In my lifetime, I know of no more beloved person than Muhammad Ali. More than Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa. As far as athletes, I first thought of Jesse Owens, Pele and Jackie Robinson, but even the impact of those iconic figures in history falls short of Ali.
The former Cassius Clay, who eventually won worldwide respect for his religious stand against serving in the Vietnam War when such a position was unpopular, was easily the most recognized person on the planet during his time as heavyweight champion and for years thereafter. He was our greatest ambassador for peace globally, so powerful a man in stature that wars would stop.
He would be cheered anywhere in the world. You could walk into any crime-ridden neighborhood with Ali and feel safe. Seas parted, gunfire ceased. People believed in Ali and all the good he stood for.
And as a representative for boxing, he had no peer. His bravado sold fights, and like it or not, at the time he delivered. My friend Gene Kilroy was Ali’s business manager and lifelong confidant. On many occasions he would educate me on Ali, providing insight few could. Much has been written about “the champ” – many of it untrue. Kilroy was the barometer, always assuring me if what was said or printed was accurate. In fact, CNN and ESPN radio each contacted him during their tributes to Ali.
With Gene’s permission I refer to an article we did back on Sept. 16, 2004 for GamingToday when Kilroy arranged a private screening in Las Vegas of the “I Am Ali” documentary released in 10 markets nationally, including here and in Muhammad’s final residence in Phoenix.
Kilroy had a prominent role in the documentary and said he was blessed to be around Ali.
“Muhammad found his niche in life in boxing,” he said. “He didn’t follow a path, rather was more interested in carving a trail. Those who followed his trail became a better person. He was a shy, sensitive, caring guy.
“He had such kindness for others,” Kilroy continued. “He never cared about money, but for people. He would write six figure checks to those that touched him. I was very close to him and honored for allowing me to be his friend.”
When I talked to Gene several days ago to ask about Ali’s condition, he was typically candid and to the point. “Muhammad was always good on the ropes.”
Indeed, it really was amazing Ali survived to age 74. He had been hospitalized numerous times in the past, most recently in early 2015 when he was treated for a severe urinary tract infection that was initially thought to be pneumonia. His last formal public appearance was last October in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, when he appeared at a Sports Illustrated Tribute to him at The Muhammad Ali Center along with former opponents George Foreman and Larry Holmes.
When I saw that Ali’s condition was described as “fair” when hospitalized in Phoenix last week, I knew the outcome would not be good. My mom, may she rest in peace, suffered a heart attack in 1983 and spent some six months on life support, also in Phoenix. It, too, ended the wrong way.
Ali had suffered from Parkinson’s for three decades, most famously trembling badly while lighting the Olympic torch in 1996 in Atlanta. He had not spoken in public for years. Doctors say the Parkinson’s likely was caused by the thousands of punches Ali took during a career in which he traveled the world for big fights.
It was Kilroy who brought Ali and Joe Frazier together several years ago in Las Vegas when Joe was in failing health. Now the two will be together again, this time planning a Thrilla “over” Manila.
Now, that would be heaven.