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Going Down With Muhammad Ali

The boxer’s former fight promoter on why he hopes that the champ stays out of the ring for good this time

Muhammad Ali, left hook, Trevor Berbick, Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre

Muhammad Ali throws a left hook at Trevor Berbick at the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre in Nassau, Bahamas on December 11th, 1981.

Focus on Sports/Getty

Now that all the sports chroniclers’ tear-stained clichés have dried and Muhammad Ali’s ring obituary has been stenciled for the umpteenth time, I’d like to believe he’s hung up the gloves for good. But by now he’s retired so many times I think I’ve lost count.

Back in 1969 when Ali was twenty-seven years old, he asked me to call a press conference for him. He not only announced his retirement but offered his championship belt to the winner of the upcoming Joe Frazier–Jerry Quarry title fight. This was the same belt Bundini hocked one day when he got drunk.

In those days, Ali had nothing to lose. No state would license him because in 1967 the courts had found him guilty of evading the draft. In the same year, he was fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in jail. Naturally, he appealed.

During the appeals, I canvassed twenty-two states trying to get him a license. Nobody would touch him. In California, then-governor Reagan said that draft dodger would never fight in his state. I arranged a deal for him to fight on an Indian reservation in North Dakota, but even the Indians got cold feet. I had another deal for him to fight in the bullring in Tijuana, but our government wouldn’t let him cross the border because he was under indictment. We finally got him a license in Atlanta, Georgia, of all places.

A guy named Maddox was the governor there. Remember him? He was the nut who used to sell pickax handles for “whacking niggers over the head with.” You can imagine how happy Maddox was when he found out the fight was going to be in his state. But Georgia had no state boxing commission, so we got the mayor of Atlanta to license Ali, and there was nothing Maddox could do about it. That was for Ali’s comeback fight against Jerry Quarry in 1970.

Ali threatened to retire several times in the Seventies, but no one took him seriously until he won his title back from Leon Spinks in 1978. Then his family, friends from Gene Kilroy to Kris Kristofferson, and fans all over the country pleaded with him to retire with the title. And Ali did it up with blue ribbons. They threw him a huge retirement party at the Los Angeles Forum, and before a packed house he vowed never to put the gloves on again. Six months later, he was back in training to fight either Mike Weaver or Larry Holmes. The promoters didn’t seem to be able to get it together. He wound up fighting Holmes in what turned out to be a disaster.

When I looked at the videotape of that fight, seeing how Ali sat on his stool, with the roll of middle-age fat hanging over his tights, the look of pain and frustration on his face, and watching him get knocked out for the first time in his brilliant career, I thought back to the first day I met him.

I was doing the third Patterson-Johansson fight in Miami Beach. Johansson was training in Palm Beach. I took him down to Miami Beach to spar one day, mainly to hype the ticket sale. He had no sparring partner. Whitey Bimstein, a great old trainer, and I found Angelo Dundee and asked him if he had somebody the Swede could work with.

Dundee yelled out, “Hey, Cash, get your ass over here,” and over bounced this big, beautiful, tawny gazelle. It was Cassius Clay Jr., who had just won a gold medal in the Olympics. Whitey said he needed four rounds.

“Wanna work out with the Swede?” Dundee asked. “Li’l me sparrin’ with Johansson?” said Clay. There was a tone of mockery in his voice. He was straight-faced, but those big eyes were laughing. Suddenly he started repeating in singsong fashion: “A’hm gonna be dancin’ with Ingemar Johansson, A’hm gonna be dancin’ with Ingemar Johansson.” And he trotted off.

I asked Dundee what the hell that was all about. “Oh, you ain’t met this nut,” he said. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Johansson, a former heavyweight champion, had just come in for a breezy workout. He never had too much going for him to start with, but he did have a tremendous right hand. All eyes were on the ring. Young Clay was dancing around him like Fred Astaire.

Within the first minute, the kid popped him six good left jabs on the nose. It was the kind of jab that makes you sit up and take notice. When the round was over, the Swede hadn’t hit Clay yet. Then Johansson, who has his own outsize ego, was steaming. He told Bimstein, “I knock this smartass out this round.”

