I first met a young Muhammad Ali in March 1962 when he arrived in Los Angeles. All I knew about him was that he had won the 1960 Olympics Light-Heavyweight boxing gold medal and was going to be our headlining boxer at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in April. I was working for Joe Louis (the former heavyweight champion of the world) at the time and had been hired by Louis in 1960 to be the assistant publicist for United World Enterprises, the corporation backing Joe in promoting fights in Los Angeles.
My boss and mentor was an old newspaper sport writer, Sammy Schnitzer, who had been one of the top sports writers in Los Angeles. But, by the end of 1961, Sammy was too ill to work and retired, thus I was elevated to the top spot. We were and would be in direct competition with the “First Lady of Boxing,” Eileen Eaton—a fierce promoter who “loved Louis,” but disliked him for going up against her Olympic Auditorium.
Of course, when I met Ali at the Biltmore Hotel, in downtown Los Angeles, he was Cassius Clay. My job was to make the rounds of the newspapers, television, and radio stations, and to make sure he was a happy camper at the Main Street Gym, where he was training for his fight with George Logan.
Angelo Dundee had been hired by the group of 10 (Louisville, Kentucky business men who were managing Clay at the time), to be his trainer, replacing Archie Moore who was training him following the Olympics. Clay had walked away from Archie Moore’s training camp in San Diego because of certain rules he found uncomfortable. Clay’s management group had originally contacted Louis (and Sugar Ray Robinson), asking them if they would like to be his trainer. Both champions declined the offer, thus enter Dundee who had been Clay’s cut man in previous fights.
From that first meeting we became great friends. He loved the fact that I owned a 1960 Ford Thunderbird convertible, that I had danced in Jailhouse Rock, plus the fact that I was a third-degree blackbelt in Judo,. His brother, Rahman Clay, was always by his side, and trained with him at the famous Main Street Gym in downtown Los Angeles. There was no entourage, and no one to put words in his mouth at the time. He was actually quite quiet and had not yet begun to predict his fights. One afternoon at the gym, I was watching him in the ring, and he looked like he was floating. I commented to him that he appeared to be floating, and he smiled and said, “That sounds nice, maybe one day I might use it…”
He never showed the brashness that would become his theme for most of his fighting career. When I was with him, he was actually very calm, sorta bashful, and definitely was a sweet person, and always a gentleman. He and his brother were like most brothers—they would have an argument, and the silent treatment would begin. Eventually, either Cassius or Rahman would apologize.
Prior to the fight we had a huge dinner at Joe and Martha Louis home in the exclusive district of Los Angeles called Hancock Park. Martha cooked the entire dinner herself, and I remember the Clay brothers couldn’t get enough of the “greens,” and the other old-style southern food she had prepared for that evening. One of the special guests was Joe’s neighbor, Nat King Cole, and my friend, actor Nick Adams, star of the TV series “The Rebel.”
Another thing I took away from meeting Cassius that first fight was how humble he actually was. He absolutely loved Joe Louis too! His eyes, which were so expressive, bright, and alive, would open wide whenever Joe would show up at the gym, or when we would be together at some promotional event. He was also a big tease: he loved to come up behind me and put his hands over my eyes, trying to disguise his voice, he would ask, “Guess who?” And I would say a few names and he would begin to laugh. At one point during that first month, I was invited to have dinner with Cassius and Dundee, where I was asked if I would consider becoming his PR guy after the bout with Logan. I turned the offer down to stay with Louis. Another one of my big mistake? But, hey, I was working for Joe Louis—one of the most beloved champions in the world, and I had a young family and it was growing.
Of course, Clay (he did not become Muhammad Ali until 1964) won with a 6th round TKO over Logan. We brought Cassius back to Los Angeles, and the Sport Arena, to fight the Argentine heavyweight, Alejandro Lavorante, on July 20th, 1962 (another TKO victory in the 4th round).
Next up was his former trainer and a personal friend of Louis, the long-time reigning World Light Heavyweight Champion Archie Moore. The fight was heavily promoted and even Walter Winchell (a famous gossip columnist from New York) was in town to cover the fight. The odds were leaning heavily towards Clay. Archie, at the time, was 46 and had held the title for 10 years, until he was stripped of the title by the various ruling sanctioning groups controlling boxing in those days. Archie was knocked down three times and the fight ended in the 4th round with Clay receiving the victory.
That was the last time I would see him until we met up again in Las Vegas. After my award winning story of the Watts Riot in August 1965, I moved to Las Vegas with my family to be a featured sports writer and columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Clay had just won the Heavy Weight Title from Sonny Liston, and was in town to take on former champion Floyd Patterson at the Las Vegas Convention Center in November 1965. I didn’t enjoy covering that fight as Patterson was not the fighter he once was, suffering from a back injury, and having lost to Sonny Liston twice by knockouts. Ali (he had changed his name by this time) had told the press that he would punish Patterson because he would not recognize his name. Floyd never changed his stance continuing to refer to Ali as Cassius Clay. The fight ended in the 12th round with Patterson losing. Ringside reporters, including me, believed that Ali could’ve knocked Patterson out anytime he wished, but wanted to humiliate the former Heavyweight Champion.
Caesars Palace was still under construction at that time, but eventually it would become the arena of choice for 90 percent of the major fights in the village. We continued to see each other through the years. He always remembered me.
It is extremely hard to wrap up a lifetime of “Hello’s and See ya” in one column. But, I have tried. I can honestly say that I met a true champion of the people. Muhammad Ali was so loved by the men, women, and children of the world, and he loved them back. Ali was honest with his heart much to his detriment a couple of times when he could’ve turned his cheek and walked away (or stepped forward). But that was not the young man I first met in 1962, nor the last time I saw him at Caesars Palace. He autographed a famous photo for me. We said “goodbye,” and I walked away from his suite.
These are a few photographs I was able to recover from over 55 years of moving from house to house, and from state to state.
THIS AND THAT QUICKLY:
Like you I am hunkered down in my apartment, watching a lot of television, and sorta working on my biography for a book I eventually hope to write. But I have suddenly become a construction assistant in my complex, and also a timer for a speed contest. Thought you might enjoy reading about my new pastimes.
Now my new Chevrolet is parked under a canopy and sits outside in the fresh air. It seems to be a favorite landing field for some “blackbirds” who come swooping down and land on my cars roof. Well, I soon learned that they were not only using it as a rest stop but were leaving behind a little gift. Bird poop. By the way, bird poop is hard to get rid of even with a car wash. Well to pass some time away I decided to time the birds from the time they landed to the first tail wiggle. To my amazement it took less than a three count before the first poop was deposited. Isn’t that interesting?
Now to the construction project I was put in charge of. A pair of small brown birds had discovered my hedge right in front of my big window. I would watch them come and go from inside the hedge. They were happy chirpers! I soon discovered that they were building a nest inside the hedge. It became evident that they were having a problem getting the long twigs they had brought to the hedge inside. So, they would drop the twig and fly away, returning with another twig, a leaf, or something in its beak. One day, having absolutely nothing else to do, I walked outside after both birds had left and got two of the long twigs, broke them up into little pieces and put them back on the hedge where I had found them. When the first bird returned it went inside the hedge with a small leaf in its beak, came out, looked around, picked up one of the small twigs I had produced for them, and took it inside the hedge. Well, gang, this continued for at least a week. And the chirping got louder, and other birds began to come by and stand on the hedge and chirp away. I want to believe they were thanking me for helping my two birds to build their nest.
So, now I sit watching TV and watching my two brown birds come and go. Can’t wait to see a hatchling or two maybe.