Muhammad Ali understood what it took to be a sports icon

In March of 1970, I was on a tour of Florida spring training camps for CBS News when I got a call from the New York assignment desk. After being banned for over three years, Muhammad Ali was going to fight Jerry Quarry in Atlanta. Could I get to Miami and interview Ali? I had met him several times, but my real connection was with his trainer Angelo Dundee; so I called Angie and set up an interview for the following day.

Back then Ali trained in Miami Beach at the Fifth Street Gym. I was early for my meeting which gave me a chance to spend time with Dundee. I asked him what he found most difficult working with Ali. He said his biggest concern was that Ali was a soft touch — giving away money to almost anyone who asked. While waiting, I noticed a seven year old boy who had written ‘Muhammad Ali He’s the Greatest’ on his jacket. When I asked Angie about the kid, he told me to talk to his mother who was at the training facility as well. She explained that her son was introverted and didn’t have any friends. They started showing up for Ali’s workouts, and basically Ali ‘adopted’ the kid.

When Ali arrived to the facility, he went right to the seven year old, gave him a hug and they walked arm in arm into the gym. Ali always loved kids, and wanted to give back as much as he could. But, the point of this story is at the time many looked at Ali as a draft dodger and a radical member of The Nation of Islam. They would have found it hard to believe that the boy he ‘adopted’ was white! And as far as being a soft touch? As Ali was walking into the gym that day, a guy approached him asking for a handout. Ali reached in his pocket handed the guy a twenty and told him “now don’t go spending it on wine!”

Ali was always thinking. Next time you watch footage of Ali’s rope-a-dope fight against George Foreman take a look at how far back the ring ropes gave when Ali was up against the ropes. Someone in the Ali camp had the ropes loosened, effectively minimizing the power of Foreman’s punches!

In 1976 Ali was fighting Jean Pierre Coopman, the European heavy weight champion. Coopman wasn’t much of a fighter, in fact he was so bad that the press was banned from his workouts. The fight was held in San Juan Puerto Rico on CBS. I’m waiting for the broadcast and fights to start, standing outside the television truck. As I am there, here comes Ali with his entourage. I yell out, “How many rounds tonight?” After all, we had advertising partners to worry about.

Ali shouts back, “How many do you need for your commercials?” I thought quickly and screamed back “How about four?” Well Ali carried Coopman for four rounds and knocked him out in the first 20 seconds of the fifth round.

Ali used his smarts, skill and charm in all facets of his life to help him succeed. The Greatest of All Time understood boxing, people and yes business.

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