Saturday, June 4, 2016

Muhammad Ali, Pugilist and . . . Pundit?

Acel Moore, a fellow editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, dropped by my office one day in the late 70s to ask if I’d be interested in publishing a column by Muhammad Ali.  He said that a longtime friend, a Philadelphian who was in Ali’s inner circle, had proposed the idea to him.

“Let’s talk,” I said.

The feature content of the Inquirer was among my responsibilities, and a regular column by the most recognizable human being in the world would sell a lot of newspapers, perhaps even win the circulation war with the Philadelphia Bulletin.

Although I urged them to bring him with them, the Ali negotiating team arrived without The Champ.  I had hoped to be able to judge in person how serious Ali was about becoming a newspaper columnist. His delegation assured me that he was enthusiastic, had even come up with the idea himself.  “He wants a forum,” they said, “to get his message to as many people as possible.”

If the column came to be, I told them, major syndicates would be bidding to distribute it worldwide.  I also had heard that Ali — once banned from boxing because he refused to be drafted for the Vietnam war — was strapped for money.  I think he envisioned the newspaper column as a big payday —  probably a bigger one than the Inquirer alone could afford.  I was thinking of a partnership with a syndicate.

“What would the column be about?” I asked Ali’s contingent.

“All the big issues of the day,” came the reply.  “Ali has a lot to say about what’s going on in the world. He would pull no punches, you can be sure.”

“Who would be his ghost writer?” I asked.

“He would write it himself.  He would not trust a ghost writer.”

“Do you have any sample columns?”


“Bring me some and we’ll continue these discussions.”

They never came back,  I understand they took the proposal to a major syndicate but couldn’t reach a financial agreement.

When Ali refused to be drafted, he wrote:

“Newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand: either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative and that alternative is justice. If justice prevails, if my Constitutional rights are upheld, I will be forced to go neither to the Army nor jail. In the end I am confident that justice will come my way for the truth must eventually prevail.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of  my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what?"

He was the poet laureate of pugilism: 

--“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”

--“I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”  

--“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and got into bed before the room was dark.”

On TV one time, David Frost asked him, what would you like people to think about you when you’re gone?

Ali replied:

I’d like for them to say:
He took a few cups of love.
He took one tablespoon of patience,
One teaspoon of generosity,
One pint of kindness.
He took one quart of laughter,
One pinch of concern.
And then, he mixed willingness with happiness.
He added lots of faith,
And he stirred it up well.
Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime,
And he served it to each and every deserving person he met.

Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Marcellus Clay), The Greatest, is dead at 74.

If I’d had my wits about me his obituaries might also say that his newspaper columns were read by millions around the world.  He had something to say, after all,  and he pulled no punches.

1 comment:

  1. I remember my encounter with Ali in Detroit

    An editor at The Detroit News assigned me to cover Ali's visit to the Detroit jail.

    Ali shuffled in, mumbling things so softly I could't hear them. I jumped in the elevator with him and his entourage and we were soon standing in a small, stifling hot cell with five men in it.

    Ali handed them each a pamphlet about Islam. And even though I was standing right behind Ali, I still couldn't hear what he said.

    I had yet to grab a single quote for my reporter's notebook. But did it matter? Was Ali saying anything quotable? I was forewarned about his Parkinson's disease. And all those rope-a-dope blows he took! Maybe there was nobody home. Right?

    When Ali turned around to leave the cell, I stepped in to the space where he'd been standing to interview the five men. What did Ali say to them? What did they know about him? What did it mean to them for him to make the effort to come see them?

    I was earnestly trying to get out my questions and attentively jot down their replies but the sound of a big dry-winged bug was whirring near my ear. Thinking it might be a big moth, I swatted at the air around my ear to drive it off. I went back to interviewing the men -- but there it was again! The dry rustling of wings in my ear! Again I swatted. But this time I also whirled around to see what it was.

    And found myself nose to nose, looking into the sparkling eyes of the greatest fighter who ever lived. He had the most fantastic, tricksterish grin!

    There was DEFINITELY somebody home!

    (I read later that he loved playing tricks on people and the one he played on me he'd picked up during his travels in Africa. The fluttering wings in my ear was the sound of Ali quickly rubbing four finger tips against his thumb.)