The Greatest Meets His Greatest Fan
by Barry Tesar EVERYONE knows, of course, that Muhammad Ali is considered by many to be the greatest boxer of all times. What surprises me, however, are the many people who are unaware that he also possesses one of the warmest and most generous spirits ever to grace our planet. It is this lesser known aspect of the Ali legend, his innate kindness, which I will attempt to portray by recounting my own personal Ali story.
Be it by fluke, accident, coincidence, chance, or just plain luck; circumstances have often put me at just the right place at just the right time to meet the person I have most wanted or needed to meet. I like to think I have a tiny guardian angel perched on my shoulder whispering in my ear, "turn here, turn there" as it directs me throughout my life.
But whatever the source of my guidance, it has arranged many wonderful encounters for me. The one I treasure above all others, however, was my "chance meeting with my lifelong hero, Muhammad Ali.
Here is my story:
Ever since the age of 12 when I first heard him recite his epic poem, "I Am the Greatest!" I have loved Muhammad Ali. With so much mediocrity in the world, it inspired me that anyone would have the audacity to claim to be the greatest at anything. But for a young, skinny, seemingly good-natured kid to claim to be the greatest in a demanding, cruel sport like boxing bordered on lunacy. Who, I thought, would not want to see such a daring young man succeed?
That shows how much I know about human nature. I looked upon Alis quixotic quest as a crusade to raise the consciousness of mankind. Why, I thought, should anyone resign himself or herself to living a smaller life then necessary? Why not go for the most brilliant, fabulous, and glorious life possible?
By letting his own Inner Light shine, I felt that Ali was somehow giving the rest of us permission to do the same. My take on Ali, however, was in the minority. It seemed just about everyone else wanted nothing more than to see his words shoved back down his throat.
As Cassius Clay, Ali was considered a clown and a fraud. But when he shocked the world by whupping the invincible Sonny Liston and changing his name; public sentiment towards him, which had always been bad, turned ugly. I think it is safe to say that when he refused military induction in 1967, Ali was the most hated man in America. This distinction carries considerable significance when one takes into account just how heated public passions ran in that most tumultuous of decades.
But the fact that he was so disliked by others did not bother me. From the very beginning I saw something very special within him and the fact that no one else seemed to see it only made me more resolute in my belief.
If I was known for anything in my neighborhood growing up, my fame rested on the fact that I was Muhammad Alis only fan. Judging from the lack of any cheers other than my own when he was introduced before locally shown closed-circuit telecasts of his fights, I might safely assume I was his only fan not only in my own neighborhood, but in the entire town of San Jose. It was almost as if, because no one else seemed to want him, he belonged all the more to me. He was truly my champion.
Because of my allegiance to Ali, I was the target of much harassment. A lot of it came from the kids at school who, lacking opinions of their own, simply hated Ali because their parents did. These kids did not faze me, I knew they were merely confirming their immaturity when they bad-mouthed Ali.
But what did bother me, however, was the uninvited counsel of my teachers and other adults who claimed they were only looking out for my best interests.
"Barry," they would say, "why do you waste your time rooting for Cassius Clay? Dont you know that he hates white people? If you were to meet him he wouldn't even talk to you!"
Looking back, I believe they might have meant well. But even then I did not want such small-minded people looking out for me. I would explain that the reason they did not like Muhammad Ali was simply because they did not know as much about him as I did.
If that did not enable them to see the light (and it hardly ever did) I would condescendingly explain that they had never before seen such an evolved soul as Ali's and thus could not expect to be anything but baffled by what he said and did.
I guess, in hindsight, it was pretty arrogant for such a young punk to be lecturing his elders in this way. I was simply fed up with all the heated and angry lectures I had to endure. Luckily, my Mom and Dad understood how much Ali meant to me and would often come to my rescue when things got particularly unpleasant.
The decade of the 1970s, however, saw an almost complete reversal in public opinion towards Ali. When he had first come out against the war in Viet Nam, he stood naked and alone as the first prominent celebrity to take such an unpopular stand. For doing so, Ali was stripped of his championship and banned from boxing.
But as causalities mounted and with victory nowhere in sight, more and more Americans began to change their views. The war, they decided, really was wrong. Ali had been right all along!
Almost overnight, public sentiment turned in Alis favor. He had been unjustly denied his constitutional right to pursue his livelihood for four long years, but now public opinion demanded that he be allowed back into the ring.
Alis triumphant return took place on October 26, 1970 against the number one contender, Jerry Quarry. Ali looked impressive and the closed-circuit audience in my hometown of San Jose roared their approval with his every blow.
But the long years of enforced idleness came with a price. Ali was no longer the sleek, fleet superman of his youth. Now, he was human like the rest of us. He got tired. He missed punches. He had to lie on the ropes to rest. But most surprising of all- he now got hit!
The word on Ali had always been that he was a coward at heart. The reason he danced around his opponents was because he was afraid of getting hit. A real man would put his head down and charge. A couple of good shots to his pretty face and the chicken-hearted draft-dodger would quit, or so it was said.
