Ali would have loved ya, kid … and a guest column

I caught sight of a little kid wearing a great T-shirt last weekend at the Polish Fest in Clinton Square.

Ali fan.

Ali fan.

Mom smiled when I asked if I could grab a photo of her kids, and they quickly lined up against the monument.

Then I realized that the bigger boy on the left had the object of my adulation scrunched up in my original shot, and they agreed to line up all over again.

He was the greatest.

He was the greatest.

You got it right, kiddo. Muhammad Ali was the greatest. I hope you understand and feel the spirit. RIP. Great shirt, mom.

Which leads me to an old fried and colleague, Mark Wallinger, and an email I received from my former co-worker at the big daily earlier this week.

Submitted this to the NYT in 2012, but it didn’t make the cut.
Thought you might be the one person left who might appreciate it.

Wallinger was a sports reporter covering the Syracuse University football team when I arrived at The Syracuse Post-Standard as assistant sports editor in 1983. He and I got along great in the office. We weren’t above looking at each other square in the eye and declaring: Hey, this is what we do for a living! We cover sports!! How lucky are we?!!! And we got along perhaps even better out of the office. We were just about the same age, and didn’t mind drinking a beer or two every now and then, and taking our chances at the joints where single women our age might like to venture. I’d say that indeed, I loved the story he told of the time he met the great Muhammad Ali, heard as a wingman.

Hey. Let him tell what it meant himself, in his own words, right here and now.

Take it away, Mr. Wallinger, from that piece the New York Times did not have enough foresight to publish back in 2012. Wow, it packs a punch now that Ali has left us.

I met Muhammad Ali at the Bonaventure Hotel in Montreal on the morning of the first Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard fight. I was a student at Syracuse University, who had lucked into an internship at the city newspaper, The Post-Standard. The final edition closed about 2 a.m., and my photographer, John Barrows (now Director of Communications for Avis) and I drove through the night to be there at dawn.

Ali entered the deserted lobby moments after we did. In a pinstripe suit, he walked ahead of his former corner man, Drew “Bundini” Brown, and two bodyguards. I asked him who he thought would win, pen at the ready. He smiled, was non-committal (many compared Sugar Ray Leonard to Ali) and wanted to go to breakfast. As we entered the coffee shop, everyone stopped eating and talking. It was surreal. They all looked at Ali.

There were no tables free, so the most recognized man on the planet sat at the counter. It was nine years after his first fight against Joe Frazier; six years after he beat George Foreman. He was 38 now, still amazingly unmarked.

His true calling and talent transcended simply sports. He had been banned from boxing during his prime (March 1967 to October 1970) because he had been a conscientious objector and refused to be conscripted into the U.S. military citing his religious beliefs as a basis for refusal to fight the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King Jr., said Ali inspired him to drop his reluctance to object to the war. Ali converted to Islam at a time when journalists –- mostly white males — wouldn’t recognize his religion, or call him by his adopted name, at first.

Eventually, like most people, they came around to Ali’s way of thinking. Ali was one of the first to recognize an athlete’s authority that, if so desired, could become a force for social responsibility. Along the way, he’d won the heavyweight championship three times; the first time as a 7-to-1 underdog at the age of 22, which almost seems like a footnote now among his accomplishments. His presence alone could be so intimidating to his peers -– he would often predict his round of victory, or taunt them. Heavyweight champion George Foreman (who was 40-0 with 37 knockouts!) once said was scared fighting Ali in Zaire.

I asked Ali, who had retired the year before, if he missed the limelight.
He smiled. Before he could answer, Bundini spoke up, addressing Ali, not me.

“You are still the greatest, champ,” he said, his voice growing loud. “This fight is just a warm-up for your next fight. They gonna have televisions all over the world to see you in your next fight.”

He was yelling now, rising off his stool, attracting attention, making a scene … as he often did.

“Millions and millions of people are GONNA SEE THE CHAMPION!”

Ali whispered something to Bundini, whose eyes bulged with anger. He squeezed Ali’s arm. Ali ignored him. Bundini bit his lower lip and tapped Ali on the top of the head with an open hand.

