TORONTO (June 4) — Twice in my life, I saw Muhammad Ali live.
The first was on Apr. 26, 1975 during an otherwise–forgetful event in which former heavyweight champion George Foreman devoured five stiffs at Maple Leaf Gardens. Appropriately, it was called FOREMAN vs. FIVE. Ali and his media–alter ego, Howard Cosell, were at ringside calling the affair for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. It was six months after Ali had startled the boxing universe by knocking out Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire to regain the heavyweight crown. All the entertainment that day at the Gardens was provided by Foreman sneering at Ali — who stood just outside the ring with Cosell — and Ali, ever the showman, tossing lefts and rights at the ex–champ from his broadcasting perch. I took photos of Ali and Cosell. They are in an album somewhere in my apartment locker. One day, when sufficiently motivated, I’ll dig them out.
The second time I saw Ali live was from a far–greater distance, more than 21 years afterward, while sitting in the upper deck of the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta on July 19, 1996. I had no right to be at the Opening Ceremony of the ’96 Summer Olympics as my employer (The FAN–590) was a non–rights holder. Rules stipulated that only print media and reporters that worked for electronic right–holders (the CBC in Canada) could attend “ticketed” events — those that required accreditation beyond the pass we all wore around our necks. However, a person from Toronto in the Canadian media office who thought highly of my Leafs coverage slipped me a ducat for the Opening Ceremony. And, I was able — through binoculars — to watch a trembling Ali ignite the Olympic cauldron at the north end of the stadium. On this day, a blessed memory.
When I think of Ali, though, what comes to mind most clearly are the big fights of the 1970’s that I attended with my family on closed–circuit TV at Maple Leaf Gardens. During an era long–before pay–per–view in your livingroom, these mega–events would be shown in theaters and arenas across North America. At the Gardens, a giant screen was perched at a level just below the north–mezzanine Blues. All seats other than those at the north end (and in the extreme northeast and northwest corners, without a proper viewing angle) were sold, as were 3,000 or so chairs placed in rows along the floor. During hockey season, the Gardens ice was covered by a wooden plank, but your feet would still become rather cold — and quickly.
I had just turned 11 when Dad took me to MLG for the first encounter — Mar. 8, 1971 — between Ali and Joe Frazier. Ali had recently returned from three years of exile resulting from his stand against conscription into the United States military (he was born Cassius Marcellus Clay — Jan. 17, 1942 — in Louisville, Kentucky). The war in Vietnam was raging. Ali’s refusal to be drafted — he claimed “conscientious objector” status given a vow of allegiance (in 1964) to the Nation of Islam — led to his arrest and the annulling of his heavyweight title. He spent much of the time between 1967 and 1969 lecturing at universities about the ravages of war and the fruits of his religion. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction and Ali successfully fought come–back bouts, in late–1970, against Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena.
POSTER FOR CLOSED–CIRCUIT PRESENTATION OF ALI vs. FRAZIER–1 AT A THEATER IN PARAMUS, N.J. AND COVER OF THE OFFICIAL FIGHT PROGRAM FROM MADISON SQUARE GARDEN IN NEW YORK.
With Ali unable to fight legally in the U.S., his heavyweight belt went up for grabs during a tournament conducted by the World Boxing Association at the Oakland Coliseum–Arena. Jimmy Ellis defeated Jerry Quarry on Apr. 27, 1968 to claim the title. Ellis then lost the heavyweight championship to Frazier at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 16, 1970. Ali’s knockouts of Quarry and Bonavena set up what the poster, above, called “the greatest event in all sports history” — his clash with Frazier, also at MSG, on Mar. 8, 1971.
To that point in my life, I had only once been on the floor of Maple Leaf Gardens — at ring–side for a wrestling show in April 1970 (The Sheik defeated Flying Fred Curry). As such, I still remember how surreal it was to walk out from the same corridor as the Maple Leafs dressing room for the closed–circuit TV showing of Ali and Frazier. Dad and I sat roughly halfway from the screen (somewhere around the center–ice line). And, any person that saw the epic fight will recall his or her astonishment when Frazier sent Ali to the canvas with a thundering left hook in the 15th (and final) round. It was the first–such tumble of Ali’s career. In the end, both judges (and referee Arthur Mercante) had Frazier well ahead on their score–cards and Ali lost for the very first time — Frazier retaining his heavyweight championship on points.
NEW YORK TIMES COVERAGE OF ALI vs. FRAZIER AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN — MAR. 8, 1971. IT IS REMEMBERED AS ARGUABLY THE GREATEST SPORTING EVENT OF THE 20th CENTURY.