But now Ali did get hit- hard and often but he did not quit. He fought back with a courage and bravery that even those few who still hated him had to grudgingly admire.
Then, what had once been unthinkable actually happened, Ali lost! That I believed is what humanized him in the public consciousness more than anything else. Who, for Gods sake, has not lost at something?
When he took his loss (a close, hard-fought, controversial decision to Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971) with dignity, the public transformation was complete; Ali was now loved in the homeland that had once scorned him.
The road back to his championship, however, was not to be easy. Ali could not simply be voted back into the Heavyweight Championship, he would have to win that title for himself in the ring.
Ali fought and won many times but could not get a shot at the title. Ali was too big a risk! The champion, Joe Frazier, came up with one excuse after another not to give Ali a rematch.
Then, on March 31, 1973, Alis boxing career seemed to come to a sad and crushing end. A relatively unknown slugger, Ken Norton, beat him. Worst of all, Ali's jaw was broken. The worlds most famous mouth that had once roared so defiantly was now wired shut. How unfair it all seemed, Muhammad Ali would never win back the title that was rightfully his.
In reality, the loss to Norton turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It looked now as if Ali was finished as a serious contender. Since he was no longer viewed as a dangerous threat, the other top fighters stopped ducking him. They figured they had better fight him quickly and cash in on his big name while they still had the chance.
So on September 10, 1973; Ali took his first step towards redemption with a rematch against Ken Norton. Ali trained with a determination he had not shown in years and was able to seemingly turn back the clock.
His victory over Norton (more will be said on this most pivotal of all fights later) set the stage for his next step on the comeback trail. In January of 74, Ali finally got his chance to avenge his loss to Joe Frazier. He made the most of it, winning a decisive 12 round decision.
Now the stage was really set! Ali signed a contract to challenge the young, new champion, George Foreman. Big George was the real life Incredible Hulk! He crushed opponent after opponent on his destructive path to the top.
In title fights, Foreman continued to destroy everyone he faced. Among his victims were both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. They each fell for good in only the second round. These were the same two men that had given Ali so much trouble. In fifty-one total rounds of boxing, Ali had failed to score even a single knockdown against either of them. Foreman, in contrast, had scored eight knockdowns against them in less than four rounds, all of them devastating. So now, despite his newfound public adoration, Ali was given little more than a snowballs chance in hell against Foreman.
The fight was set for the, until then, little known country of Zaire, Africa. It took place on October 29th 1974, (USA time). In perhaps his greatest of all performances, Ali bewitched, bothered, and bewildered Foreman from the very beginning.
Rather than try to dance out of danger and win on points which had been his expected strategy, Ali did the absolutely, most positively unexpected thing he could possibly do. He simply leaned back on the ropes and invited Big George to take his best shots.
Against a dynamite puncher like Foreman, such a strategy had all the hazards of walking a tightrope without a safety net. Things could be going along just fine and than Wham! Down and out you would go!
Most of Foremans bombs missed, thank God, but some did get through. Rather than fall to the canvas like all of Foremans previous opponents had done, Ali simply smiled a broad grin and taunted, "Is that as hard as you can hit? I thought they told me you could punch. You punch like a sissy!"
This infuriated George! No one had ever had the audacity to question the almighty authority of his punching power before. So he loaded up with everything he had with every shot he threw. He was determined to wipe the cocky grin from Alis face and gain his respect. He was also determined to batter him unconscious and defenseless to the canvas.
The fury of Foremans onslaught was frightening. Midway through the fifth round I can remember reaching behind me for my coat so I could leave quickly in case Ali pitched forward on his face. But he did not pitch forward like so many had before him; instead he sprung from the ropes and stunned the surprised Foreman with quick, precise combinations of his own.
The action in the last minute of the fifth round was unbelievable! My eyes, of course, remained glued to the closed-circuit television screen, but from the wails and screeches that engulfed me, I knew hysteria reigned supreme.
I would like to say that I was so confident that I never doubted Alis strategy for a second. But if I did so I would be lying. Initially, I was scared to death, pleading along with his trainer Angelo Dundee and everyone else for him to get off of the blankety-blank ropes.
It was not until the bell rang ending the fifth that the light bulb went off and I could see the wisdom behind Alis madness. Foreman, when he returned to his corner, stumbled forward over his feet.
I had seen that stumble once before and knew immediately what it meant. Foreman had Jell-O in his knees!
You see, before Foreman went to Africa, he did his initial training at the Pleasanton Fair Grounds. Since this site was only about 30 minutes from our home, my best friend, Steve, and I showed up at every opportunity. We would boldly wear our homemade Alis Army T-shirts and root openly for the sparring partners.
One afternoon Foreman showed off for a network television crew by boxing 16 consecutive 4-minute rounds against a fresh opponent each round. To make things even tougher on himself, he stood instead of sitting between rounds and only rested 30 seconds instead of the customary full minute.
Foremans exhibition of endurance was impressive, and did nothing to increase my estimates of Alis chances against him. But I did notice this one little thing. I noticed that when George descended the steps leading out of the ring, he stumbled forward and had to be caught by his handlers.