In the second round, Clay started talking to Johansson. He was saying things like, “Come on, sucker, show me what you got” and “You nuthin’. I should be fightin’ Patterson ‘stead a’ you.” Johansson went berserk. He was throwing that big right hand and missing Clay by three feet. At the end of the second round, Bimstein called the whole thing off and Johansson went back to Palm Beach with a new neurosis.

That was back in 1960, twenty-two years ago, a lot longer than the lifetime of the average fighter.

I think that deep down Ali has known he’s been washed up for the last three years. But he learned long ago that boxing is big business, and he would keep fighting as long as the public paid to see him. Last month, down in the Bahamas where he fought Trevor Berbick, he learned the ugly truth. The public just wouldn’t pay to see him anymore, and no one knows better than Ali that that’s the bottom line in the fight racket. It didn’t really matter that he wasn’t the fighter he once was. He wasn’t the draw, and that was that.

The so-called promoters of the Bahama fight scaled the house to start at $1000 for ringside seats. Add up your fingers and toes and you have more digits than the number of $1000 seats they sold. Then they dropped the price to $500, and Kojak’s got more hairs on his head than the number of $500 seats they sold. They estimated a crowd of 40,000. They were lucky they had 10,000, and that was counting the guys who jumped over the fence and got in for free. The ten-dollar seats were sold out.

It was probably the worst heavyweight fight ever promoted. Berbick pulled out a half-dozen times, screaming for a letter of credit. He said he was not going into the arena until he had his money guaranteed. It was odds-on that the fight wasn’t going to happen, and most of the sportswriters agreed it would be a better story if it didn’t. Maybe Berbick should have listened to high-haired promoter Don King and taken a walk, but then King got belted around just for suggesting it. Five hours before fight time, the Selec TV people came up with enough dough to bail the show out.

Although the promotion was dismal, the scene at the fight was spooky. I saw faces I hadn’t seen around Ali fights in years. It was like some lost tribe coming together for a final sacrifice. I saw a couple of hookers who used to make the fight circuit in the 1970s. They looked the same: tired. There were old fight buffs who looked like they had come out from under the ring where Corbett took Sullivan.

And then there were the hustlers. Anytime Ali fought, they’d show up acting like they should have a piece. And Ali would wind up staking more than one of them to a plane ticket home from Vegas or wherever. The sharp ones gave you a big hello and casually asked what room you were in. It was like the old days when, if you were crazy enough to tell them, your hotel bill could end up a thousand dollars fatter because they’d be eating lobster and drinking champagne and signing your name and room number on the tab.

There were some laughs but not enough to shade the sadness. It was no shock that Ali couldn’t fight like a kid anymore. He’d left most of his extraordinary skills in a blood-spattered ring in Manila in 1975, where he fought Joe Frazier in the most brutal bout in heavyweight history. Although Ali won it, he would never be the same fighter again.

The following year, Ali fought two bums named Jean Pierre Coopman and Richard Dunn and knocked them out. My butcher could have licked both of them. Then along came Jimmy Young, who should have already been history. Ali got the decision, but many people thought Young won the fight. That was in 1976. Ali hasn’t knocked out anybody since.

None of us will forget that Ali has been one of the great heavyweights of all time, but we should also remember that he’s been more than that. The basketball players and baseball players who started demanding and receiving megabuck salaries in the early Seventies should light a candle to Ali every week, because he’s the one who set the precedent.

From the very beginning, Ali was not only a superfighter, he was a supersalesman. It’s just too bad that for the last four years he’s gotten by mostly on his lip. Most of the time the public believed what he said, although the truth was there for all to see.

People keep asking me the same question: “Why is this guy still fighting after all the money he has earned? What does he need it for?” Ali has earned more than $60 million. But even if he owned Mobil or Exxon, he’d come up short sooner or later. Break down the $60 million like an accountant and you find that the taxes take more than half, his manager Herbert Muhammad gets one-third, and his living expenses are out of sight. That’s only the beginning.

Years ago, Ali told me that God made it possible for him to earn all that money so he could help people who needed help. I gave him the fisheye because he was always putting me on to see what my reaction would be. Then he said solemnly, “I really believe that.” And I believed him. He did many of his acts of charity surreptitiously, and it was awhile before anyone started hearing about them.