Ali, always cat-quick, instantly whipped around on the stool, planted his feet, and slapped Brown — hard — across the face with his open hand, sending him reeling.

In that moment, Ali wasn’t in the moment. He was already past it, having a personal aside, and he shared it with me. Ali smiled at me, his eyes lit up as his brows arched playfully.

“Still pretty fast, ain’t I?”

Bundini leaped toward Ali. The bodyguards held him back (no small task as Brown was a heavyweight himself and thick as a linebacker), grabbing him under the armpits. Brown hovered over Ali, his arms awkwardly held above his head –- like a man surrendering –- as he struggled. Then, Brown began to cry … embarrassed by the quick rebuke, frustrated by the restraints … two metaphors for his enthusiasm for Ali, who on this morning wasn’t the center of attention.

It was a breathtaking drama played out quickly. Ali let all the commotion happen around him. The two large bodyguards struggled to keep Bundini from Ali, who had returned to his breakfast: calm.

It would be a common theme, of course … Ali calm with storms all around.

While growing up in suburban Florham Park, N.J., in the 1960s, the Catholic son of a former Marine and part of a Polish and Italian working-class family, Cassius Clay-turned-Muhammad Ali was polarizing. He an icon, now, but as the quintessential anti-establishment hero, the males in my family were disgusted by him, especially the five Matusiak brothers, who had worked at the Ballantine brewery in Newark, N.J. Not join the military? Was it possible the heavyweight champion of the world was a coward? An athlete, who wasn’t humble like “our” Joe DiMaggio, or Mickey Mantle? Couldn’t he “at least” be grateful for all the country had given him like these second-generation Americans expected?

It was hard to figure out at the time, hard to find one’s equilibrium. Vietnam. Civil Rights. Our leaders – John and Robert Kennedy (icons, of course, in our Catholic household), Martin Luther King Jr. — gunned down.

Ali made us re-think everything, like a great leader does. Win an Olympic medal, but can’t eat in the restaurant in your hometown, because of your race? Be part of the change. Think a nation can define you? Don’t allow them. Remember his line: “I don’t have to be who you want me to be.” Like so many Ali moments, it was a lesson for all of us, not just the athletes in us.

I asked Frazier once, about Ali … and what he remembered about their three epic battles (Ali won two).

“I hurt him … every round,” he growled, elongating the last word like it was a song. Then, Frazier stared into me with piercing, no-foolin’ angry eyes and a focus only a heavyweight champion can convey. “Every r-o-u-n-d.”

Every morning, this aging former sportswriter in Westerville, Ohio, stretches an aching back. When I get up off the floor, the image that comes to me every day is Ali getting up after Joe Frazier knocked him down. Men have been fighting since the beginning of time. Ali didn’t just teach us to fight. He taught us how to get up when knocked down.

Ali pulled us into conversations, dramas and thoughts we didn’t have before him. Some of us haven’t had them since; maybe because he helped change the world and they were not necessary; maybe because we didn’t want to think about them again.

Ali was a giant in almost every way that a man can aspire to be one. And no matter what the turmoil of the day from the 1960s until the end -– some of it stirred up by agitation caused by him –- it was always new, fresh, unexpected.

Pretty fast, wasn’t he?

Ali was not only pretty fast, the greatest accomplishment of the man, who described himself as “The Greatest,” might have been he was forever faster than the fast-changing world. Maybe we didn’t always understand. Maybe that wasn’t the point … we would understand later.

>Mark Wallinger is a former award-winning sportswriter and software executive, who is currently Marketing Director for the Society of Cardiovascular Patient Care.

Have you seen a rush of Ali gear lately? Do you think a new generation will now understand what Ali stood for in his fight for equality? What does Ali’s legacy mean to you?

10 thoughts on “Ali would have loved ya, kid … and a guest column

  1. Ali was iconic – he came to represent so many things to so many people. Personally, although I respected his skill, I was not a fan of his out-of-ring persona. As was shown in the story above,he would lash out as if every conversation was a title fight. I’m not a fan of striking people to make a point.

    That said, the world was a richer place because he was in it.


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