That little bit of Jell-O in his knees was the first glimpse I had ever had that Big, Bad George Foreman was subject to some of the same human frailties as the rest of us. But, of course, the fight against Ali was only scheduled for 15 three-minute rounds and the idea that Muhammad would survive long enough to get Big George winded seemed remote at best.
But here it was only the fifth round and Foreman was already showing signs of fatigue. So while that raised a glimmer of hope, I can remember thinking that if Foreman was beginning to tire, what must Ali be feeling? Had not he been on the receiving end of this great pounding?
So while things were going better than expected, I never felt comfortable at any point during the entire fight. I was alarmed that Foreman might suddenly land "the big one" and knock Alis roof in at any moment. However, like a giant wind-up toy, Foreman continued his gradual slow down through rounds six and seven.
The end did come with sudden swiftness, but not in the way I had feared. Towards the end of the eighth round, Ali landed a short, sneaky right hand and Steve grabbed my arm and screamed, "Foremans hurt! Foremans hurt!"
"No," I snapped back, "thats impossible!" In the thousands of times I had visualized this fight in my minds eye I had never seen it ending this way. In my more optimistic moments I sometimes saw Ali winning on points, but I never saw him knocking Foreman out.
But Foreman was hurt and Ali knocked him out off his feet with a combination the like of which he had not thrown in years. There was a stunned and eerie silence in the arena until referee Zack Clayton finished his count and waved his arms signaling that the fight was over. Then the entire place erupted!
Everyone was jumping up and down and dancing in the aisles! The screaming was so loud that I could not tell for certain if I was screaming along with the rest of the crowd or not. My other Ali buddies; Milo and Jimmy celebrated along with Steve and I.
I hugged complete strangers and complete strangers hugged me. I slapped five with so many different people that my hands were sore for days. The Great Man had done it! He slew the monster and regained his cherished championship!
Leaving the closed circuit arena in San Jose, I took a long look back to forever imprint this scene in my mind. The Civic Auditorium looked like a bomb had hit it! In the bedlam that accompanied Foremans descent to the canvas, all but a handful of the fold-up seats had crashed to the floor.
I drank the scene deeply into my mind and can remember thinking to myself, "no matter what happens from this point on, no one will ever be able to take this one away from either me or Ali."
Unlike ten years earlier when Ali had beaten Sonny Liston, I was not forced to celebrate this great victory alone. My family and friends were so happy for me; my phone rang off the hook for months. I received so many congratulations that I had to remind myself that I had not knocked Big George out myself.
Yes, unlike the first time Ali won the title, this time it seemed the entire world was delirious with joy. The Great Wrong had been righted! The true champion was back on his throne!
Now it seemed everybody loved Ali. I was no longer the lone voice singing out in the wilderness and I could not have been happier. It brought me great satisfaction to see Ali finally getting the recognition he so richly deserved.
But still, there are those whose hatreds die hard. Those that still bitterly claimed that Ali was not the great humanitarian he was cracked up to be. He only cared for black people, they said. The only use he had for whites was for them to buy tickets to his fights.
It was during the years of Alis second championship reign, at the age of 26, that the powers that run the universe gave me the opportunity to discover if my many years of devotion to Ali were truly justified.
Were those hateful people really right? Would Ali turn out to be a black racist who would not even talk to me, his most devoted fan, simply because of the whiteness of my skin?
I found out the answer on December 19, 1976. That momentous day began with a bang when gimpy-kneed quarterback Kenny Stabler dove into the end zone with ten seconds left (and no timeouts) to lead my beloved Oakland Raiders to a come from behind victory in the first round of the NFL play-offs. Although I did not know it at the time, this win was especially crucial as the Raiders went on to win their first Super Bowl three weeks later!
On the Raider post game show it was announced that the two-time Heavyweight Champion, Muhammad Ali was believed to have been seen somewhere on the streets of downtown Oakland. That was all I needed to hear. I jumped in my Buick convertible and took off up the Nimitz freeway determined to somehow find him.
When I got about half way to Oakland, the radio station reversed itself and announced that they had checked out the Ali rumor - and it was definitely false. "Please do not call the station for his whereabouts," the radio voice said, "Muhammad Ali is not in town. We repeat, Muhammad Ali is not in town."
Now, a less optimistic person than myself might have turned around and gone home. But I heard this little voice in my ear saying, "keep going, keep going," so I continued on.
I vividly remember driving past the Oakland Coliseum and honking and waving a clinched fist of solidarity to the jubilant Raider fans that were still filing out of the parking lot.
The next thing I remember is seeing the tall tower of the Oakland Tribune building to the right of the freeway. This landmark told me I was deep into downtown Oakland itself.
The logical question, now that I had come this far, was just where did I expect to find Muhammad Ali? According to the radio station he was not even here.
When you stop and think about it, I would have had a better chance of finding the proverbial needle in a haystack than I did of finding Ali. At least, with the haystack I would have known that the needle was going to be in there someplace. But Ali could have been anywhere on the planet for all I knew.
