Muhammad Ali, I was producing a sports radio talk show in San Diego and he had come to town preparing for a heavyweight fight against Ken Norton: a former Marine who was a longshot to make it through the first five rounds of the fight. In fact, Sports Illustrated called him “Ken Somebody.”
But Ali, being the showman that he was, knew how important it was to hype the fight, and being a long time friend of the sportscaster I was working with, decided to make an appearance and spend a little time with the crowd that had gathered to get a glimpse of the champ. He was a people magnet.
He needed no introduction. You heard him before you saw him and he parted a crowd like the biblical story of the Red Sea. “I am the greatest.” His voice carried over the crowd and with his entourage in tow, he made his way up to the broadcast stage. What was supposed to be just a short “promo” for the fight turned into an hour of Ali at his very best. I was in awe of the man:His quick wit, his intelligence, his charm. He was dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, dark tie. What struck me most, his hands. He had the most beautiful hands I’d ever seen. I mentioned that to him and with a twinkle in his eyes, and with not one moments hesitation, he reminded me that he was just simply “beautiful.”
When fight night came, the San Diego Sports Arena was standing room only. It’s safe to say the majority of the crowd had come to see Muhammad Ali make quick work of Norton. Instead, Kenny, with his unorthodox style of fighting, threw a right that met Ali’s jaw in the second round. Those of us at ringside noticed blood dripping from Ali’s jaw and couldn’t believe it. The fight continued, in fact Norton won the fight on a split decision. The arena crowd was stunned when the final bell sounded.
What transpired next is etched in my memory forever.
Post fight, the winner’s circle parties the night away. Ali’s crowd had planned for that: Norton’s corner, not so much. But with the surprising results, that changed quickly. And what about Ali? The champ did not stay for post fight chatter, in fact he was whisked away quickly. For me he was still the story, but where had his trainer Angelo Dundee taken him?
A small hospital just a few minutes from the arena had an unexpected patient. In the ER, on a gurney, Ali waited to meet a doctor who would say later, how amazed he was that Ali stood in the ring for 15 rounds with a shattered jaw. Even more amazing when I arrived, expecting a horde of media, I found just Dundee, Ali’s long time friend and corner man, Bundini Brown, and my colleague Jerry Gross. Angelo was shattered just like Ali’s jaw. He was convinced his fighter would never step into the ring again. The four of us sat together in the waiting room while Ali was in surgery, watching the minutes, the hours creep through the night.
And then Ali just disappeared.
Jerry and I searched all over San Diego for him. We used every source we knew to put the word out we were looking for him, but with no results. Many days later, the phone in the sports office rang after the 11 pm show. I picked up the phone to hear a muffled voice saying “I know you’ve been looking for me, but I didn’t want to be found.” Realizing Ali had found us, when he was ready, he went on to offer a meeting that late night at a small coffee shop in a back booth with no cameras. We brought a cameraman just in case, but when we got there Ali, wearing sunglasses in that back booth made it clear we were welcomed but not the camera. He told us he couldn’t, wouldn’t let his fans see him like that. He face was so swollen with his jaw wired shut, he was drinking coffee through a straw.
We talked about the fight. We talked about the future. Ali knew every detail about our search for him after that night in the ER. The fact that we had been the only two journalists who had followed him after losing the fight did not go unnoticed.
Years later, at the Atlanta Olympics, Ali would visit the athletes village. I was there shooting a story when word spread like wildfire that he had arrived. The athletes were running to surround him and my crew and I were in the stampede. When we got to Ali, I was told my crew could not shoot the event. We weren’t a part of the Sports Network group, and as much as I protested, we were being muscled away when a voice that once roared over the crowd, whispered “stop.” Ali had turned to Angelo Dundee to say, “She’s with us.” Before I knew it, we were a part of the inner circle. The Champ had remembered.
All those years earlier, a young sportscaster had stuck with him at one of his lowest moments and he remembered. We made eye contact and even though the Parkinson’s had invaded his muscles, his mind was rock solid.
The beautiful hands were ravaged with arthritis by then too. But not the twinkle in his eyes….that’s where he held his memories and they were crystal clear.