Muhammad Ali was the most popular guy in both the world and the McKenna household throughout my formative years. So I’m sad today, sadder than I’ll be about any other athlete’s death ever again.
Nobody could mean as much to me. The first boxing match I ever watched on TV was in October 1970, when my father and I watched a replay of Ali pounding on plodding tough guy Jerry Quarry on ABC’s weekly sports magazine show, Wide World of Sports:
That was Ali’s comeback fight after risking his career by refusing military service during the Vietnam War, and I’d known for some time that he was my dad’s hero, so he was my hero.
I made my first sports bet several months later, for Ali vs. Frazier I, which I’d still rank as the most anticipated sporting event of all time. I wagered a quarter with Mr. Masline, the phys ed teacher at Westlawn Elementary, that Ali would beat Frazier. I wasn’t allowed to stay up for the result on fight night, but I remember being crushed the next morning to learn I’d lost my bet, and taunted at school by my teacher when I paid up. Sports Illustrated showed up in the mailbox a few days later with Ali on the cover, falling toward the Madison Square Garden canvas under the headline End of the Ali Legend. I remember being about as stunned to learn he wore red tassels on his boxing boots—an outrageous bit of accessorizing for a boxer at the time—as by his having been knocked down.
I remember waking up in the wee hours on a fall morning in 1974 and running to the stacks of Washington Post newspapers that I’d be delivering and learning that Ali had KO’d George Foreman in Zaire, and that the legend was again alive and well. He had a pretty large presence in D.C. for the next several years, during his King of the World phase, spending time here either training for title fights held locally—he fought both Jimmy Young and Alfredo Evangelista at the Capital Centre in nearby Largo, Md.—or for summits with bigwigs on Capitol Hill or the White House.
I bug anybody around here with an Ali connection to get them to tell me their stories. I’ve coaxed Harold Bell, a pioneering and volatile local sportscaster, to retell how he landed the first interview with the champ after he returned to the U.S. after the Rumble in the Jungle. And on several occasions I’ve gotten Robin Ficker, an incredible character best known for heckling at Washington Bullets games and running for every possible political office, to tell his seemingly tall tales of training with Ali in DC and sleepovers at the champ’s cabin in Deer Lake, Pa., in the 1970s, and show me the photos that prove every amazing story. My lifelong buddy Pat still holds over me that as a grade schooler he snuck into a ringside seat for the Ali vs. Evangelista fight, but I’m awed every time he brags about it.
I only saw Ali in person once, in October 2005, at MCI Center in D.C. the night of Mike Tyson’s fight against Kevin McBride, the last bout of Tyson’s career. After the fight, Ali strolled through the bowels of the arena on his way to the garage. The crowd parted to let him shuffle by, and he came within a few feet of me.
Ali appeared to be heavily medicated and his head seemed misshapen as he slowly went past. He wasn’t talking to anybody, and it wasn’t clear he could. But damaged as he surely was, Ali oozed an otherworldly level of serenity. Everybody around me was reaching out and touching Ali. I’d once come equally close to a pope, but his spiritual aura was no match for the champ’s, at least to me. Then again, I’d never bet a quarter on the holy father.