Jeff Jardine

Ali’s death rekindles memories of a day I spent with ‘The Greatest’

The Sportsmen of Stanislaus Club invited Muhammad Ali to speak in Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday, May 18, 1971.
The Sportsmen of Stanislaus Club invited Muhammad Ali to speak in Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday, May 18, 1971. Modesto Bee file

“The Greatest” sat in a chair in a hotel room in Stockton, his voice just a whisper.

This magic moment commenced in 1982, when Muhammad Ali came to town to box an exhibition, if you could call it that, with Stockton City Councilman Ralph Lee White. Then a young sportswriter at The Record in Stockton, I spent much of the day hanging out with Ali before the event, which amounted to little more than a pillow fight though most fans hoped Ali would become lost in the moment and land one right hand squarely on Ralph’s jaw. He didn’t. Ali just clowned.

I couldn’t blame Ali if he wasn’t into being interviewed that morning. He seemed bored with my questions about Joe Frazier and George Foreman and Jimmy Young and the other fighters he’d met in his career. Been there, done that, and way too many times by way too many reporters.

Suddenly, his eyes lit up. Ali looked at me and said, “Abe Lincoln woke up from a three-day drunk and said, ‘I freed who?’ ” It’s an old joke and certainly not original, but he told it with a purpose. He waited for my response. And just how, Mr. The Greatest, was I supposed to react to that? If I laughed, I must think slavery was funny. If I didn’t, I risked insulting the former heavyweight champion of the world by not laughing at his joke.

He seemed pleased that I looked a bit shocked and uncomfortable. The exercise was a test, not to mention entertaining for him. Satisfied he’d gained control of the situation, he winked at me, performed a couple of cheesy magic tricks and finally began talking about some of the great fights, the gut-check moments and the mind games he played with his opponents.

He invariably won the mind games. But nobody wins the time game, and certainly not after a lifetime of physical poundings like ones he took in the ring over more than two decades. Frazier, Foreman, Ernie Shavers, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle and so many other big punchers exacted their toll, win or lose, and aided Parkinson’s disease in landing the knockout blow.

Ali’s death at 74 on Friday moved me because, like for so many people who lived through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, he commanded and demanded most of attention not only in boxing but also in society. Ali exuded brashness and cockiness that unsettled generations of mostly white sports fans who were accustomed to the quiet, unstated confidence of Joe DiMaggio and other superstars of the preceding decades. When Ali converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay, he forever severed a religious tie with mainstream America.

He challenged America’s conscience about the Vietnam War when he refused induction into the Army, becoming a magnet for hatred. My dad made many trips to Stockton to watch Ali on closed-circuit TV, hoping that someone would finally knock that “draft dodger” out. Dad generally came home disappointed, but did he really think Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell, Zora Folley or the rest would send him home satisfied?

Ali promoted his fights like no other, but always at the expense of opponents who could never match his wit, charisma and persona. He mesmerized some opponents and infuriated others so cruelly that they abandoned their fight plans at the opening bell and succumbed to his. From the early 1960s until he’d lost pathetically to champion Larry Holmes and again to minimally talented Trevor Berbick in the early 1980s, Ali ran mind games on an entire nation.

He became an era unto himself, and part of my life not unlike a friend or relative. His career spanned my entire childhood and into my adult life. He won his first fight when I was 3 and his first title when I was 6. He lost his first fight, to Frazier in March 1971 (two months before he spoke at the SOS Club in Modesto), when I was in eighth grade and his last, in 1981 to Berbick, two years after I graduated from college.

And suddenly, there I sat in a room with the world’s most recognizable person of my lifetime. Serious wow. Read newspapers and online sites from across the country since Friday, and you’ll find literally hundreds of postings from others who had their own moments with Ali and tell their own stories. Mine that day from 34 years ago was unforgettable, even if it mostly involved hanging around in the background while he met endless streams of other people he forgot the moment they left the room, or so I thought.

After the exhibition that night, Ali and his entourage moved on to another appearance someplace else, granting interviews to some other wide-eyed young reporter like me. I moved on to The Modesto Bee in 1988. A year or so later, I traveled to Las Vegas to cover a big fight, possibly Sugar Ray Leonard’s third and final bout with Roberto Duran at the Mirage.

When it ended, I wrote and filed my column and sidebar, and then went into the press dining area. As I sat at a table alone, a man came over, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Champ wants to know if we can join you.” Certainly. A number of former champions, including Alexis Arguello, attended the fight. Any one of them would have been welcome.

Instead, I looked up to see Ali ambling toward the table. He sat down a few chairs over, but he glanced repeatedly in my direction. Finally, in a hushed tone, he whispered something to the man sitting next to him. The man then leaned over toward me and said, “Champ says you look familiar.” I replied that I’d spent a day with Ali in Stockton in 1982. Ali nodded. When I got up to leave, he shook my hand, said a few words and off I went.

I don’t recall ever seeing him again in person. I can tell you without shame that I choked up when Ali emerged atop the stadium in Atlanta in 1996, bearing the Olympic flame in his shaking hands, including the one I’d shaken on a couple of occasions.

Ali is gone now, his greatest moments left for the ages in film and video. But sitting in the hotel room in Stockton watching him do magic tricks with his thumbs and testing me with jokes rates as a pretty good memory, too.