I got off the freeway and meandered up and down the city streets for no more than a minute or two when I suddenly heard loud, frantic screaming! "Barry! Barry! Stop that car and get over here right now!"
I pulled over as quickly as I could. I got out of my car and saw, to my amazement, my buddy and fellow Ali fan, Herbie Townsend, talking with the Man himself- Muhammad Ali!
I can remember my knees shaking a bit as I approached them. My first recollection was that Ali appeared so much bigger in person than he did on television.
"Is your name Barry?" Ali asked pleasantly.
"Yes", I said, reaching out and shaking his massive hand.
"Your friend here was just telling me about you. He said you are my Greatest Fan. And then, just like that, you just happened to drive by. What a coincidence! Do you live around here?"
"No, I live in San Jose- fifty miles away."
"What are you doing here?"
"I heard on the radio you might be in town so I drove up hoping I would find you."
"How did you know where I was going to be?"
"I didnt," I said. "I just got lucky. If it wasnt for Herbie seeing my car I would have driven by and never saw you."
"You did get lucky! But luck isnt enough when youre claiming to be my Greatest Fan. Youve got to win a title as big as that! And Im the onliest one that does the judging."
With that, Ali suddenly pulled himself into a mock boxing stance with his arms dangling down by his sides and his fists rotating in small circles as he looked me over warily, just as he so often did with opponents he was getting ready to destroy in the ring. I knew, of course, that he was just playing with me and the absurdity of me actually fighting Ali immediately put me at ease.
"So you say youre my Greatest Fan?"
"Thats right, Champ! The Greatest of Allll Tiiiiimes!"
I decided to try to impress him with an impromptu Poem:
Ask me your questions
Cause I have no doubt
One by one,
Ill knock em out!
It may not have been the most inspired "Ali Poem" I ever ad-libbed, but my inflection and delivery mimicked Alis perfectly and his face broke into a broad grin.
"Thats a pretty bold poem," Ali said. "Lets see if you can back it up. Ever since I kicked Foremans behind and regained my title, it seems as if everyone is claiming to be my Greatest Fan. But when I ask them questions about my boxing career, they hardly know anything. Do you mind if I give you my quiz?"
"Bring it on, Champ, bring it on!"
"Man, you are bold!" Ali flashed me that beautiful smile of his and I could see he was enjoying the moment almost as much as I was.
"What round did I knock out Archie Moore?"
I shot back, "Dont block the aisle, dont bar the door, Archie Moore falls in four!"
"Hey, thats good! Sounds just like me. Youre not as dumb as you look."
What round did I knock out Zora Folley?"
"The seventh," I answered back.
"Right! Thats good! But now they are gonna get tougher! If youre really my Greatest Fan you will know the answers, but no one has ever passed this test yet."
"Who refereed the first Liston fight?"
"Jersey Joe Walcott!"
The first Frazier Fight?"
I was excited and I could see Ali was getting excited, too. Our timing was quick, like a well-rehearsed comedy team. We were beginning to draw a crowd.
"All right, Chump! Youre good! But now Im gonna really make them really tough! What round did I knock out Cleveland Williams?"
"The fifth and then again in the sixth!"
This was a trick question! "Gee, Muhammad," I said, " you didnt knock out Doug Jones. The two judges scored it for you 5-4-1, and the referee scored in 8-1-1 for you.
But I want you to know that I scored it ten zero in your favor!"
Alis eyes grew wide and playful. "Ten-zero! I didnt even score it ten-zero. Maybe you are my Greatest Fan?"
At that point, Ali flipped back my coat collar and uncovered a rather worn "Float Like a Butterfly Sting Like a Bee" button that had been partially hidden.
"I recognize that button," Ali said. "You got it from Bundini at the second Norton fight in Los Angeles, right?"
"Right," I said. "That was the only time I ever got to see you fight in person. And its a good thing I was there, too!"
"Whys that?" questioned Ali.
"Remember the seventh round," I said. "You had won the first six, but Norton was really coming on in the seventh. He had you backing from corner to corner and he was landing his best overhand shots. The crowd, being all for you was completely silent and the only sound I could hear was the thud of his punches landing on your head and arms. I was in a panic and I wanted to help you, but I didnt know what to do. But then I thought of something!"
"What did you do," He asked, now very interested to see what I might say.
"I started chanting your name, Ahlee Ahlee Ahlee. The next thing I knew my buddy Steve was chanting Ahlee, Ahlee and then his Dad next to him started chanting Ahlee, Ahlee. Within a few seconds the whole place was chanting. It was total pandemonium! Complete bedlam! For a second it crossed my mind that the huge chandelier above the ring was going to crash down and kill everybody."
"I remember that chant!" Ali said. "It came at just the right time. It bothered Norton, too. Here it was, California, his home state, and everybody was rooting for me. I felt a burst of energy surge through right then, I remember I spun off the ropes, landed a good combination, and was never in trouble again."
