The New York Times sportswriter covered more than half of Ali’s fights. Upon Ali’s death Friday night at age 74, he wrote:
“Whenever people asked you about him lately, you always preferred to tell them what he was like in all those years when you covered 32 of his fights, what he was like when he really was Muhammad Ali.
“To go back to the beginning, you told them what he was like the first time you met him, when he was Cassius Clay in the days before he won a disputed decision over Doug Jones in 1963 at the old Madison Square Garden and you were in his midtown hotel room.
“ ‘Stand up and put your hands up like a boxer,’ ” he ordered, circling and then flicking his left jab inches from your chin as you blinked. “ ‘Pop, pop, pop. Ain’t never been a heavyweight fast as me.’ ”
As part of the Ali team, Arum became arguably the most powerful promoter in boxing. A half-century later he’s still promoting fights at the age of 84.
“We were on this adventure crusade together,” said Arum, who promoted 26 of Ali’s 61 fights. “It was always an adventure with Ali.”
Ali would partner up with just about anyone, strange bedfellows though they might be. That included the Beatles when they came to Miami to do “The Ed Sullivan Show” and ended up with Ali in a room above his training gym.
“Come on, Beatles, let’s go make some money!” Ali yelled out.
They ended up in a bizarre cross-promotion in the ring, with the Beatles lying down as if they were knocked out and Ali standing over them. The pictures are now iconic.
Paul McCartney, one of few humans whose worldwide popularity could match Ali’s, wrote in a statement posted on his website: “I loved that man. … Besides being the greatest boxer, he was a beautiful, gentle man with a great sense of humour.”
The football legend and the boxer, two transcendent American sports icons, were fiercely loyal friends. Not only were they connected by their athletic greatness, Ali and Brown shared a social conscience and passion to see justice for all.
“He represented what a man should be in an America that’s free because he made people accept him as a man, as an equal, and he was not afraid to represent himself in that way,” the 80-year-old Brown told the Associated Press on Saturday night. “That’s what I loved about him. He could have definitely played it a different way.”
During Ali’s years exiled from the boxing ring in the late 1960s, he found refuge on the South Side of Chicago. It was there, according to those who knew him best, that the transformation from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali took shape.
“The most crucial time of his life was in Chicago,” said Camacho-Ali, a suburban Chicago native who became Ali’s first wife in 1967 at the age of 17. “These exile years were tough for him. He was growing and learning more about the religion [Islam]. He was learning about life. All of this was during the struggle of the civil rights period, and he saw the rise of racism and the effect of racism on him.”
Cosell latched onto Ali early and rode him into television stardom. Long before he was ever considered for “Monday Night Football,” Cosell was a local announcer in New York who covered Ali’s fights and famously defended him when he was banned from boxing for evading the draft.
Ali and Cosell would play off each other like a finely tuned comedy team, and Ali was not afraid to tug on Cosell’s toupee on TV, much to his consternation.
“You’re being extremely truculent,” Cosell told Ali during one interview.
“Whatever truculent means, if that’s good, I’m that,” Ali replied.
Ali sought out the Miami trainer when he was still an amateur, and their relationship lasted until the fighter’s retirement 21 years later.
Dundee’s greatest asset may have been that he never tried to change Ali and was loyal to him through good times and bad.
In Ali’s first victory over Sonny Liston, Ali felt something burning in his eyes and came back to the corner after the fourth round ordering Dundee to cut the gloves off so he could quit.
Dundee refused, and talked Ali through the round.
“Those were the best, purest years of his life,” Dundee once said. “He was such a sweet kid. I had so much fun with him. That’s what I learned from Muhammad: Every day is fun.”
Foreman, Ali, Joe Frazier. The names roll off the tongue like they were made to be together.
They’ve been linked together now for nearly a half-century, united by the special bond created when two men step into the ring. Enemies, rivals and sometimes friends, they fought in a golden era for heavyweights.
When Foreman woke up Saturday, it was with the unsettling knowledge that he was the only one left.
“We were like one guy,” Foreman said. “But this morning I realized that the greatest piece of us all was Muhammad Ali.”
When Lieberman joined the coaching staff of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings a year ago, the second call she made was to Ali and his wife, Lonnie.
Their relationship, as Lieberman likes to say, was a most improbable friendship. She was a basketball-crazed Jewish girl from Brooklyn; Ali was arguably the most charismatic and influential sports figure of the 20th century. The two met at a joint appearance for former Olympians at the New York Stock Exchange in 1979.
“I didn’t know the other Olympian was going to be Muhammad,” she said Saturday. “When I walked into the room, I couldn’t breathe. I mean, Muhammad Ali, this man changed my life. When people said I was stupid, asking why I was hanging out with black kids, why I couldn’t be more like my brother, who was a very good student, Muhammad told me to believe in what I was doing. He said, ‘We’re going to do things that are different. People can’t see it.’ ’’
Ali was 12 when his bicycle was stolen in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. He reported the theft to police Officer Joe Martin, who ran a boxing gym. When Cassius boasted what he would do to the thief, Martin suggested he first learn how to punch properly.
Martin, who was white, trained Ali for six years, although historical revisionism later gave more credit to Fred Stoner, a black trainer. It was Martin who persuaded Clay to go to Rome with the 1960 Olympic team despite his almost pathological fear of flying.
Obama keeps a pair of boxing gloves worn by Ali underneath a photograph of the young heavyweight champion standing over defeated Sonny Liston in 1964.
Obama said he was too young to understand the brash fighter when that picture was taken. He said over time that he came to understand that Ali was more than a skilled fighter or “poet on the mic.” Rather, Ali was a man who “who fought for us,” Obama said.
“He wasn’t perfect, of course. For all his magic in the ring, he could be careless with his words, and full of contradictions as his faith evolved,” Obama said in a statement with first lady Michelle Obama. “But his wonderful, infectious, even innocent spirit ultimately won him more fans than foes — maybe because in him, we hoped to see something of ourselves.”
Ali’s longtime physician quit the champ’s corner in 1977 because Ali refused to hang up his gloves despite early symptoms of Parkinson’s. Then Ali sustained further neurological damage in his last two fights, when he was pummeled by Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick.
“That was criminal,” Pacheco said, blaming the “Ali circus” for allowing him to fight. “I told him a long time ago that he would suffer. To be a great talker like he was, to lose your power of speech is very, very hard.”
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 44, three years after his 1981 retirement.
Pacheco said Ali’s heart was as good as it was strong.
“Ali was no intellectual, but he had an intuition that was eerie,” Pacheco said. “He did things wrong and they came out right.”