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My Champ Muhammad Ali

Blog

My Champ Muhammad Ali

Justin Lifflander

By Justin Lifflander

9 June 2016

An original Ferdie Pacheco painting of Ali at the 5th Street gym. From a private collection.

I remember two brown men moving across the screen of the Trinitron in my father’s den. I remember Joe Frazier’s green shorts. And I remember the grace with which Muhammad Ali danced around his opponent— at least in the first few rounds of the Fight of the Century. I was five in in the spring of 1971 and was seeing my first boxing match.

I don’t remember comprehending that Ali lost. I was entranced by his movement and my father’s explanation that this was not only a great boxer, but also a great man – who stood up for what he believed and did what he considered right. That was a simple enough definition of courage for my burgeoning value system.  And I saw that value embodied as Ali refused to go down towards the end of the match.

I was hooked on this man who knew no fear and spouted simple rhymes a child could understand.

My mother facilitated my first meeting with Ali. She won a free trip-for-two to the Bahamas in 1981 in a contest at a local clothing store. She put her faith in her sons’ maturity to the test and sent them on their own to Nassau. My older brother Clay was 19. He was thrilled to learn that the champ was training in our hotel for an upcoming fight against Trevor Berbick. We paid $3 each for the chance to watch the workout. Afterwards, Ali took questions from the audience.

By this time he was in the twilight of his career.  He had been earning money participating in “professional” wrestling engagements. His true fans—including my brother – were dismayed by the seedy path their hero had taken.

Clay decided to emulate Ali’s direct style and asked him how he could prostitute himself by fighting phony pro wrestlers.

The champ grinned ferociously. Then he pointed a finger at the curly blond haired young man in the audience and said to his entourage, “Get him, cause I’m gonna kill him!” Everyone laughed and Ali took the next question.

But the comeback bid was a failure. The “Drama in Bahama” was his Ali’s last fight, and he lost.

Some of his friends had shown concern for Ali’s health. Long-time personal physician and cornerman Ferdie Pacheco parted ways with Ali in the late 70s when the boxer ignored his suggestion that it was time to retire. Larry Holmes wanted his 1980 fight with Ali called because he was beating the champ so badly he feared for the damage. Ali balked.

In May of 1985 I was a junior reporter in the news department of radio station WTIX New Orleans.  It had been an exciting summer of murder trials and political intrigue. But my highlight came when Dennis the disk-jockey asked me to attend a press conference Ali was giving. The champ had ignored my brother’s criticism and was in town to promote an upcoming pro-wrestling match. He was making an appearance on behalf of a character called Snowman, who claimed to be his protégé.

My task was to get the champ to give us a promotional sound bite. He was to greet our listeners and say our call sign and frequency.

After the press conference I approached Ali. I told him everyone at the station was a big fan and asked if he’d oblige. I didn’t remind him he had already met my brother.  I handed Ali the scrap of paper with the three line script and pressed the record button on my tape player. Ali glanced at the text and smiled. In a tired, raspy voice he said hello to everyone tuned-in to the mighty 690 and told them to come to the match at the Superdome. We shook hands and parted.

I brought the recording back to the studio. Dennis and I listened to the sad voice.  We decided not to air it. We had learned to do the right thing, too.

That sweltering Louisiana night back in my apartment I wrote a poem. It’s more Bukowski than Soyinka, but it came from a sincere place inside and represents a rare moment of wisdom for a young man.

 

My Champ    5/31/85

The lights came on,
The Dixie band began to play
As we parasites bared our teeth and dove in.

The champ entered,
Alone In the crowd.
His cinnamon skin still shone
And his grey hair didn’t.
But his eyes had lost their fire.
He wasn’t hungry anymore.

All the expectant bloods
And the very white boys like me
Stared in awe as the greatest
Wandered past,
Slow of speech,
Dry of Mouth.

One less punch,
One less bout,
One less shot at past glory
Might have done his now rattled brain
A world of good.

The years showed
As he hunched his shoulders
And strained a mug for the cameras.

Heroes and hometowns wither and age
More than their fans care to see.
Keep your memories and autographs.
Once in person was too much for me.