In troubled times, think Ali

Feb 3, 2004 3:59 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: (Third in a sporadic series about Muhammad Ali, but also remembering that there is action upcoming and we don’t mean which defensive lineman gets the first sack in the Pro Bowl).

It’s my kid’s birthday, she’s 22 now and I don’t know what to get her. She’s already met Muhammad Ali and she’s been taken to dinner by Gene Kilroy and has twice visited the South Pacific island for which she was named, Moorea, which as you all know, is five miles across the Sea of Moons from Tahiti.

Recently, I lost my father and my daughter lost her mother 14 years ago and I got to thinking about mortality. It didn’t help my mood that I visited the doctor the other day — nothing seriously wrong, except diabetes, arthritis of the spine, high blood pressure and on and on.

Wonderfully, Ali came to my psychic rescue again. I don’t know what it is about him, but he just makes people feel good. Anyway, Kilroy tells the story of Atlanta, where Ali had his first fight after being exiled for 3½ for refusing his draft induction. He was going to face Jerry Quarry, who probably would have been a five or six-time champion had he come along a couple of decades later, in what only Ali could have called a "tuneup."

There was more than rust, though, that he had to shake off. There was a death threat.

Kilroy, who had yet to be "officially" embedded in the Ali camp, was there nonetheless in Atlanta when he told Herbert Muhammad, Ali’s manager, about a phone call threatening to blow up the fighter’s home in Philadelphia.

Kilroy wanted to know if he should tell Ali. He was pleased to report, these many years later, that Herbert replied, "By all means, he should know."

So Ali was told. Now, as Kilroy points out, Ali finished something like 146th out of his Louisville graduating class of 150. He flunked the intelligence part of his draft tests the first time around. But there can be no questioning Ali’s intellect. He is a bright, intuitive man and, like Kilroy says, back in school all Ali could think about was boxing.

"He picked out something he wanted to do with his life and concentrated on that," says Kilroy, now a Vegas perennial. "He could have done it with anything, but he loved boxing."

There can be little doubt as to Ali’s natural smarts when he was told about the bomb threat to his wife and children back home while he was in Atlanta. Kilroy said Ali thought a moment and then decided, "If someone’s going to get you, he’s going to get you, I just put my trust in Allah."

There was more than blind faith, though.

"Besides," Ali added, "if someone calls you before, nothing will happen. You got to look out for the people who don’t call."

From King to England

There is no proper segue from life and death matters concerning an American hero to a fight coming up next Friday in Sheffield, England which, while the hometown of Prince Naseem Hamed, does not receive too many tourist buses. But we go to Sheffield, in the English Midlands, because that’s where Clinton Woods and Glencoffe Johnson, the hard-luck American, will try again to settle one of those alphabet light-heavyweight titles.

They met once before in England where Woods seemed to benefit a bit from home cooking in getting a draw. It seemed to be, watching a tape but not really scoring, that Johnson deserved better — the same as he did in a "draw" against Zab Judah’s brother, Daniel.

Johnson also has suffered some questionable defeats. There’s no line here, but I’m sure in Britain, old Ladbroke’s and William Hill probably have Woods a slight (less than 2-1) favorite.

And you know what? I agree he should be. It seemed to me that Woods, who fought bravely earlier against Roy Jones Jr., did not do all he could that night and therefore has more of an "upside."

I mention this fight, which will have little interest here — except for Antonio Tarver rooting like crazy for Woods. The Englishman has promised to face Tarver, who gave Jones such a scare last Nov. 8. That’s just in case Jones doesn’t give Tarver a rematch, which is also promised (and in case you were wondering, no, it won’t be at any catch weight like 185 or 190 — Jones wants no excuses when he beats up Tarver and then probably retires to raising chickens).

We were left with only Woods-Johnson because, going back to mortality, boxers’ parts break down, especially when they’re 34. Showtime had lined up for us a wonderful two-continent double-header when Kostya Tszyu tore up one of his 34-year-old shoulders in Moscow and James Toney couldn’t make it to Vegas that same evening to fight Jameel McCline because of a torn 34-year-old Achilles tendon.

The big finish

For the record, I liked Tszyu against Sharmba Mitchell — who will be televised instead against Lovemore Ndou in a so-what bout — and I was leaning towards McCline. Size will make a difference, because by the time Toney comes back from an injury where he can’t stay in shape by running, he’ll probably outweigh the 6-foot-6, 260-pound McCline.

But speaking of boxers’ vulnerability, there was a sad story involving Edwin Valero, who had Los Angeles gym rats all excited (12 first-round knockouts in 12 pro bouts also helped), but because of an old motorcycle accident (he wasn’t wearing headgear), he flunked an MRI and may never fight again.