The first time I met him was 1979. An afternoon at the old Resurrection Gym on South Lorena in East L.A. Resurrection Gym was a dark and dingy place, a former church that still had a painting of Jesus on the wall that seemed to hover over the ring (made famous in the movie Rocky). I was just a tiny kid of six in my first year of boxing. Although I could barely hold up my gloves, I was happily following in the footsteps of my grandfather Vincente and father Joel Sr. I’ve never forgotten the tall man who walked into the gym that day. He wore a plastic gray training suit and carried a small tote bag. Silently, he went into a corner, wrapped his hands and began his workout—shadowboxing, speed bag and the heavy bag.
Suddenly, he stopped.
“Children!” he called out. The kids there, including myself, froze. “Get over here! I’ve got something to tell you.” Normally I wouldn’t have approached a stranger, but this was the sanctuary of the boxing gym. And this man seemed different. We all walked over and crowded around. “Listen to me,” he barked. “It’s good to want to be a champion. I know that’s why you are here and why you work hard. But never forget: It doesn’t matter what happens inside the ring; what matters is what you do outside the ring.” I nodded and walked back to my father.
“Do you know who that is?” he asked me. I didn’t, but I could sense the man was someone special. “That’s Muhammad Ali.”
There are few people who change the world. Make it a better place. Even fewer who do so as athletes. Last Friday, one of those unique individuals passed away. Every corner of the planet grieved because Ali has that effect on you, whether you knew him or not. All you have to do is watch him fight. Listen to him talk. Remember what he stood for.
The next time I saw Ali was the following year. Not in the flesh but on television. He was at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, fighting Larry Holmes for the heavyweight title. I sat in my living room, fixated on the man—that same tall man who had shared with me one of life’s secrets. Every molecule of my being wanted him to win. But not that night. Sixty professional fights had taken their toll. His legs lacked bounce. His hands didn’t have firepower. Round after round, Ali took more and more punishment, unable to revive the rope-a-dope strategy he’d used to beat George Foreman, shocking the world only six years earlier. But what Ali hadn’t lost was his spirit. His toughness. His courage. He was clearly outmatched by the younger Holmes, and no one would have blamed Ali for not coming out of his corner. Hell, throughout his career he’d achieved more than most men could ever dream of. Yet Ali wouldn’t quit. Wouldn’t stop until his trainer Angelo Dundee stepped in and stopped it personally. Watching him that night, I learned something else from The Greatest: I learned what it would take to become a champion. No words were required this time. I would need more than talent to one day earn a world title. I’d have to be like Ali.
The last occasion we crossed paths was in December 1997 at the Manhattan offices of HBO. Ali was in the Big Apple being honored by the New York chapter of the National Association of Minorities in Communications for his volunteer work with the Herbert G. Birch Services Family Camp. I was front and center at a news conference for my upcoming bout against Wilfredo Rivera. It had been 16 years since Ali’s last fight, while I’d recently beaten future Hall of Famer Pernell Whitaker and was heading into the prime of my career. Ali’s limbs shook while I was knocking opponents out. Yet next to him, I felt like that six-year-old in Resurrection Gym.
As I grew as a professional fighter, I always looked to Ali as an inspiration. He taught everyone that besides the talent, besides the courage, you had to take risks. You had to dare to be great. Ali didn’t have to face Joe Frazier three times. He didn’t have to come out of retirement and go to Zaire to battle George Foreman, who, in 1974, was undefeated and the baddest man on the planet. Ali didn’t have to stand up for his beliefs and refuse to enlist for Vietnam. He didn’t have to be stripped of his title and lose precious years of his career. But he did.
Despite the onset of Parkinson’s, standing beside him at the HBO office I could still see the light in his eyes. The fire of a champion. The two of us, Ali in his black mock turtleneck and me in my suit, smiled for the fans and posed for pictures. When we were finished, we walked back into the green room. I thought we were done, ready to go our separate ways. But he called me over. Wanted to share some last kernel of wisdom, I thought. I approached.
“Get closer, get closer,” he insisted. I leaned in. “You might be prettier,” he whispered, “but remember one thing: I’m always the greatest.”
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