June 3, 2017
June 3, 2017
Muhammad Ali

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I FIRST met Muhammad way back in 1959 and he was 16 or 17 years old. I was with [future world light-heavyweight champion] Willie Pastrano while he was preparing to fight Alonzo Johnson in Louisville, Kentucky and I got a call: “My name is Cassius Marcellus Clay and I’m the Golden Gloves champion of Louisville, I won the gloves in Chicago, I won the gloves in Seattle and I’m going to win the Olympics.” This was him; the energetic kid who wanted to talk to me because he had seen me on TV because I had about six fighters who would fight every other week on CBS back when we had public television. He wanted to talk to me because he was curious how I trained my fighters.

He came to the hotel and I was staying in a room with Willie. I had to keep my eye on Willie and keep him on the straight and narrow because he had an eye for the women. So anyway, I say to Willie, “There’s a kid down there, some nutter who wants to talk to us.”

I had no idea who he was because I never paid attention to the amateurs. I let him come up to the room and he came up with his brother Rudy and we had a conversation and it was beautiful. It was like a kid at school who wants to learn more, and Muhammad wanted to learn more about boxing.

A while later, the Louisville group called me and told me he had won the Olympics and asked if I’d be interested in training Cassius Clay. I didn’t even know he’d won the Olympics but I was recommended to his people in Louisville. They came down the next day and interviewed me about how I would train the fighter and I said, “I’m slow, I don’t rush the fighters.” It was October 1960 and they asked when did I want him to start training with me. I said, “Let him stay home for the holidays, there’s no rush, he’s an 18-year-old kid.” I got a call later that day telling me he would be with me the next day! He wanted to fight! He got on a train and he came down – that was him all over.

He was skinny then, when he won the Olympics, he was a light-heavyweight and when I got him he was about 180 pounds. He grew into his stature through pure boxing training and getting older. He grew into his body perfectly. Muhammad didn’t lift a pencil, I wouldn’t let him lift weights – we never did any of that kind of weight training. There was no scientific stuff, it was just basic boxing. He was special because he loved to come to the gym. The gym was his stage – it was fun to him.

The first test was [in March 1963] against Doug Jones who was a New York fighter, and they were trying to root him in. He was a nuisance for my guy because he was shorter and Muhammad had been fighting bigger guys. He did trouble him but my guy beat him – and beat him soundly.

Prior to that fight Muhammad was bragging and running his mouth saying he was going to knock him out in six, then he said he would cut it to four. So when Muhammad came out of the ring at the end I said, “six and four is ten, son, we got it covered.” That’s what I was there for! I didn’t want to just be a spare part!

Muhammad had a very clear idea of everything he wanted. He had a progression of things he wanted to do. He wanted to get a home for his parents. Then he wanted to get a bus. The first bus he managed to get was a rickety old thing. I had a friend of mine who was a mechanic who sorted all the wiring out. It was still beat-up but Muhammad loved it. When we first came to England in 1963, Jack Solomons, God love him, gave us a double-decker bus and Muhammad is driving on the wrong side of the road. I said, “Jack, do you know what you’ve done! This bus will get us killed!” That was when no-one knew us in England, we could have shot a cannonball and you still wouldn’t have found us. No-one cared about him then.

We were there for the [1963] Henry Cooper fight and I knew Muhammad would not be liked. I had been before with Willie Pastrano several times and Willie was a gentleman, he was nice and didn’t talk that much, and Muhammad, of course, was the opposite!

With Muhammad, the talk was strictly pre-empted – I wanted him to talk. He was the first superstar to talk. I used to listen to boxing in New York City when I was a kid and you would never hear a fighter talk. I noticed that his manager would talk, his trainer would talk, his family would talk but never, ever, the fighter.

So it was a nuance that you got to talk to the superstar and I was comfortable with that. The guys that made Muhammad glib, was the guys in England. The different way he’d be interviewed over there encouraged him.

Every time we were there we would do the late night Eamonn Andrews show. I remember one night a few years later [in May 1966] he was on with Lucille Ball and Dudley Moore. Muhammad stole the show and I knew right there that he would be magnetic for a very long time.

It was that first Cooper fight that convinced me Muhammad was ready for Sonny Liston because Cooper could punch. Nobody gets up from the shot that put Muhammad down. After that I knew he could take a shot.

Nobody knew then how hard Muhammad worked. He worked as hard as his mouth talked. He was always the first guy in the gym and the last guy to leave. He was a joy and I knew he was mature enough to beat Sonny Liston. I told everyone that Muhammad would beat Liston. They thought we were both crazy for taking that fight – so much so that they tried to stop the fight with all the hysteria at the weigh-in and pull my guy out. That was strictly pre-empted. He practiced it twice beforehand to make it convincing. He convinced the doctor and he convinced everybody.

We were training for the Floyd Patterson fight in 1965 in Las Vegas. After the workout I said goodbye to Muhammad and he said “OK Ang, I’ll see you tomorrow.” I didn’t follow him around, I made it a point not to personalise the fighters too much. The fighter should have his own life. The next morning a newspaper journalist comes up to me and he asks me why I didn’t tell them Muhammad was going to Phoenix to meet Elijah Muhammad! I had no idea he was going to Phoenix! Elijah Muhammad had asthma so he went to see him! But he was in the gym as we had arranged the next day. No problem. Who am I to tell him what to do?