"Thats right!" I said. The next day in the Los Angeles Times, sports writer Wells Trombly, wrote that Muhammad Alis boxing career hung in the balance last night when a lone voice from the back of the balcony started chanting his name and saved his career for another day. That lone voice from the back of the balcony belonged to me! I cut that article out of the newspaper and put it right into my scrapbook where it is this very minute. " Click here to see copy of article
"Well," Ali said, "Im glad you were there! I would have beaten Norton anyway; but you made it easier for me, thats for sure!"
"You know," Ali continued, "if I hadnt of beaten Norton that night, I probably would have never gotten another chance at whuppin Joe Frazier! The very thought of that makes my stomach turn."
" And if I hadnt of whupped Smokin Joe at the Garden, I never would have been given the chance to win back my title in the Rumble in the Jungle! Just imagine, there might never have been a "Thrilla in Manila!"
"Man, I am glad you were there to chant my name that night! That was a critical moment, kind of like when Angelo pushed me out for the fifth against Liston. If things go differently right then, maybe nothing is ever the same."
I knew that Ali was laying it on thick for my benefit, playfully trying to make me feel important. But even though I knew what he was up to, he was definitely succeeding. I still could not believe that I was really talking to him after all these years.
Ali than said, "Yes, I admit it! I hereby declare that you, Barry, are my Greatest Fan!"
"Thanks Champ!" I said with deep, heartfelt sincerity. "You dont know how happy it makes me to hear you say that." I remember wishing that all the people who told me Ali would not even speak to me could see us now.
Then Ali looked me over real serious for a long second and asked, "why do you root for me so hard, anyway?"
"I root for you," I stated firmly, "because I love your spirit! You bring joy and happiness everywhere you go. When I am feeling down it seems like I will always see you on TV and you will say something that will lift me up.
I love the way you treat all people with respect, even those who go out of their way to hurt you for no reason.
But most of all, when you proclaim "I am the Greatest!" it makes me feel good inside, like I am the Greatest, too!"
I went on to tell him how I prayed for him whenever he fought, no matter how easy the guy was supposed to be.
I said I thought he was too gentle to be a fighter and how I admired his courage to get into the ring with all the meanest and toughest heavyweights in the world. These guys were determined to hurt him any way they could and yet he always found a way to win.
I told him that when he fought it was almost as if I moved out of the way of the punches for him, and when he did get hit it was as if I had gotten hit myself.
I told him that when he won, it felt to me as if I had won. And on those rare occasions that he had lost, I had never been able to get over it until I broke down and had a good cry.
When I finished, Ali looked at me for a long time before he spoke. "Barry," he said, "you understand me. You know what I am about. You see me the same way I see myself!"
Then he looked at me again, as if he was considering something. "Will you do me a favor? He asked.
"My wife doesnt understand how important I am to so many people. She thinks I fight for the money, but I know you know what I really fight for. Would you be willing to tell her everything you just told me?"
I said I would, and the next thing I remember is Ali leading me to a nearby limousine that, in my excitement, I had not noticed. He motioned for the window to be rolled down and once it was done, there sat his beautiful wife, Veronica.
Ali introduced us and then asked if she would hand the baby she was holding out the window so that he could get a picture of his Greatest Fan holding his only baby boy.
My first thought, since I did not have much experience with babies at the time, was what if I drop it? It will make international headlines, for sure. But I held on tightly and out of nowhere someone with a camera materialized and took a picture of me holding Muhammad Alis very cute infant son. I handed their baby back to Veronica and then, with Alis urging me on, told her everything I had just told him. She listened politely, but I could see a distant, faraway look in her eyes. She was not really paying attention.
But Ali, because he was standing behind me, could not see her face. Tell her about this, he would say. And when I finished he would ask me to tell her about that. I felt a little uncomfortable because I knew she really was not interested. But I was not really speaking to her as much as I was speaking for Ali.
It was only right, I thought, that Alis wife should hear from her husbands Greatest Fan just how important he was to so many people. Even then, I knew that sometimes a husband could use an outsider coming to his defense. Finally, to both Veronicas and my relief, I finished my spiel and pulled my head out of the car.
Then Ali said the most astounding thing. Muhammad Ali, the most famous man in the world and arguably the most recognized human that has ever walked the Earth, pulled me close and whispered so only I could hear, "most people dont know this about me, Barry, but I am kind of shy."
"There is a party being given tonight in my honor and Veronica isnt going. I dont know anybody in Oakland and I really dont want to go someplace where I dont know someone- would you be willing to come?"
I do not know what shocked me the most- that Muhammad Ali, the Louisville Lip, was shy or that he wanted me to go to a party with him.
"Would I be willing? Of course I would!"
Then out of nowhere a burly man that I recognized as Alis bodyguard, Pat Patterson, appeared.
"This party is a charity fundraiser, Champ! It costs fifty dollars to get in."
Fifty dollars in those days was like five hundred dollars is today. Ali looked at me and asked, "you dont have fifty extra dollars on you, do you?"
"No," I said, my heart sinking.
"Dont worry about it," Ali said. "Im the guest of honor and I should be able to invite whoever I want. If I want to bring my Greatest Fan, no one should mind."
"Thanks, Champ," I said relieved.
"Be at the Lemmington Hotel at 9:00 sharp," Ali said,"and tell the guy taking the tickets to let you in free."
Ali then motioned in the direction of my buddy Herbie and said to me, "its all right if you bring a few friends, but dont bring the whole neighborhood, okay?" With that he was gone.
Herbie and I had some time to kill until nine so we went to the McDonalds hamburger place on the corner to wait.
The first thing Herbie did when we got inside was announce to everyone that we were going to get to go see Muhammad Ali for free. He added, to my horror, that anyone who wanted to could come along.
I told Herbie to be quiet, but he did not appear to hear me. He kept up this same line of chatter with everyone who came in. When it came time to leave, at least fifty people got up to go with us. Even two guys from behind the counter joined us. They threw off their aprons and hats and told their boss, "The city of Oakland can do without French fries for one night- were going to see the Champ!"
I led the way down the street like a Pied Piper. Alis Army was on the march.
Thanks to Herbie, our ranks continued to swell. To every person we saw he would sing out, "were going to see Muhammad Ali for free, do you want to come along?"
Not surprisingly, It seemed just about everyone did. We were even joined by three sorrowful looking winos who, up until the time Herbie woke them up, were sleeping peacefully in the gutter.
I remember turning a corner and seeing a look of alarm come across the faces of three men who were sitting on their front stoop. We must have looked like a mob in the midst of a street riot (which, of course, was a rather common occurrence during those politically active days).
When the three guys found out that we were harmless and were only on our way to see Muhammad Ali for free, they ran up their steps, slammed their doors shut and joined us. This same event was repeated over and over again on every street we turned down.
When we reached the hotel there must have been at least two hundred people marching along behind me. Finally, after winding around for what seemed like forever inside the hotel, I remember standing in a dimly lit hallway face to face with a uniformed ticket taker.
"Your ticket?" he asked.
"I dont have a ticket," I explained, "but Mr. Ali said I could get in for free." I said this as powerfully as I could, but I do not think he was impressed.
"Yeah, right?" he said mockingly.
All of a sudden Pat Patterson appeared and barked in a voice that I bet very few have ever challenged, "Yes, thats right! Ali said this guy could get in for free- let him in!"
The next thing I remember is standing in a very brightly lit room. While I was trying to adjust my eyes I became aware of the fact that I was now suddenly all alone. "What happened to all my new friends?" I thought.
I went back out into the hallway and said to the ticket taker, "what about my friends?
"Do they have tickets?" he asked, eyeing the three winos who had worked their way to the head of the pack.
"No," I said, "but Ali said I could bring some friends!"
"Thats right!" Pat Patterson said, "you better let them in!" And he did.
The next thing I knew, my eyes were adjusting to the bright lights inside the ballroom once again. In the distance I could see Muhammad Ali up on the stage. He was standing, waving his arms in my direction, and hollering, "Barry, Barry, over here!"
That is a moment I will always treasure, the great Muhammad Ali calling out my name, trying to get my attention. It blows my mind to imagine it even to this day.
It was then that I said perhaps the dumbest things I ever said. I pointed to a sign in front of the seat that Ali was motioning for me to sit in. "Are you sure its all right if I sit here, it says reserved," I said tentatively.
"Barry," Ali said, shaking his head slowly from side to side "I dont believe it! You must be as dumb as Joe Frazzzier! Of course it says reserved. I put the sign there myself. Its reserved for you!"
What followed over the next six hours was simply wonderful. Of course, I do not remember everything that we talked about, but I do remember much of it.
At one point I asked Ali what it felt like when he got hit. Because punches never seemed to effect him much, I half expected him to say that in the heat of battle he did not even feel them. But he did not say what I expected. Instead he asked me if I had ever been punched in the nose.
"Yes," I said, "on numerous occasions, mostly when I am boxing with my hands down trying to imitate you."
"What does it feel like when you get smacked?"
"Well," I said, " when I get hit in the nose I see stars everywhere. My eyes well up with tears and I have a kind of throbbing, sick feeling that reverberates throughout my head."
"Thats pretty much how it feels when I get hit too," he said. "The only difference between you and me is that I have trained myself to smile when I get hit. The harder Im hit the bigger my smile."
"My opponent, seeing me smile stops and thinks to himself, that must not have been as good a shot as I thought it was. So he doesnt follow up and I get a chance to clear my head. It works every time. A lot of people think Im just playin when I do that, but Im not. I have a purpose for everything I do in the boxing ring"
With that, Muhammad jumped to his feet pulling me up with him. "Common," he said, "lets box!
Holding my left hand low with my right hand loosely cocked; I was the mirror image of Ali. The only difference between us was that he was twice as big as me and knew what he was doing, while I was just playacting.
"Show me your left! He commanded.
I dutifully fired out a jab. The punch was thrown more in Alis vicinity than really at him.
"Thats good!" said the Heavyweight Champion, "but snap it a little more at the end, like this."
With that, his left shot out like lightening! I did not actually see the punch in its flight; his jab was much too quick for that. I just felt it when it arrived at its destination, the very tip of my nose.
