We knew this day was coming. Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most famous man in the world and one of the most important figures of the 20th century, died in a hospital in Arizona late Friday at the age of 74.
He was a champion, a civil rights pioneer, and one of the first to stand on the right side of history in the early days of the Vietnam War (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong”). He took his conscientious objector legal bout all the way to the Supreme Court and won. It cost him three years of his championship reign, but he returned to the ring and gave us some of the most memorable moments in the history of sports.
Ali’s life and times trace the tumultuous history of our country in the 1960s. As Cassius Clay, he won a gold medal for the United States at the Rome Olympics in 1960, the same year John F. Kennedy was elected president. Three months after Kennedy was assassinated, two weeks after the Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Clay shocked the world with a TKO victory over the indomitable Sonny Liston in Miami. He became Muhammad Ali shortly after that fight and was in our hearts and the headlines for the next half-century.
He enjoyed a media marriage with Howard Cosell and became the first global sports television star. He gave us “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,’’ “Thrilla in Manila,’’ “Rumble in the Jungle,” and “rope-a-dope.’’ He was Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the [20th] century.”
Ali had a few connections to Boston and New England. His second fight with Liston was scheduled to be held at the Old Boston Garden in November 1964. Three days before the fight, Ali took ill while staying in Room 611 of the Sherry Biltmore Hotel (146 Mass. Ave.) and was rushed to Boston City Hospital, where he was treated for an incarcerated inguinal hernia. Boston promoter Subway Sam Silverman lost hundreds of thousands of dollars when the bout was postponed. The fight was ultimately moved to Lewiston, Maine, and according Ali biographer Thomas Hauser, Massachusetts boxing authorities would not sanction Ali-Liston II because they feared Silverman was tied to organized crime.
Recovering from the hernia, Ali went back to Miami to train. When he readied to return to New England for the rematch, he bought a bus and invited four sportswriters to join him and his entourage on the trip north. One of the scribes was the Globe’s Bud Collins. When the group got hungry late one night near the Georgia border, a diner manager told them the Champ would have to eat “out back.’’
According to David Remnick’s “King of the World,’’ Collins’s interaction with the racist diner manager went like this:
Collins: “Isn’t this discrimination against the law?’’
Manager: “Not in Nassau County.’’
Collins: “Isn’t this county in the United States?’’
Manager: “Not yet.’’
Ali ordered everyone back on the bus and drove north to Fayetteville, N.C., where his bus died. The group took Trailways the rest of the way. Upon arrival in Chicopee Falls, the Champ announced, “I’m Cassius Clay. Give me the 65-dollar-a-day suite.’’ Told that the suite was occupied, Ali said, “Well get him out. The Greatest is here.’’
In May 1965, in the tiny Central Maine Youth Center in Lewiston, Ali defeated Liston in less than two minutes of the first round. It was a shady bout in which Liston was felled by what many believe to be a phantom punch. Many folks believed Liston took a dive. The fight produced Neil Leifer’s iconic shot of Ali, shaking his fist, standing over a fallen Liston.
Thirty years later, Ali had a couple of other brushes with Boston and New England sports. In February 1994, Ali — by then internationally famous and already impaired by Parkinson’s disease — accepted an invitation to appear at the dedication of the Ted Williams Museum in the dismal flatlands of Hernando, Fla.
It was an unforgettable demonstration of the man’s celebrity. In a room filled with 37 baseball Hall of Famers, including Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, and Williams himself . . . all eyes were on Muhammad Ali. Not many superstars were bigger than Teddy Ballgame and/or Joe D. Ali was bigger. And everybody in the room knew it.
On Nov. 2, 1994, Ali came to a fund-raiser dinner at the Park Plaza, where he was honored by Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. The Globe bought a table for the event, and I found myself seated with Greg Moore, who was then our managing editor. Greg had one of those big-shot, glass offices at the Globe, and everybody knew Greg was a huge Ali fan because in his office, he had a life-size cardboard cutout of a young perfect Cassius Clay. Fist cocked. White trunks.
Maybe it was the chardonnay, maybe it was just the right thing to do, but seated at our table, so close to the Champ, our mission was clear.
“Greg, you have to have him sign that thing you have in your office,’’ I told Moore. “Call the Globe, have somebody put it in a cab, and get it over here. If you do that, I’ll get him to sign it.’’
A half-hour later a chagrined Globe person could be seen walking through the crowded room of tables, carrying a horizontal, 6-foot-3-inch cardboard version of the Champ.
A lot of folks were trying to get a piece of Ali that night, but we had the thing that got his attention. When Ali saw goofy me standing nearby, holding a cardboard image of his young perfect self, he waved me into his circle.
He held it across his lap and looked at it. A wistful, lingering look.
“I was a baaaaad man,’’ he whispered.
He signed his name on the white trunks. There was no way that thing was going to be housed at the Globe after that. Too risky.
Greg Moore left the Globe a few years later and became editor of the Denver Post. I reached out to him Saturday to ask about his priceless souvenir.
“Ali was never in the office again,’’ Greg wrote in an e-mail. “I still have the cutout and the ink remains on the simulated white satin shorts. One of my greatest treasures.’’
That was The Champ. The Greatest. An American treasure.Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy.