Monday, June 6, 2016

When I floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee, spent a bit of time with Muhammad Ali

I have been struggling with my emotions since Muhammad Ali died Friday night.  I was fortunate in my life to spend time with The Greatest (and he truly was) during the few days before and after the Sept. 15, 1978, fight during which he won for a third time the heavyweight crown by “whuppin’’’ Leon Spinks.  The night of the fight itself was a sleepless one for me, literally. Read on, you’ll see why.  At 8 a.m. Sept. 16, 1978, I was sitting next to Ali on a loveseat in his Hilton hotel room.

Most of the press from the night before likely was sleeping it off.  Me, I was still quivering with excitement and the opportunity to spend a couple hours, virtually uninterrupted, with the once-again-crowned heavyweight champion of the world.

After that dream answered, I took the historic St. Charles streetcar back to my hotel near an above-ground graveyard.  I had already sent my copy from the fight to my assistant sports editor and pal, Larry Schmidt, back in the newsroom that looked out over Commerce Street in Clarksville.  I was going to write the story of my time with Ali, finally grab a nap and then go back to the Quarter, where a bartender two nights before had taught me how to shuck an oyster.

On that day after the fight, I went back and forth between the French Quarter and the press room set up in the Hilton.  It was the first time I interviewed a totally naked woman (she had shown all of her charms by climbing into the ring the night before) and I found out that at close-range, she was beautiful, a bit chilly and obviously “my type.” I was just a kid, remember.  I wrote a little story about her as well after she autographed a photo, carefully not covering her private zones with the signature.

I had met Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Kenny Norton, Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, Howard Cosell and a flock of Hollywood superstars over the previous few days.

Of course all of that paled in comparison to the several times I had been with Ali during that week, with our last encounter being the almost one-on-one joking and talking in the hotel suite.

I saw Ali a few more times after that.  The last time I saw him, the horror of his Parkinson’s was just beginning to slow him down.  He no longer was “the Louisville Lip,” but a middle-aged man (by boxing standards) who had taken too many punches to the head.  That’s one of the risks of the Rope-a-Dope, I suppose.

 I don’t know much else to say, other than that I’m proud I spent time with The Greatest and that memory will live on.

Of course, most of the TV news remembrances have been glorious, flashy and funny and don’t focus on the man trapped for decades inside body’s shell by Parkinson’s.

While I have written about other encounters with the former Cassius Clay, most of my Ali stories come from the time I covered the fight for The Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville.

 I traded my planned and budgeted trip to the Master’s (golf's not my game) for enough money to fly me to New Orleans, feed me oysters and gumbo and beignets, that were still hot when I retrieved them on the tray that was planted, along with chickory-laced coffee, outside my room each morning.  They also left the day’s newspaper. (You remember newspapers don’t you? )
Just shy of 28 years old, I learned much on that trip, much of which will go to my grave with me.

I fell in love with New Orleans and streetcars, above-ground graveyards and voodoo queens.  Because of my time spent there with Muhammad Ali, that city has been special to me and I’ve visited often.  Even pondered moving there, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as magical as the time I was there for The Fight.

The time a tired boxer extended his hand and shook my own very softly, explaining his hands were sore from “whuppin’” Leon Spinks the night before.

Ali’s death has saddened me (that’s not hard). It also has been invigorating to watch all of the news stories, to see him in his prime, to realize that, really, he had lived his life and it was time to take the ring in the great whatever after.  My other hero, by contrast, was John Lennon, whose life ended  in healty life’s prime at 40 due to a crazed fan confused by “Catcher in the Rye.” (Weren’t we all?)

But Ali was always there, a man I respected, loved even, who had made plenty of mistakes in his life, but fessed up and bounced back until he could bounce no more. He could hardly even walk.

I don’t feel eloquent today.  And it depresses me that most of my clips of the coverage from sparring to weigh-in to the fight itself and the after-parties disappeared in the May 2010 flood that consumed my office and most of my written memories. But nothing could steal those in my head.

Because I won many honors for one piece of my coverage, a column I hope you’ll stick around to read (see it below), I still had a Xeroxed (yep, a real Xeroxed) copy of it in my short stack of favorite “resume” writings that remained dry, a few feet above the water six years ago.

I am too tired to write much more about him, and the clips on TV tell the story better anyway. Skip the Will Smith movie and watch the real thing, the clips of “The Thrilla in Manila” – featuring Ali and Joe Frazier in the most brutally beautiful of all prize fights. Or perhaps watch the guy from the George Foreman Grills commercials get “Rope-a-Doped” in Zaire during “The Rumble in the Jungle.”    

Sure, I’m a man of peace who stood proudly against war.  Sure, as my pal Kristofferson would say “Tim, you’re a walking contradiction.” But I relished in the ring exploits of Muhammad Ali.  And I’ll never forget his personal kindness to me.

Here’s a farewell to the fight and my time in New Orleans that I composed on a steamy Sunday, at a table in the French Quarter over chickory coffee before my mid-afternoon flight back to Nashville’s ancient Berry Field.

Thanks for making it this far and read on if you wish:
Ali and me ….
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, September 1978 --
“Ali … Ali  … Ali… Ali …”
There is something unbelievably exciting about being surrounded by 70,000 people exploding in unison with one magic word over and over again.

Of course that is just what happened Friday night when the main act in a four-day circus in New Orleans took place in the center ring beneath the biggest big-top of them all – the Louisiana Superdome.

Everybody was in town for the final performance of “Muhammad Ali’s Traveling Circus and Magic Show.” No matter who you talked to – bartenders, jazz musicians, cab drivers – they were all going to the Ali-Leon Spinks rematch.

The airports had been busy for days prior to the fight. Cabs were almost impossible to come by.

The jazz throbbed long and loud on Bourbon Street. The beer flowed freely.

People wandered the streets all night long. Folks from Tunisia, India, South Africa and Hollywood and, of course, the mob, had made the pilgrimage.

All of the excitement could have easily turned to violence and tragedy.

“It’s insanity,” said one of the nation’s top boxing writers of the crowd which had paid $200 per seat to witness the fights from the main floor of the Superdome Friday.

The reporter had left his cherished ringside seat to join the bulk of the working press up in the press box.

“It’s uncontrollable down there,” he said, shaking his head. “People are drinking and shoving and yelling at one another. There’s not usher one down there. No one can see!”

The first true indication that there was a little “insanity” in the air came during Thursday’s heavyweight weigh-in in the Grand Ballroom of the New Orleans Hilton. The ballroom has a seating capacity of 400. An estimated 3,500 pushed into the session which was to have been for members of the press only.

The crowd pushed its way onto the stage where the weighing was taking place.The stage nearly collapsed.

The weigh-in incident cause a rift between co-promoters Top Rank and Louisiana Sports Inc. The charges and counter-charges floating around did little alleviate the tension in the air.

While the nation was watching some pretty fine boxing on television, the press and the crowd in the Superdome were treated to many, many other fights in the crowd.

Though there was quite a bit of security, it was pretty slack. Many of us in the press were wondering just what would happen if the obvious crowd favorite, Ali, lost. It could have been incredibly tragic.

After the evening’s fight card was concluded, thousands flocked to the Hilton, where a “Championship Extravaganza” featuring Isaac Hayes as the entertainment and the fighters as scheduled special guests was to be held.

A little thing like the loss of the heavyweight championship of the world did not keep Leon “Disco” Spinks off the dance floor.  However, he was the only boxer to spend much time at the extravaganza. Ali did not attend at all.

But most of the people who flocked in the Hilton did not have tickets ($75 per person) for the extravaganza – which was in the same Grand Ballroom as the weigh-in.

People who attended the bash came out and tried to peddle their torn ticket stubs to members of the flashily-dressed throng outside the entrance to the ballroom.

Others tried to rush the gate.

Police officers wielding nightsticks came in on at least one occasion to try to help control the crowd.

“I wouldn’t go in there,” said one woman, who was working the ticket gate.

The extravaganza went on well into the night. In fact, the first member of Ali’s “family” to arrive –noted comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory – finally came to the Hilton at 3:30 a.m.

But the way the people filled the streets outside it seemed like it should be just the middle of the afternoon. The situation in the French Quarter a few blocks away was similar.

It was Mardi Gras in September. Both Friday and Saturday nights the celebrating on Bourbon Street and surrounding area was in full gear. The crowd nearly filled the entire street.

Jazz blared out of some clubs, while barkers tried to coax the celebrants into other clubs offering such specialties as “topless and bottomless tabletop dancing.”

Fans – drinks in hand – each made it from oyster bar to beer joint to Dixieland hall. Many folks danced in the streets.

Bourbon Street finally calmed down Sunday. By the time the early afternoon sun began baking the city, most of the fans and the press were finally packing up and leaving.

A little jazz played at one or two of the bars, while sleepy Ali fans did some last-minute souvenir hunting.
(Ali himself left New Orleans Sunday for his home in Chicago.)

The only thing left of the previous few nights of revelry was the overwhelming stench caused by the hot sun baking the stale beer and rotting food in the streets.

The circus was over. It was time to go home.


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