It did not hurt me in any way; it had not been intended to hurt me. His only intention, I intuitively knew, was to discourage me from ever thinking of making my living in a boxing ring. I had the impression that he had performed this same service for many others in the past.
"Is that what you did with Jim Brown?" I asked.
"Howd you know about that?" Ali asked.
"I read in a magazine that you dissuaded him from taking up boxing by showing him how easily you could hit him and how impossible it would be for him to hit you back."
"Thats just my point, Ali said, "you can read! So I never want you to even think about boxing, except maybe with friends for fun. You okay about that?"
"Oh yeah," I assured him with obvious humor in my voice. "I already have a job, and besides, you already have the only boxing championship I would really want."
Just then I heard a lot of commotion behind me and turned to see a throng of excited people pushing up close against us. Everyone was jostling for position trying to get a glimpse of the great Muhammad Ali boxing even if it was only with me.
"Lay a whuppin on him, Champ!"
"Dont knock him out quick, Muhammad, play with him first!"
I recognized that second voice; it was Herbies.
"Do you really want to see me hit your friend? Muhammad asked Herbie, with playful chastisement in his voice.
"Yeah!" said Herbie, a bright look of expectancy on his beaming face.
Muhammad stood still for a second, then flinched his left arm ever so slightly. Then with mock seriousness, he turned to Herbie and said, "do you want to see me hit him again?"
There was an awkward silence for a brief instant until it dawned on everybody that Ali was joking, pretending that he had hit me so fast that no one had even seen it.
"Im so quick," he said, "I can turn out the light and be asleep before the room gets dark!" Everyone roared their appreciation! With that, Ali put a loving arm around my shoulder and we both sat back down.
It was then that Muhammad told me this story about fighting Joe Frazier in the famed "Thrilla in Manila."
"During the tenth round, he began, "I thought I might be dying. I really had to struggle to gain control of my mind, not to panic. So to give me something else to think about besides how much I hurt, I kept repeating to myself, "I am the champion of the world and no man can take my crown!"
I kept on saying this over and over inside my head. "I am the champion of the world and no man can take my crown I am the champion of the world and no man can take my crown!
I kept saying it but at first nothing happened. Frazier was still hitting me. But then, in the thirteenth round, I started feeling this power build within me every time I said it.
"I AM THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD AND NO MAN CAN TAKE MY CROWN!"
Ali looked me square in the eye as asked; "Do you remember what happened then?"
"You landed that right hand lead that knocked his mouthpiece up into the seats?"
"Thats right!" said Muhammad. "After that he was mine. And dont believe all that rubbish about me not coming out for the 15th! I was coming out! I only said I might be too tired to be nice. I didnt expect anyone to take me seriously. Frazier knew I was coming out- thats why he didnt."
"But I will say one thing for Old Joe," Ali continued, "he always brought out the best in me. All those years when I said I was the Greatest I didnt really know for sure if I really was. And to be honest with you, I never really wanted to find out."
"Every time I would shave before a fight I would look into the mirror and wonder if this was the night I was going to be pushed to the limit, if this were the night I would find out if I was really the Greatest after all."
"Well, during that third fight with Frazier I realized that this was the moment I had been dreading all my life. But once I realized that the terrible moment was really upon me, I felt a strange calmness come over me. I think what saved me was that I embraced the moment rather than trying to escape it."
"In a way it was a gift. I respect Joe Frazier because I know that hes the onliest one in the whole world who could push me like that. If it wasnt for Joe, nobody not even myself- would know how great I really am."
Later, Ali brought up another subject. "Have you ever seen a picture of my mother and father?"
"Sure," I answered.
"Good," he said, "because I am going to be able to use my Mom and Dad to prove to you a very scientific point about the power of the human mind."
"You see, my Mom is about five feet tall and my Dad is only about five-six, yet all my life I was running around saying I was gonna be the Heavyweight Champion of the World. I didnt say I was simply going to be a champion, like welterweight or middleweight. I was very specific! I said I was going to be the Heavyweight Champion!"
"Do you know how I became a heavyweight?" Ali asked me.
"How?" I asked, looking at him somewhat quizzically.
"Through the power of my mind! He said, tapping the side of his head. "I willed it!"
"Every day I would picture myself tall, strong, and fast! Oh, sooo fast! I became the fastest heavyweight of all times with nothing but the power of my mind. You know, Barry, everybody could do things like that if they only believed enough to try."
About mid-way through the evening, the man that was apparently in charge of the proceedings asked Ali to say a few words to the crowd. Ali, to my astonishment, told the man that he really did not want to talk, as he had nothing prepared to say. I could tell he was not play acting, that Ali really meant it.
So when the man left, I encouraged Ali to go ahead and speak. "Barry," he said softly, "I told you I was shy. I dont have anything to say."
"Common, Champ! Just go up and do the shuffle and say what ever pops into your mind. Everyone will love it! If you dont talk everybody will go home disappointed."