I remember Houston McTear, the sprinter who was a holder of the world record for the 100-yard dash and was America’s bright hope for the 1976 Olympics until injuries took him out. He was very down, living in a hovel in Florida with his family. Ali consoled him. Also bought him a house for forty grand and threw in another thirty to furnish it.

Once, on one of Ali’s trips to New York, he and a bunch of us were watching the six o’clock news. A remote broadcast flashed on from a small old-folks home in upper Manhattan. The announcer said the place had run out of funds and there were several old folks — all white — sitting around in anguish. The announcer added that the place would be forced to shut down in a month and they would be homeless.

Ali jumped out of his chair. “Quick, get the address of that place,” he said. He was up there within the hour. “How much it cost to keep this place open for another year?” he asked. He was told $150,000. He wrote out a check and asked the home and us to promise not to say a word about it. Somebody leaked the story a week later.

Then there was a hospital in Dublin, a shrine in Manila and a school in Chicago. Multiply these incidents at least fifty times and you get an idea of what he did with at least part of his money.

Once the fight with Berbick was set in Nassau, I decided to go down because I knew Ali would like to have some old friends around. I saw Ali for about a half-hour the first day I got there, and he was telling me how fast he had been in a workout with Tommy Hearns, how he had been running six miles a day and doing a lot of push-ups. Then he realized he was talking to me. He knew how I felt about his fighting again, and he shut his record off. I had already checked on his condition. He was doing four miles, walking three and running one.

Then he said, “Them sportswriters keep sayin’ ah’m slurrin’ mah words like I got something wrong with mah haid. That’s crazy.”

“But you do slur your words sometimes,” I said.

“You know bettah ‘an ‘at. That’s the way we talk. You listening white, ah’m talkin’ colored.”

Ali’s always there with the topper.

It has been a ritual since the late Sixties for me to ride to the fight with Ali. This last time, at about 6:30 p.m., his friend and confidant Gene Kilroy and I went up to the little villa where Ali was staying. Ali’s houseman, Abdul, answered the door. “Nobody here but Ali and me. He’s sleeping. Got to wake him at seven.” Abdul went upstairs at seven and a few minutes later called for us to come up. Ali was under the covers in bed, and he had turned on a videotape of the Holmes-Berbick fight. The volume was turned down low; the voices of the commentators were merciful whispers, telling us idiots what we were watching with our own eyes.

A minute later, Angelo Dundee came in and hopped up on the dresser. The tape was rolling. It was round two. “See that, champ,” said Dundee. “He throws everything from the outside. He’s wide open down the middle.” I told myself this was going to be interesting. I’d get a line on their strategy.

“There it is again,” said Angela “Wide open right down the middle.”

“Right,” Ali said. “He don’t throw no straight punches.”

“You go into him right down the middle,” said Angelo. “This guy’s a hound, hear what I’m saying?”

Just then John Travolta walked into the room. He kissed Ali on the cheek and jumped alongside him on the bed. Travolta, who’s crazy about Ali, had been hanging out with him all week. Angelo resented the interruption.

The tape was still running. It was round three. “Look at that,” said Angelo. “That would have been the spot right there. Wide open.”

“Gotcha, boss,” said Ali. He seemed bored with the tape and talked to Travolta.

Angelo started to say something but a loud clatter on the stairs stopped him. Ali’s four children by his second wife, Belinda, stomped in. The twin girls, Rasheda and Jamillah, 11, sprang on top of Ali, smothering him with kisses. Ali Jr., 9, struggled to get between them. Maryum, 13, stood by.

“You got to throw the big one right off the bat,” said Angelo.

Travolta stuck a set of Bugs Bunny teeth under his upper lip. “People see me walking through the lobby wearing these,” he said, “and they say, ‘Is that really him?'”

Angelo said, “The big, one, Ali, like we talked about. That will bring out the hound in him.”

“Gotcha, Angie,” said Ali, half muffled by the kids’ kisses. “Like I done with Foreman in Zaire.”

