Muhammad Ali Blast From The Past

Where do you begin a story like this, one that unfolded 41 years ago, faraway, a generation before many folks who’ll read it were born?

I suppose the best place to start is with “The Thrilla in Manila,” which I watched with friends and colleagues on a closed-circuit broadcast in an old Wilmington, Del., theater not unlike the Garden, the Calvin or the old Victoria on Chapman Street? The difference was that the crowds I grew up with in those local theaters were white. Not so in angry Wilmington — still smarting from race riots of the late Sixties — where for the first time in my life, the five of us were the only white folks in a packed house, the male fight crowd leaning heavily in favor of Philadelphia favorite son Joe Frazier over Muhammad Ali, the “Louisville Lip” from the land of Daniel Boone in Kentucky.

We felt confident Ali was going to put away ‘Smokin’ Joe’ early as he dominated the early rounds. But then the tide turned when a fearless, determined Frazier started boring in, attacking Ali on the inside. Throwing caution to the wind, the bullish Philly meat-packing-house brute just kept coming, and hurt Ali with punishing body blows and occasional stiff shots to the head. The pro-Frazier crowd was eating it up and Ali looked vulnerable indeed, maybe even on his last leg and ready to fall by the 12th round. But then “The Greatest” dug into his deepest reservoir of athletic pride and will and rebounded to finish the fight by TKO when Frazier, wobbly and blinded by eyes swollen to slits, could not answer the 15th-round bell.

“What a fight,” friend, teammate, roommate and traveling companion Chip Baye from Northampton and I marveled to each other for weeks, having been there to watch the ebbs and flows. Ali’s fierce competitiveness had once again prevailed under duress in front of that hostile crowd watching in living color on the big screen.

After that epic fight, stunned that he had lost, a bemused Frazier lamented to writers that he had hit Ali with shots that could have brought down the walls of a city but he wouldn’t buckle. He wasn’t exaggerating. Ali himself admitted not far from the showers that he had, down the stretch, been as close to death as a man can get without actually dying.

That fight for the ages was fought on Oct. 1, 1975, and we remained in Delaware for a couple of weeks to complete a deal for the New Castle County Police before heading for Columbus, Ohio. The trip by car took us down the long, steep hill to Wheeling, W. Va., over the bridge, and up the steep hill on the other side as Wheeling disappeared in the rearview. The six-week fundraising gig we were headed to would be our last deal of the year before heading home for Christmas and New Year’s 1976.

Our Columbus mission was to raise money for a floundering Police Athletic League boxing program headquartered at the brick, Mt. Vernon St. gym located in the heart of the ghetto. That gym, torn down for a grocery store at the corner of Mt. Vernon and 22nd Street, stood in an urban neighborhood that had produced two-time Ohio State University Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, a storied Woody Hayes running back who played but never really made it in the NFL, as well as prizefighter “Dynamite Bill Douglas,” a professional light-heavyweight contender and headliner of the 12-bout card we would promote. The fundraising bouts were scheduled for a couple of days before Christmas at the Ohio State Fairground’s storied Lausche Building, home of many previous fights.

Our temporary boiler-room sales office was set up in a conference room west of the dusty gym, where we had 12 or 14 phones installed on rented tables. As I recall, we entered the gym daily by climbing a flight of outdoor cement stairs to a sturdy door entering the southwest corner of the building. Once inside, we’d walk along the gym’s west wall past the corner office of Columbus Police Sgt. Richard Hoover, who ran the gym and had deep affection for boxing coach Roy Houpe, a man who had risen to boxing glory there through the Golden Gloves program before getting into trouble with the law for a crime of sudden anger involving another man. Word around the gym was that Hoover and others had spoken on behalf of the Columbus boxing legend to spring him from jail so that he could teach Columbus kids from a city’s toughest neighborhood to box.

My friend and I got to know Houpe, his warm brown eyes and welcoming smile, by working in the same space for six weeks, often reaching out to the man to talk and learn some tricks of his trade. He told us where to go for lunch and where to shoot pool, but more than anything else, he loved to talk and teach boxing, imploring us often “to stick around after work. I’ll put you on the program, work you out and have you in the ring before you leave.” Although we never took him up on that offer, we did dabble a little here and there under his tutelage.

Early on, one evening after work, we were pounding away for ha-has at speed bags when Houpe approached to chat. We were talking about boxing and training and jumping rope when I mentioned Muhammad Ali as a hero. That’s when we learned that he knew Ali personally, having traveled the same Golden Gloves circuit as a boy before becoming AAU and Pan-Am Games teammates. In 1959, Houpe and Cassius Clay were national AAU champions at their weight classes. When our conversation turned to the recent Thrilla and the fortitude Ali had displayed to win that landmark fight, Houpe was not the least bit surprised. He had seen Ali fight since he was a boy and said that everyone who had been around him knew he was an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime fighter among elites.

Speaking of the Pan-Am Games competition of 1959, he praised his precocious friend with wide, reverent eyes, saying, “He was a boy beating grown men.” Those warm, soft brown eyes said it all. The man was in awe. The Ali he knew was superhuman. A god. A boxing deity. A legend. But that ability to rise above overwhelming odds to beat opponents the public believed he had no business beating only continued in the professional ring, particularly when Ali twice beat the unmerciful bully Sonny Listen. Especially in that first Clay-Liston bout that earned Ali his first world championship, the man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee was indeed a boy fighting a dangerous man … and defeating him decisively.

Our discussion then turned to Ali’s title fight against champion George Foreman about a year before the Thrilla. I told Houpe that before the fight I was worried that Ali might get hurt badly. The source of my concern was television footage I had seen of Foreman working out before the fight by hitting a heavy bag held from behind by a 200-plus-pound trainer. Each Foreman blow was lifting the trainer back off his feet and I sensed danger. Then, during that epic “Rumble in the Jungle,” in Zaire, Ali defied logic by laying back on the ropes for seven rounds of “rope-a-dope” punishment from Foreman. Then, having absorbed the pounding and tired Foreman, he came off the ropes and dropped the champion with a flurry of well-placed blows late in the eight round. No one could believe what they had just witnessed. Such a strategy was unimaginable to the pre-fight pundits who gave Ali no chance of beating a younger, bigger, stronger Foreman, a champion who had won the title by pummeling Frazier in a short fight.

“Have you ever hit a heavy bag?” Houpe asked, pointing to one hanging from a metal ceiling frame nearby.

I hadn’t.

“Well, give it a shot,” he challenged, trying to prove a point I didn’t suspect.

I walked to the bag, hit it with a hard uppercut and felt like I may have broken my wrist without moving the bag more than an inch or two. I shook my hand a bit, looked down at it and Houpe smiled, then grunted out a little friendly chuckle.

“You can’t hit a heavy bag like that,” he scolded. “It’s too heavy to hit with your fist. You have to drive your shoulder and body through it or it will hurt you.”

I knew than that the rope-a-dope punishment Ali had endured from Foreman was much more severe than I had imagined, and that was precisely what Houpe wanted me to understand. That’s why he told me to hit the bag. Once again, the Ali legend had grown. I, too, knew than that he was a god, probably the greatest of all American athletes.

And that doesn’t even address Ali’s greatness as a man of the world, a spokesman of a generation — a man who spoke truth to power and was loved even by enemies of America.

There will never be another Muhammad Ali. Had it not been for the government, which stripped him of his title for more than three years of his prime, when he was at the top of his game, he would probably have retired an undefeated champion. He would have as a younger, faster man taken on Frazier and Spinks and Foreman earlier and beaten them decisively.
The man was an American original, in my mind, “The Greatest.”

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