I must have been persuasive because the next thing I knew Ali was up on stage, his highly polished black shoes shuffling quickly back and forth while his body remained completely motionless. It was awesome! Everyone went nuts! When things calmed down, Ali did it again and the roof almost came down.
Then he began to talk! The funniest comedian I have ever seen is Bill Cosby. I saw him before he made it big, when he used to rehearse and polish his material. He was hilarious. Ali was every bit his equal on this night.
Ali spoke for about twenty minutes. As soon as one roar of laughter would die out another would begin. He set up each punch line perfectly, like the solid right-hand that followed a stiff left lead. Each was followed by loud war hoops and hollering from the men, and squeals of glee from the adoring ladies.
I can not honestly say I remember exactly what he said, although I do remember that Howard Cosells toupee figured prominently in his remarks. The one thing I will never forget was the feeling of being very blessed. I had finally gotten the opportunity to witness, first hand, this marvelous human being in all his glory.
After he was through speaking, Ali turned to me and said, with obvious relief, "that went pretty good, didnt it?"
"Yes, it did," I assured him, "yes, it did!"
Without doubt, my most future-altering event of the evening occurred when Ali noticed me admiring some of the very beautiful young women at the party.
"A fellow needs to know how to flirt," he told me. "If a guy doesnt know how to talk to the ladies he is going to be lonely more often than he should."
So with those words of wisdom, Ali sent me across the room to talk to a pretty girl in a pink dress. Each time after I came back and reported in, he would send me off to talk to another pretty girl, perhaps the one in the blue dress.
"Im married," he said jokingly, "I have to live vicariously through young single guys like you."
After Ali ran out of pretty girls for me to approach, he asked me if I had a girlfriend of my own. I said no, that I had just broken up with one and felt very bad about it.
"Look," he said, "I am going to tell you something. I have been all over the world and I have met a lot of people. Some good and some bad- but you, Barry, are a quality person! Any girl would be lucky to know a guy like you."
"Look at it this way- you have a job. You dont make five million dollars a night like I do, but you do have a job. And youre not bad looking. Youre not as preeetty as me, but your not ugly. Any girl would be lucky to know you."
"So next time you see a pretty girl you think might be really special - and it will happen, believe me- go up and introduce yourself to her with confidence! Remember, it will be her lucky day to meet a quality guy like you and dont you ever forget that I told you so!"
Well, I never did. A few years later I "accidentally" chanced upon the girl of my dreams, just as Ali predicted I would. I introduced myself to her with Alis words of encouragement ringing in my ears. Things have worked out very nicely. Roxanne and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary this September.
After awhile somebody looked at a watch. When we discovered it was 3:30 in the morning everyone agreed it was time to go home. So I gathered up my stuff and prepared to say goodbye.
One of the items I put under my arm was a copy of Alis bright yellow autobiography entitled "The Greatest." Because of the bright color, Ali could not help but recognize the book.
"Why did you bring that?" he asked.
"Its not important," I replied.
"Yes, it is important- why did you bring it?"
"Really, Champ, its not important," I insisted.
"Look, Chump! I am the Heavyweight Champion of the World and I am asking you a question, why did you bring that book?"
I knew Ali was not really upset. But I also knew he expected an honest answer to his question. "I brought the book because I was going to ask you to autograph it."
"Well, why didnt you ask?" he said.
"I could see your hands were hurting and I didnt want to ask anything of you that might cause you pain."
"Yes," he said, rubbing his hands together gently. "My hands have been aching for over ten weeks, ever since I beat Norton in Yankee Stadium. But I really want you to have my autograph."
With that he took my book and, with a flourish, signed a beautiful autograph (along with his address) inside the front cover. "That didnt hurt as much as I thought it would," he said in surprise. "I can sign more autographs."
And that is exactly what he did. He signed autographs for everyone that was still at the party. Herbie and I stood and watched while Ali signed autographs for the next ninety minutes.
This scene of the most famous man in the world signing autographs far into the night continues to amaze me to this day. I sometimes reflect upon it whenever I hear a present day athlete complaining about the many burdens of fame.
No one has ever been, nor will ever be, bigger than Muhammad Ali. He gave unselfishly to others and it is this quality above all others which, in my opinion, makes him the Greatest of All Times! What he accomplished in the boxing ring, if civilization is lucky enough to survive another ten thousand years, could conceivably be equaled.
But another athlete will likely never match the splendid magnificence of Alis benevolent spirit. Like DiMaggios 56 game hitting streak or Ryans six no-hitters, it is totally untouchable. We will never see its equal. Ali is the original, the one that others can only hope to imitate.
When I woke up the next day in the early afternoon, Steve asked me if I had gone to sleep when I had gotten home.
"Yeah," I said, "I was completely exhausted and went right to sleep without even taking my clothes off.
"Thats curious!" Steve replied. "I got up and sat outside your door and listened for hours this morning. Over and over again you would smack your hands together and exclaim, "Alllll Right! Allll Right!"
Yes, I guess even while sound asleep I was so excited that I could not help but to shout out in exultation. My faith had been vindicated. Muhammad Ali was, indeed, the person I had always believed him to be.
© 2001 Barry Tesar