Pat Patterson, the security chief, walked in with Ali’s wife, Veronica. She was wearing velvet toreador pants and a jacket, a lacy ascot and a toreador hat. She looked stunning.

“Getting about that time,” said Patterson. “We better get moving. Lots of traffic out there.” Everybody filed out of the room except Veronica, so Ali could get dressed.

Downstairs, the house was crowded with family and crew. Four black limos were parked out front. I was about to say, “This looks like a funeral cortege,” but I bit my tongue.

The fight wasn’t worth talking about. Fortunately, Berbick wasn’t nearly as sharp as he was when he lost to Holmes. Ali was pitiful.

In the dressing room after the fight, Ali was huddled over a bench, barely able to talk as the newsmen interviewed him. They had let the writers enter in groups. After the second group had had a few minutes with him and left, Ali had to be helped to a rubbing table. Suddenly I found myself locked into a déjà vu. I was back at the Ali–Frazier fight in Manila. For big fights we would always rope off an area for postfight interviews so all the reporters could get a shot at the fighters, but when they stopped the fight in the fourteenth round and I looked at Frazier, I said to myself, “That’s one half of the postfight press conference that’s not going to show up.” His left eye was shut tight, his right eye was just a slit, and he had no features. His nose and cheekbones were one plane. His face looked like a large order of prune whip with a few maraschino cherries.

Ten minutes later as I was standing by the interview area, I saw Frazier, slowly, painfully hobbling down the ramp, held up by a handler on each side. But no Ali. I raced over to his dressing room, and two Muslim brothers stopped me at the inner door. “He can’t talk to anybody,” they said. “I’ve got to talk to him,” I told them. I knew Ali would never forgive me if I didn’t tell him that Frazier had shown up and he wasn’t there. After all, he was the winner.

Pat Patterson brushed the brothers aside and I saw Ali, prostrate on a rubbing table, covered from head to foot with towels. His lips were bruised. His swollen cheeks had red blotches and one eye was half-closed.

I leaned down to him. “You don’t have to go out there, champ, but I got to tell you, Frazier’s out there.”

He looked at me through the good eye. “You kiddin’ me? He out there?” I said, “Yes, he is.” He tried to pull himself up and started to fall back. Bundini and Wally Muhammad grabbed him.

“You don’t have to go out there, champ,” said Bundini.

“Yes, I do. I gotta go. Help me.”

It was painful for him to raise his arms so they could get his robe on. They couldn’t get his shoes back on because his feet were too swollen, and he limped out in his stocking feet, with two guys helping him. That was Manila.

As I looked at Ali laid out on the table in Nassau, it hurt to realize that the rounds he had just fought were a tango compared to what he and Frazier had done to each other in Manila. And here in Nassau, it was all he could have taken.

The next day, my wife, Mara, and I went up to Ali’s villa to see how he was, Ali took out a box of magic tricks and did an hour show for us. But there was a faraway look in his eyes. Now that the big paydays are over and he’s still a comparatively young man with a large family and a zest for living, what does the future hold? That gives him something to think about.

He returned to Los Angeles the following day and announced on a local radio show that he was planning another comeback. Then he said he was only kidding. But could he have been testing the waters?

Months ago when Ali signed to fight Berbick, none of the important boxing states would license him. I got a call from a friend of his who said Ali asked him to call me. “We got Ali a license in South Carolina,” he said, “but we’re not sure yet where the fight’s going to be. Would you help with the promotion?”

I flatly refused. “How can you do that to Ali after all the years you’ve been with him?” he complained. I told him that any friend of Ali’s should do everything possible to keep him from fighting before he gets seriously hurt.

Now, I think I’d probably just hang up on the guy.

Ali, I love ya. Enough already.

Harold Conrad has been involved, as publicity director or promoter, with twenty-six world heavyweight title bouts and was the model for Humphrey Bogart’s character in the classic fight film ‘The Harder They Fall.’ Early this spring, Stein and Day will publish Conrad’s ‘Dear Muffo,’ a volume that Norman Mailer calls “a hard-core gossip guidebook to Broadway, Hollywood and the fight world.” Conrad lives in New York City.

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