Ailene Voisin

Muhammad Ali was one of a kind, but always one of us

Muhammad Ali speaks at a 1967 anti-war rally in Chicago. During a week of training in Las Vegas in 1971, he lured hundreds of spectators to his sparring and chat sessions. He was part boxer, part entertainer and pure charisma.
Muhammad Ali speaks at a 1967 anti-war rally in Chicago. During a week of training in Las Vegas in 1971, he lured hundreds of spectators to his sparring and chat sessions. He was part boxer, part entertainer and pure charisma. Associated Press file

Muhammad Ali had the final word, of course. He planned his own funeral services, ensuring that people of all races, genders, religions and ethnicities could celebrate his life and grieve over his death, and do so together.

Somehow, it feels like the perfect ending. The man who was a polarizing, even despised figure in the 1960s, whose refusal to join the armed services on religious grounds cost him 3 1/2 of his prime boxing years, was a dissenter with a wide tent.

He remained true to his beliefs – some of which remained unpopular – and taught lessons on inclusion. There was no textbook, no notebook, no teleprompter, no grand plan.

There was just Ali. When he entered a room, the world became a cherished place. Those of us who spent time in his company and covered some of his fights in the 1970s speak of his extraordinary good looks, his exceptional footwork, his fast, powerful hands and those eyes. Those eyes danced, often with mischief, often with anger, most often with kindness.

My introduction to Ali occurred in the summer of 1971, when I was working in Las Vegas as a busgirl at the coffee shop in Caesars Palace.

The three-time world champ spent a week training in one of the hotel’s massive convention halls, luring hundreds of spectators to his daily sparring and chat sessions. He was part boxer, part entertainer, but pure charisma. When he wasn’t working out, he and his trainer, the late Angelo Dundee, would sit in a booth in the middle of the coffee shop, signing autographs and talking with diners and employees for hours.

I poured Ali so much coffee, I don’t know how the man’s bladder survived. We all hovered. We all wanted more. He teased us relentlessly, asked about our lives, lectured us about staying in school and out of trouble.

My late mother was a hostess in the coffee shop as well, and when Ali heard she had just earned her teaching credential, he called her over and asked what grade she would teach. “First grade,” she replied, shyly. Ali smiled and autographed several photos and doilies for her first classroom.

Las Vegas was a small town then. The mob ran most of the unions and the casinos, and professional boxing dominated the sports scene. Sonny Liston’s modest house was on the tour of places to see, the rumors about throwing his first Ali fight unrelenting. Joe Louis, his mental capacities severely diminished in his later years, nonetheless was a greeter at Caesars Palace. But Ali’s presence electrified the region, his frequent visits commanding extensive coverage.

The next time I met Ali?

While enrolled for my sophomore year at UNLV, I was hired as a part-time sportswriter for the Las Vegas Sun. Most of my novice coverage involved preps, bowling tournaments, celebrity tennis or softball games. But in February 1973, I was given one of the most memorable assignments of my career: Ali’s weeklong training sessions and his Valentine’s Day fight against Joe Bugner.

I was, what? All of 18? I thought my boss was insane, but I was ecstatic. That is, until I walked into the convention hall and reintroduced myself to Dundee.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked. When I explained that I was a college student and cub sports journalist, he was apoplectic. He threw up his hands and motioned around a room that was smelly and smoke-filled and almost exclusively male, and insisted sports journalism was a dirty business and I should find another career.

Well, that wasn’t happening, the poor working conditions notwithstanding. Instead, I surveyed the room and quickly attached myself to UPI bureau chief Myram Borders, a tough, veteran reporter who was on a first-name basis with mobsters Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, Frank Cullotta and Lefty Rosenthal, among others.

“UPI didn’t have anyone else, so I covered most of the sports events, starting in the ’60s,” she said the other day. “I met Ali when he was still Cassius Clay, and I remember thinking how unique he was. He talked in rhyme, right off the top of his head, sounding almost like a musician. I was fascinated to the point where I almost forgot to take notes.”

What Borders never forgot – and nor have I – was Ali’s graciousness toward the only two women in the room. Between questions, he repeatedly looked over at us, nodding slightly, as if inviting us to join the conversation.

“The boxing scene could be very difficult for women reporters back then,” Borders continued. “Despite the fact I had dressing room passes to all the fights and press conferences, often times the guards wouldn’t let me in. One time I got so mad I rang the telephone in the room, interrupting a press conference, and said, ‘This is UPI, and I have a question.’ But Ali was very different. None of that happened with him.”

Though many Americans were alienated or threatened by Ali’s religious and political beliefs, or even his brazen, dynamic personality, he was the prince of that Caesars Palace coffee shop in the summer of 1971 and, as it turns out, probably any other time. When Ali fought George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, for the heavyweight crown in October 1974, a radio in the kitchen relayed the round-by-round results.

The mood was somber for most of the fight, with Ali absorbing blow after blow and countering with his rope-a-dope, take-cover strategy. Foreman appeared to be the sure winner until the eighth round, when Ali delivered a devastating pair of combinations, the final right hand dropping the exhausted champion to the canvas.

That night in the coffee shop in Caesars? I was at the Tropicana watching the fight on the big screen, but my brother, Chris, was bussing tables at the bosses’ station. In his words: “We kept walking to the kitchen to hear the latest news on the radio, and when we heard that Ali came back and won the fight, it was pure pandemonium. We were screaming, high-fiving. Some of the waitresses started crying. The bosses weren’t too happy, because most of them had bet big money on Foreman, but that was just too bad.”

Ali, of course, was deprived of his beautiful voice the last two decades of his life because of Parkinson’s disease. But along with his contributions as a social activist, philanthropist and all-around American treasure, he provided his country – and the world – one more surprise: Atlanta, 1996.

Do you remember where you were then? Small world, circular world, indeed. I had just left Craig Sager’s restaurant in midtown Atlanta with my mother, eager to get home to watch Opening Ceremonies. We plopped down on the couch, wondering how the Games’ organizers could possibly duplicate the spectacular opening four years earlier in Barcelona, when the Three Tenors sang Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and the cauldron was lit with an arrow.

Then the stands parted, and there he was, the flame in his hand, shaking, smiling, eliciting the gasp heard round the world. I often wonder what he was thinking at that moment. Could he feel the love? Did he sense what he meant to so many people? To blue-collar kids in a coffee shop, gritty reporters at his fights, first graders in an impoverished elementary school? To the political leaders forced to accept that Ali was right about Vietnam? The Champ won that fight, too.