In the spring of 1973, I am walking down 16th and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia when I see a crowd across the street gathering around someone. My first thought was that somebody jumped off one of the buildings. When I got to the other side of the street, I saw an old man who looked like that Algonquin J. Calhoun character from the Amos ‘n Andy television show with glasses and a white hat pointing his skinny finger at none other than Muhammad Ali!
I knew Ali had moved out of the Overbrook section of the city and was residing in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, but never thought that I would run into him. He had just recently lost a decision to Ken Norton and still had his broken jaw wired. Only Ali could have still been able to talk up a storm under these conditions. The old man admonished Ali about his performance against Norton. “Next time you fight Norton, be a man, not a boy!” As a hush fell over the crowd, Ali replied, “Did you call me Roy?” The entire group screamed with laughter, except for the old man who looked around for some support, of which he had none. Again the old man said, “Be a man, not a boy!” Ali came back with another retort. “Play with him like a toy?” With that, even the old man joined us in laughter!
Two weeks later, after seeing a picture of Ali’s house in New Jersey, I ventured over to Cherry Hill seeking to find him. Near the Cherry Hill Arena, I was able to locate his residence. I boldly went up and knocked on the door. To my surprise, his second wife Belinda appeared. I said, “Can I talk to the champ?” She said “Just a minute” and closed the door. No security, no nothing. The door opened again and I entered the vestibule. On the wall was a Muslim flag, a plaque from the Cherry Hill Little League thanking him for his contributions, and a picture of a horse from Louisville, Kentucky where Ali was born.
I followed Belinda to the next room and there he was as big as life. Ali said, “What you want?” With that devilish grin of his staring me in the face, I said, “Why didn’t you give Doug Jones and Ron Lyle a rematch?” Before he had a chance to answer, I nervously followed with another question. “Didn’t your stable mate Luis Rodriguez (former welterweight champion) teach you everything you know?” He laughed and said, “What you talking about boy? Nobody had to teach me nothing!” He then motioned for me to sit on the sofa and in came New York’s Bobby Goodman with his son, Bobby, Jr. joining us. After that, I didn’t stick around much longer.
Over four years passed and in August 1977, I got another opportunity to visit him at his Deer Lake, Pennsylvania training camp. After his workout, I was able to gather with others in his dressing room and sit next to him for a question. Having handed my camera to one of his employees Bucko Kilroy for a picture together with Ali, I asked, “Why you fighting all these bums?” It is the only time I have ever seen Ali speechless. He gave me that “What you talkin’ about Willis” look. Kilroy snapped the unforgettable picture and said, “Joe Louis fought a Bum of the Month Club.” I replied, “Hell, he fought Chuck Wepner, didn’t he?” (In defense of Wepner, I recently discovered he was 81-0 as a NY Golden Gloves champ and did give Ali a good fight.) I got my camera back and out I went all smiles.
In May 1980, he was just back in camp at Deer Lake preparing for the Holmes fight. He was so overweight, I asked, “Why you fighting Holmes? Look at the shape you’re in. You and Max Bear had two of the greatest builds.” Patting his blown up stomach, Ali said, “I like my ice cream.” After his workout, he was sitting on a leather sofa in the gym next to someone, so I sat on the sofa across from them. He asked, “What you doin’ up here?” I said, “I’m going to the fights in Scranton tonight. Art you going?” Ali asked, “Who’s fighting?” I said, “An Italian kid from outside of Philly named Marty Capasso and a New York fighter named Ali Allen.” I can still hear him saying “Ali? Ali?” in a loud drawn out voice as if to say there is only one Ali and that’s me. Then Ali asked, “Where you from boy?” I said, “A small town called Lafayette Hill.” The guy sitting next to him whispered something in Ali’s ear. Ali gave me this wide eyed look and started to get up off the sofa towards me as the other guy grabs him. Ali declared, “Hold me back! That’s where Frazier is from!” I started laughing and so did they.
Ali did a magic trick for the many fans in the gym that day. They would come up in bus loads. You could even bring your mother to that kind of environment. No swearing. No loud music. Standing behind Ali to the side as he talked to the people, I could see what looked like a small black stick or pen in his closed fist. All of a sudden, he snapped his wrist and a magic wand appeared out of nowhere about a foot long. Ali then screamed out, “You Holmes fans! Can’t say I had it up my sleeve, for I don’t even have a shirt on. You tell Holmes how fast I still am!”
Another story that I was not a part of, but my good friend Joe Shannon, who was a former boxer and referee, told me this. While Ali was not allowed to fight professionally after he refused to enter the military during the Vietnam War, he did a couple of exhibitions. One was up in a high school gym in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He was sparring when all of a sudden a loud remark came from the top row of the gym. The heckler shouted, “You slacker! You should have gone in the Army!” A hush fell over the crowd. Suddenly, Ali put his hand up for his sparring partner to stop. A microphone was hanging from the ceiling within Ali’s grasp.
Ali reached up and pulled the microphone down and said, “When I was a young boy growing up in Louisville, we had a horse farm. This mule would come over and bother our horses. So, one day, I picked up this big rock and killed that mule.” Ali then turned in the direction of the heckler and pointed at him and screamed, “And there is that jackass today back to haunt me!” The crowd was in an uproar of laughter as the heckler hung his head. My friend Shannon said, “I have never seen anyone turn a crowd around so fast.”
Finally, rumor has it that two black gangs were fighting each other in Newark, New Jersey one afternoon as Ali’s limousine pulled up. As Ali got out of the limo and looked towards them, the gang fighting all of a sudden stopped. The gang members ran over to Ali. That’s the kind of influence Ali had. Whether you liked him or not, he left you laughing!