Nothing rank about
looking back at Ali

Jan 27, 2004 6:26 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: (Second in a now-and-then series trying to avoid losing money by looking back at Muhammad Ali with the help of his former Great Facilitator and longtime Las Vegan, Gene Kilroy)


The fights are disappearing into the shadows as quickly as Bob Arum’s Top Rank employees hiding from bad questions.

There was a fine Feb. 7 double-header on Showtime scheduled from two continents. Then Kostya Tszyu threw out a shoulder in Moscow, James Toney tore an Achilles tendon and suddenly the Las Vegas portion of the telecast was off. Next week, we get to see minor major fights on HBO, but since they’re promoted by Top Rank, I’m not going to talk about odds or overlays.

It seems Sean "The Shovel" Gibbons made the bouts, anyway (he didn’t, it just seems that way). I mean, Antonio Margarito vs. Hercules Poirot or something? Miguel Cotto vs. another morsel (Cesar Bazan, an old fodder, was being offered around by the Shovel, by the way). So take the floor once again Mr. Kilroy.

Gene Kilroy was an Army lieutenant when he first met Cassius Clay, the Vietnam War’s most famous draft-dodger That during the champion’s enforced exile from boxing, when the New York State Athletic Commission started the avalanche by stripping him of title recognition because of Ali’s stance on what has now come to be regarded as a stupid war (aren’t most?). Kilroy, the former Army officer, soon became one of Ali’s greatest friends and allies in the darkest hours.

"I remember, Ali and me, we’d talk late into the night and he’d say how the rich people in Vietnam went to Paris and the poor had to fight the war," said Kilroy. "It was the same here. It was an unjust and unholy war. Later, even (former Secretary of Defense) Robert McNamara (one of the leading hawks of the day) admitted that.

"I remember Melvin Belli, the big lawyer, told Ali we could sue any state that had denied him a boxing license. Ali said, ”˜No, they did what they believed in their hearts was right, same as I did.’ He never wanted to hurt anyone."

Reconciliation took a long time for a nation divided by war. Floyd Patterson, for example, took years to accept Ali as Ali. Kilroy, who wants it known that he has only worked in four casinos during his long career in Vegas (he can so hold a job, and for good reason), thinks it was at Mike Tyson’s fight against Trevor Berbick when he was seated with Patterson and Floyd’s missus.

"I always call him Clay," said Patterson.

Kilroy, demonstrating his tact and diplomacy, asked "If Molly McGuire became a nun and changed her name to Sister Mary Angela, you’d call her that, right?" Mrs. Patterson said, "Yes."

Finally, Floyd said, "Yeah, Gene’s right."

It seems strange sometimes how history keeps repeating. Here we are again, in the middle of another controversial war (it ain’t over in Iraq just because George W. says it is, not when our kids are dying every day), boxing is again in "trouble" and my thoughts return to Ali.

He was not a great thinker. He was just a good man - far from perfect, and you can ask Ernie Terrell or Floyd Patterson and even Joe Frazier about that - with a good heart and nice instincts.

"I got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he said innocently.

Kilroy, who did his tour in Germany, remembered another U.S. Olympic boxer, Bobby Carmody, who won silver as a flyweight in 1964 in Tokyo. Carmody, a career soldier, was shipped to ’Nam in 1969. Three days later, he was killed. Kilroy and one of Carmody’s Tokyo teammates, Joe Frazier, went to the funeral together.

Ali, of course, became more than a boxing icon. He was bigger than the sport ”” "Sport? They’d hold in sewers if there was head room." ”” Rod Serling in "Requiem for a Heavyweight."

Maybe the guys in Top Rank went for a swim in the sewers. It all seems like a terrible waste of taxpayer money to probe whether Butterbean fights were on the up and up, not when Osama Bin Laden lurks elsewhere. But if your bowels aren’t clean, your body is in danger, so even something as trivial as boxing’s underside must be held accountable.

Ali lifted the game to its greatest heights, yes, higher than when such giants as Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson walked the Earth. In the beginning, he learned from observing Gorgeous George, the honest rassler, that it doesn’t matter if half the public hates you and the other half adores you. Both will come out to see you. He paved the way for baseball and football players to make tons of money.

"Herbert Muhammad was a good manager," said Kilroy of Elijah Muhammad’s son. "When Jim Brown was making $40,000 a year, and Y.A. Tittle $50,000, Herbert got Ali $300,000, $400,000 a fight."

Was that Ali’s purpose, to pave the way for 18-year-old kids like LeBron James to become obscenely rich? Of course not. It’s just another thing, though, that he should get credit for.