I didn’t follow him around or get involved in his personal life because I was educated about it in New York City. A kid came to the gym and he said, “Angelo, that wife of mine is getting me down.” I said to him, “Son, you know how women are.” So I went to his house and told his wife to stop getting at him. The fighter didn’t come back to the gym and I disrespected a woman. I learned my lesson right there. Don’t get involved and it was the same with Muhammad. I let him do his thing.

Some of his edge was taken off when he came back in 1970. He was in and out of the gym during his exile but he did nothing other than that, he was not athletic like Ray Leonard who would do all kind of sports – it was strictly boxing for Muhammad. But we did what we could and there was a time when Jimmy Ellis was training for a fight and Muhammad looked after him. He paid for his hotel, he sparred with Jimmy to help him out. That was the kind of kid Muhammad was.

So he had all that time off but I thought he would be ready for Joe Frazier, particularly after he beat Oscar Bonavena in 1970. On the night before the Frazier fight Muhammad did a sitting with one of the magazines until midnight. That was no way to prepare but Muhammad did it because he had told the magazine he would. I didn’t know about it at the time.

We went to the weigh-in the next day at 12 noon and we never left the building because of the crowds. We could not get back to the hotel room and we had to stay there. We had lunch in the sport club for lunch and had to walk around inside Madison Square Garden to walk off the food, and then I made him rest on the rub-down table in the dressing room and we were there until the fight. People don’t know these things because Muhammad didn’t make excuses.

It was a tough fight. Joe was a great fighter and they were made for each other. They could have fought 30 times and each would have been special. My guy started well and won most of the early rounds big. But Joe came on strong and won the late rounds and, of course, that late knockdown to get the decision.

Muhammad accepted that though. He looked at me straight afterwards and he said, “It’s okay, Ang, we’ll get him next time.” And we did. We won the next two so maybe that loss was for the best. I took him to the hospital after that fight because I didn’t like the look of the lump on his jaw, I thought he’d broken it. They wanted to keep him in over night for observation and Muhammad said, “I am not staying in! I’ve got to go back and speak to the newspaper men!”

When he did break his jaw against Ken Norton [March 1973] it really upset me. I felt guilty because it happened in the first round and he wouldn’t let me stop the fight. It was the only time he threatened me: “If you stop this fight I’ll knock you out,” he would say to me.

Kenny had a style to give Muhammad a hard time. I used to call it the “Hopalong Cassidy style.” He took all the slickness out of Muhammad and you couldn’t time Kenny. He was such a good fighter and a big man. He used to bend down to neglect his own height and make things awkward from the Archie Moore teaching.

After the fight, I was crying like a little kid looking at Muhammad on the hospital table with his jaw all wired up. He said through wired teeth “Hey Ang! We will return!” You could not believe the man. That was a special moment.

We all got to be great friends after the fight and Muhammad and Kenny were real close in later life.

When we were in Zaire getting ready to fight George Foreman in 1974, the fight gets postponed. Muhammad decided to stay out there to train and get in even better shape. So we get to the gym and I see a couple of strange faces there. It was two Italian guys and they had an Italian village in the jungle, and they were lend-leased to the Zaire people teaching them how to run steel mills. The whole family were out there in the jungle and they made Muhammad and I Italian food. We took them to the fight.

Prior to that fight he was running through the jungle, not the city as some people have said. Muhammad loved it out there. I knew he would win that fight with Foreman. At that time George was a home run hitter and he would use up all his strength. I believe the George who came back would have had a better chance with Muhammad but the 1974 version was made for him. Which is easy to say now, but I was saying it all along. I did a tape with Muhammad’s father-in-law before the fight and it was recorded that I said Muhammad would stop him. It’s fair to say he was slowing down after that fight, though. I never told Muhammad to stop boxing towards the end of his career. I insinuated he should though. When he was a kid and we were in the gym I showed him a big heavyweight who was jumping rope and the rhythm wasn’t there and I said to Muhammad, “You see that guy? He’s stuttering as he jumps rope. His rhythm has gone and it will never come back.” Muhammad looked at him for a while and then started training himself. So, years later, after I had watched him training, we were riding in a car together and I said, “Muhammad, you’re starting to stutter.”

Every fighter has the God-given right to decide when to quit, but towards the end of his second reign he started to get hit with shots he shouldn’t have. Shots he would have avoided when he was younger. His reflexes had gone.

That fight in Nassau [against Trevor Berbick, December 1981] was unforgivable. But who created it? Muhammad. He ran into a guy on the street from the Bahamas who asked Muhammad why he had never been to their country. Muhammad got it in his head he wanted to go there, and people bulls*****d him into to fighting there. I went with him because I wanted to make sure nothing would go wrong.

I took a plastic surgeon with me in case he got beat up real bad and got cut. I didn’t want him to have any scars or anything. Tommy Hearns was fighting on the bill and won but got cut up really badly. Emanuel Steward was worried sick about him because they looked bad, so the plastic surgeon worked on Tommy and saved his career. He had stitches on the inside and outside of his face.

I don’t blame the boxing for Muhammad’s condition at all. Parkinson’s disease is not attributable to boxing. However, the punches he took throughout his career did not help because they take an effect later in life, but they did not cause the Parkinson’s.

You know something? During all that time of working together, we never had a contract. We enjoyed each other. It was all such a great time and I had so much fun. Muhammad Ali was a rarity. There will never be another like him and it was a joy to work with him. We never had argument. It was just fun from the minute we got together.

This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine