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The Greatest!

Jan 20, 2004 7:06 AM

(This is the first in a series of articles featuring Muhammad Ali, designed to take minds off the ugliness in boxing.)

Gene Kilroy had had to watch his boss, and friend, Muhammad Ali, get thoroughly beaten by Larry Holmes and now he was wandering, almost aimlessly, around Caesars Palace when he bumped into none other but Frank Sinatra.

"I was friends with Joe Louis," Sinatra told Ali’s loyal aide. "I loved Joe Louis. But there”˜s a man upstairs who has nothing to be ashamed of."

Kilroy, formerly of Mahonoy City, Pa. and the United States Army, later to become an executive at most every casino in Las Vegas, went upstairs in time to witness the sweetest of endings to that sad night. Holmes, who had raced through the post-fight press conference, was visiting Ali.

Ali was lying on his bed, a beaten man, physically but not spiritually.

"Holmes, I want Holmes," he whispered. It had been his chant during the preflight buildup.

"You wanna go a couple more rounds, Boss?" said Holmes gently.

"No, man, you’re bad," said Ali.

"Look at the teacher I had," said Holmes

Kilroy, who first met a young Cassius Clay while in the Army and later became an ally when Ali was exiled from boxing for refusing induction into the draft, was responsible for Holmes’s education. He was the one who had brought Holmes to Ali’s training camp, the one in Deer Lake, Pa., that Kilroy had helped build in 1970 and 1971.

"Gene, he gave me gloves when I didn’t have nothing, he let me travel with Ali," said Holmes from his home in Easton, Pa. "I think Gene Kilroy was the only one who kept me in boxing back then."

Kilroy was thinking of all these bittersweet ironies because it was Ali’s 62d birthday this weekend. Later this year, Ali will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his first gaining the heavyweight championship, from Sonny Liston, and the 30th anniversary of when he won it back from George Foreman in Zaire. Last year was the silver anniversary of his third heavyweight championship, when he beat Leon Spinks in the rematch.

Next year, there’ll be the 30th anniversary of the Thrilla in Manila, the rubber match of his great trilogy with his greatest rival, Joe Frazier. Ali is a living reason to have a party.

And with the dark clouds again gathering over boxing, with Bob Arum now facing pressure from the feds, the game could do worse than to look back with pride at its most gloried past. It sure beats wondering why our tax dollars are being spent to see if Butterbean’s fights have been fixed.

"If I should die and go to heaven," said Kilroy, "it would be a step down for me after spending all that time with Ali. We were like two kids going down the highway."

They were on the highway together when Ali first fought in Vegas. Ali decided to take his bus. He was fighting Jerry Quarry the second time.

"We were about 12 hours outside Deer Lake and it was snowing like hell and Ali said maybe we should’ve taken the plane," said Kilroy. "Alonzo Johnson (a trainer) and I drove the bus. Alonzo, when he didn’t train, he was a truck driver. Anyway, we’re coming to St. Louis and there’s a car stuck in the snow, an elderly couple. Ali says stop the bus, we’ve got to help. I said we couldn’t take chances, getting hit by a car or something. Ali said, ”˜Don’t worry, God’ll look after us.’

"The couple sees us, ”˜Oh, my God, it’s Ali.’ ”˜Just kidding around,’ he says and we push the car out of the snow. We get to Vegas, we’re walking down the center aisle at Caesars and this old man comes up to us and says, ”˜Ali, anything you want, just ask.’ Ali says Bill Cosby is playing over at the Las Vegas Hilton and the old man says, ”˜You got tickets.’ Ali says to the old man, if anyone messes with him, come to him and he’ll leave the hotel. The old man says, ”˜Ali, I’m Billy Weinberger, I’m the president here.’

"Lloyd Price (the hall of fame rock and roller and longtime Ali buddy) said when Ali fought in Vegas, forget about getting a room — you couldn’t get a phone call through the hotels."

There was a reason for all this, of course. Hopefully, in the coming weeks, before we get back to such mundane matters as making money, I’ll be able to write it as well as Kilroy spoke it. In these troubling times, a boxing writer could do a lot worse than conjure up Muhammad Ali stories. He was, remember, The Greatest. The Louisville Lip has mellowed over the years, though, Kilroy said.

"Someone asked him recently if he thought he was the greatest of all time," said Kilroy. "He said, at his time, he was The Greatest, but Joe Louis, at his time was the greatest and Rocky Marciano, at his time was the greatest, and Mike Tyson, at his time, was the greatest."

Ali’s time, of course, was the greatest, spanning from Liston to Holmes, with Frazier, Foreman, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, Floyd Patterson, Jimmy Ellis, et al, in between. It was the Golden Age of heavyweights. Lucky for us, Kilroy was there — a 24-karat character.