In honor of the passing of “The Greatest,” the following is a short excerpt from my book Muhammad Ali Retrospective (Boffo Socko Books, 2016):
It is Muhammad Ali Day in New York City and the Champ is talking about his plan to fight his two most formidable ring rivals, George Foreman and Joe Frazier, one right after the other on the same night. It is a joyously demented scheme. When I ask my friend Nick Storoff, one of the most experienced and knowledgeable boxing writers in the City, whether there is even a remote possibility he is serious about going ahead with the stunt, Nick says, “Unequivocally, absolutely, irrevocably no. He’ll never do that.” “Never?” I inquire. “Never,” comes the reply, “And I’ll be saying that right up to the night of the fight. The guy has done so many incredible things. You just never know with Ali.”
At least the plan answers the question of what, after going to Africa, whupping George Foreman, regaining his crown and earning five million dollars, Ali could do for an encore. So I am encouraged to ask, “Champ, have you ever considered fighting Foreman and Frazier in alternate rounds?” “Noooooo,” replies Ali, turning the idea over and over in his mysterious mind, “I don’t think it would work.” Then suddenly he leaps toward me, grabbing the lapels of my raincoat with a startling deftness and a touch so light I am immediately assured he’s not serious. “Hey, Man, are you trying to be funny or something?”
Is the con-man afraid he is being conned?
“No, Champ,” I assured him, “I’m serious.” But of course all the time I’m trying to persuade him I’m serious, I’m laughing and laughing.
Back on the press bus going to Rikers Island, Nick tells my story to the other reporters with considerable relish. While I enjoy the attention, I also understand that as a communication, my first encounter with Ali was a failure. For his response, while delightful, foreclosed the possibility of further consideration of an interesting idea with which Ali was, for a moment, intrigued.
“Nice campus,” grunts a grizzled veteran boxing photographer as the bus pulls into the front gate of the Rikers Island Adolescent Remand Center. The reporters guffaw. The place does look like a community college, except for the barbed-wire fence, windows with bars and the fact that the site is located on the glide path into nearby LaGuardia Airport.
Louis Farrakahn, Muslim Minister, a slick and smiling man in a black fez and sunglasses, introduces Muhammad Ali to the inmates. The Champ emerges from behind a curtain and strides to the podium as the prisoners roar. And while the substance of his talk could be construed as cruel (in its vivid evocation of what it’s like to be in jail – a feeling the inmates know far better than Ali and presumably don’t need to be reminded of), the fact is that Ali, and only Ali, can lay it on the line and get away with telling the inmates they’re fools for landing in jail.
Here is how Nick Storoff described the scene in his newspaper column the next day: “Ali lifted his hand and there was quiet. And when he began absolutely seriously, by saying, ‘I want to thank all of you for coming here today.’ the inmates broke up, the laughter rolling at him in waves he rode deftly back to them. ‘Somebody told me you couldn’t help it!’ he said, and this time he was laughing with them . . . Soon he was telling them the kind of things a podium is good protection for . . . ‘Ask yourself – was it worth all this, what you did to get in here? You think you’ll never get caught. But why are we in here if we never get caught? Way before you there were bad cats, Al Capone and Dillinger, and for some reason they never won either. Life is too short to spend in a place like this . . . You wake up in the morning and you ‘re in jail. Nothing to do but wait for sleep and then sleep comes and you wake up the next morning and you’re still in jail. You can’t get in your car and drive anyplace you want. Can’t eat the food you like. Can’t get out, run around, take a jog in the park or be with your loved ones, a wife or girlfriend. Don’t spend your life in no jail. What could you get that could be worth all this? Ten million dollars – and I know you didn’t get no ten million dollars – Ten million dollars ain’t worth two years in jail.”
Yet Ali’s rap is filled with contradictions. After trying to sell the inmates on good behavior he calls himself a bad cat and issues a challenge to the baddest cats in the hall. He asks where the bad guys are and the entire audience hollers, “Here!” “Now who’s the baddest?” says Ali and several hands go up. “See that little Dude over there?” Ali responds, pointing to one of the inmates, “He’s not bad, he’s crazy!”
His contradictory message is clearly confusing to many in his young audience. Sometimes the prisoners think Ali is kidding and he is constrained to tell them to “Listen good, ’cause I’m being serious.” Other times, Ali is plainly joking and putting them on, but the kids take it seriously. How does he feel and what does he really think?
With his serious rap out of the way, Ali climbs down from the stage to jive with a prisoner rock band. They slam into a blazing boogaloo and Ali does the shuffle, shadowboxing in time to the music. The crowd roars, chanting, ” Ali, Ali, Ali” on the beat of the drum.
Then Ali returns to the podium to talk about his boxing plans, including his scheme to fight Foreman and Frazier on the same night. Ali uses his body and hands as he talks. When he mentions Joe Frazier, he evokes him by impersonation. When he mentions driving a car, his hands move up to take the wheel. It is extremely intriguing and I suddenly realize that for the past fifteen minutes I have not given a thought to notes, pictures, the tape recorder or anything else related to reporting the event. I’m mesmerized and can’t think of anything but enjoying the rapid-fire poems, jokes, riddles, boasts, insults and stories.
“How many of you inmates would like to see me fight Foreman and Frazier on the same night?” “RAYYYYYYYYYY!!!!” “How many wouldn’t?” A few hands were raised. “You see those guys? Look at ’em. And when I leave, git ’em and whup ’em!”
Ali finishes and is accorded a standing ovation. As he strides down a corridor leading out of the building, he is stopped by two City officials who ask him to pose for a picture. Ali lines them up, a $40,000-a-year Commissioner on each flank. Suddenly the men notice Ali has leaned his arms on their shoulders and is now curling a huge fist in their faces. The men squirm with discomfort and the Champ mugs, the flashbulbs pop and Ali laughs and walks away. Perfect!
Moving down the hallway, he jumps into the secretarial pool to deliver some kisses and hugs, closing the door on the press saying, “See you later fellas.” The ladies are still squealing as Ali walks back into the sunlight, dabbing a smudge of vermilion lipstick from his cheek. The secretaries still chatter with surprise and delight. Muhammad Ali knows how to make people happy.
But inevitably there is another side to all this. For at the conclusion of his lecture, Ali said, “Where’s the warden? I want to see the warden.” In response, a middle-aged Black man in a Department of Corrections uniform, smiling, clearly excited (thinking, perhaps, that this was his moment in the sun with a Black champion he, too, admired), came forward. Ali looked him over with disdain, turned to the audience and recited:
“While the body of the prisoners are in captivity,
the mind of the warden is in prison.”
The prisoners howled their approval and the warden looked crushed beyond consolation. So Muhammad Ali knows how to hurt people, too. So much complexity. So much contradiction. What does he truly think and how does he really feel? I’ve got some ideas, but like Nick Storoff says, “You can never know for sure with Ali.”
Want to read more? Muhammad Ali Retrospective is now available as an ebook on Amazon for just $4.99 or for free if you’re a Kindle Unlimited Subscriber. Not a subscriber? Join Amazon Kindle Unlimited with a 30-Day Free Trial.