As this column is posted — noon CT Friday, June 10, 2016 — the funeral procession of Muhammad Ali is being televised live around the world with full coverage planned for his memorial service this afternoon, an occurrence usually reserved for heads of state.
Ali left an indelible mark on the world, Mississippi included. Those of my vintage grew up with him. At times, we didn’t know what to make of him. This much is certain: He made our lives infinitely more interesting.
Early on, you either loved him or hated him. There was no middle ground. I was a fan. There was just something about him. Even when I tried not to like him, I liked him more.
I was 18 when I drove from Hattiesburg to Jackson in 1971 for the first Joe Frazier fight — the so-called “Fight of the Century” — shown on closed circuit at Mississippi Coliseum. The place was packed and the atmosphere was festive. And then, for the first several rounds, the video didn’t work. Festive turned into ugly until, finally, we got a picture and saw Frazier, brutally beaten himself, win a decision.
I watched all three of those Frazier fights on closed circuit. Boxing has never been more compelling.
On the morning of Sept. 15, 1978, I awakened in my second floor apartment in Monroe, La., and looked outside. My Toyota was floating down the street, the result of the Ouachita River flooding its banks. So it was that I hitchhiked a ride in a passing boat, to get to higher ground and rent a car to drive to New Orleans that night to see Ali win back the heavyweight title from Leon Spinks in the Superdome. By then, he was not the Ali of old. He possessed not nearly the power in his punches there had been before. But he had enough ring savvy to whip Leon. (I sat ringside, right beside future champ Larry Holmes, who rooted openly for Ali.)
Where Ali is concerned, there are so many Mississippi connections, including that Lucian “Sonny” Banks, a Tupelo area native, was the first professional fighter to knock him down in Ali’s 10th professional fight. Ali got up after the first round knockdown and took over the fight, winning by TKO in the fourth round, just as he had predicted. (Banks died three years later from injuries suffered in a bout with Leotis Martin.)
(Read more on Ali’s ties to Mississippi at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame site.)
Shortly after defeating Spinks, Ali came to Mississippi to make a forgettable movie, Freedom Road, with Kris Kristofferson. Then-Natchez mayor Tony Byrne remembers:
“You know, I was convinced I wasn’t going to like him,” Byrne says. “Then, he got here and he just charmed everyone including me. Ali was a big hit in Natchez.
“There was concern at the time that the Ku Klux Klan was going to try to kill him. We called the governor’s office – it was Cliff Finch, at the time — to try and set up an escort from the Louisiana line. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen and our sheriff’s office provided the escort.
“There was no protecting Ali, really,” Byrne continued. “He wanted to be out in the open, mingling with the people. He would stop school buses and get on and do magic tricks. The people here, black and white, absolutely loved him.”
Byrne said Ali told him all his bragging before fights — and his clowning in the ring — were patterned after the wrestler Gorgeous George. Ali attended some of Gorgeous George’s matches as a child in Louisville and saw how people loved to hate him but paid big money to see him.
“Ali told me Gorgeous George was making $1,000 a match while the guy he was wrestling was making $100,” Byrne said. “He said that stuck with him.”
Former Mississippi State and NFL football standout Tyrone Keys, a Jackson native, had breakfast with Ali when the champ visited Mississippi State in the fall of 1978, taking a break from the Natchez movie.
“Just me and him,” Keys said. “He made me feel like one of his pals. He knew I was a football player with some pro potential. He talked to me about the challenges of fame and relationships.”
Five years later, Keys was in Los Angeles and pulled up to a restaurant on a rainy morning for breakfast.
“It was raining so hard, I was going to get soaked,” Keys said. “Then I see this guy coming towards my car with his umbrella. I said to myself, ‘That looks like Muhammad Ali.’ It was him. He came right to my door and said, ‘I saw you pull up and didn’t want you to get wet.’”
Keys got out and re-introduced himself to Ali. They went in the restaurant and again had breakfast.
What are the odds? A rainy morning in L.A.? Ali and Keys arriving at the same restaurant at the same time in a city of 3.4 million?
“That was right at the time the first medical report had come out about Ali’s injuries and the Parkinson’s,” Keys said. “He talked about it openly. I’ll never forget, he asked me what I thought. He asked me if I could tell.”
At the time, Keys could not.
But as we all know Ali’s physical condition worsened with each passing year. Yet, he would still provide this writer with one last thrill.
It was the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. I was covering for The Clarion-Ledger. Many of us in the press box were trying to guess what U.S. Olympian would light the flame. My money was on Muhammad Ali. I just didn’t know if he could physically light the flame.
It was a struggle, but he did. And, 20 years later, when I think of that moment, I still get chills.
Rick Cleveland writes a weekly sports column running Fridays at Mississippitoday.org.