Dad and I were situated even closer to the screen at Maple Leaf Gardens for the famous “rope–a–dope” fight between Ali and George Foreman on Oct. 29, 1974 (the wee hours of the morning, Oct. 30, in Kinshasa, Zaire). Nine months earlier, Foreman, 25, had annihilated Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica with half–a–dozen knockdowns before the fight was mercifully stopped at 1:35 of the second round. I can still hear Howard Cosell repeatedly yelping in wonderment “Down goes Frazier!!” as the slaughter unfolded. Foreman claimed the heavyweight title and most in the rational world felt he would similarly obliterate Ali — then nearly 33.
Halfway through the bout, which had been surprisingly tame, Ali began leaning on the ropes — covering his face and chin with arms and gloves — while inviting Foreman to pound away at his body. This was roughly the equivalent of asking someone to throw a boulder at you from three feet. I remember thinking Ali had either lost his mind or grown suicidal (perhaps both). Ultimately, it was a plot the great fighter shared with no one beforehand; not even his sacred corner–man, Angelo Dundee. Understanding that Foreman had rarely endured multiple rounds while quickly destroying opponents, Ali figured his vaunted rival would grow weary from throwing punches. Even if they were targeted for his ribs and torso. Later dubbed the “rope–a–dope,” Ali’s perilous scheme worked to perfection. Toward the end of each round, he would spring from the ropes with a flurry of combinations. By the eighth, Foreman was running on fumes.
Ali landed a five–punch combo; a quick left hook to the chin, and a smashing right to the face. Foreman stumbled to the canvas like a drunken sailor and Ali regained the heavyweight title with two seconds remaining in the round. It is still considered the greatest upset in professional boxing history — rivaled only by Cassius Clay’s astounding defeat of Charles (Sonny) Liston on Feb. 25, 1964 in Miami Beach.
Eleven months after felling Foreman — and five months after taunting him with Howard Cosell at ringside in Maple Leaf Gardens — Ali defended his heavyweight crown against Joe Frazier in Manila, capitol of the Philippines. Again, Dad and I sat on the floor at MLG and were joined, somewhat reluctantly, by my late Mom (Sandee) and my 14–year–old sister (Cori). The third and final clash between the American–born rivals was brutal and debilitating. I grew exhausted by merely watching them slug it out. Frazier’s swollen face was barely recognizable when his corner–man, Eddie Futch, refused to allow him out for the 15th round.
After winning the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali said it was the “closest to death” he’d ever felt.
CLOSED–CIRCUIT POSTERS FOR THE “RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE” (ALI vs. FOREMAN IN 1974) AND THE “THRILLA IN MANILA” (ALI vs. FRAZIER IN 1975) — THE LATTER, A MAPLE LEAF GARDENS VERSION.
ALI vs. CHUVALO AT THE GARDENS
Only once in his career did Ali fight here in Toronto.
It was a consolation bout, if you will, after Illinois State Attorney General William Clark — vehemently disapproving of Ali’s anti–war sentiment — canceled a heavyweight unification match in Chicago against Ernie Terrell. The fight was re–scheduled to take place in Canada, at the Montreal Forum, but Terrell (for many reasons) backed out. That’s when George Chuvalo and Harold Ballard stepped in — Chuvalo, the Canadian heavyweight champion; Ballard, the chief bottle–washer at Maple Leaf Gardens.
In the first week of March 1966, arrangements were made for Ali to defend his title against Chuvalo. The Gardens’ schedule was jammed with events involving the Leafs; the Junior Toronto Marlboros; professional wrestling and the American Hockey League Rochester Americans — playing half–a–dozen “home” games here in town (Rochester was the Leafs’ AHL affiliate). The only vacancy occurred on Mar. 29 (a Tuesday), and it provided Chuvalo a mere three weeks to prepare for the fight.
TICKET AND OFFICIAL PROGRAM FROM ALI vs. CHUVALO IN 1966 AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS.
It became one of the most memorable non–hockey nights ever at the Gardens. Though preposterously over–matched by Ali’s quickness, Chuvalo took everything the champ could throw… and stayed on his feet throughout the 15–round struggle. Ali was awarded a landslide decision, but the brave and resilient Chuvalo gained iconic status in his home country and a deluge of respect throughout the boxing world.
A decade later, having just turned 17, I was nervously awaiting abdominal surgery for Crohn’s Disease at Toronto General Hospital. One of the local papers had a story on the upcoming anniversary of the Ali–Chuvalo match and I realized it occurred exactly 10 years before my scheduled operation (Mar. 29, 1976). I mentioned this to Dad, who was visiting, and he told me for the first time that he’d attended the fight at Maple Leaf Gardens with several partners from his accounting firm. I thought that was exceptionally cool.
THE ALI READER
Of the many books written about Muhammad Ali, these three — in my view — stand out.
I would recommend you find them in stores, or on–line.
THE DEATH OF MUHAMMAD ALI LED OFF NEWSCASTS AROUND THE WORLD ALL DAY TODAY.