The Night I Almost Fought Ali

August 21, 2012 at 3:07 pm (Uncategorized)

This ranks way up there on my personal list of really dumb ideas.

During the mid-seventies Maureen and I attended a number of Kiwanis district conventions as representatives of my club. These were usually held during late summer in the upstate New York Catskill Mountains at one of the popular resorts that made up the “Borscht Belt.” This particular year, I think it was 1975, we were enjoying the food, fun and entertainment at the Concord Hotel. And, oh yes… I even found time to participate in several of the workshops held for the benefit of incoming Kiwanis officers.

It just so happened that while we were there heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was training at the Concord for his next title defense. Ali was then well past his prime and deep into his “Bum of the Month” campaign, during which he took frequent fights against badly over-matched challengers who represented very little physical threat and had no real chance of defeating him.

Anyway, one evening after dinner Maureen and I went down to the hotel basement where Ali’s entourage had set up a boxing ring in a large room that seated perhaps 200 curious spectators. Other training paraphernalia was clustered nearby. We found chairs along the left side of the ring and settled in to watch the workout, something probably few of us had ever seen before.

The Champ was in the midst of a spirited session on the speed bag, and the room echoed with the rat-a-tat of his punches. Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, stood off to the side intently monitoring a stop watch. Dundee called out, “TIME!” and Ali immediately ceased jabbing the bag. The crowd applauded politely. The Champ rested briefly but remained on his feet, casually shadow boxing to keep from cooling down. After about five minutes of this, he resumed the workout by beginning to pound the heavy bag hanging in a corner. Now the room echoed with the THUD-THUD of his powerful punches. After a few minutes of this, the trainer again called “TIME!” and Ali backed away from the cumbersome bag. The spectators clapped warmly.

Next followed a routine with Ali passing a medicine ball back and forth to assistant trainer Drew “Bundini” Brown, a bear of a man who wrote many of the humorous phrases Ali used to taunt his opponents. The most famous of these was, Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee. Each man grunted loudly as the medicine ball whacked into his midsection. After several minutes of this they dropped the heavy ball to the floor and The Champ briefly rested again without sitting. To me it seemed that Ali’s ample stomach still needed lots more attention.

Truthfully, he didn’t appear to be working all that hard. Considering the caliber of his next opponent, maybe he didn’t have to. I can’t recall who was coming up on the schedule, but I’m sure it was some inept “tomato can”, the type of opponent that Ali was so fond of fighting near the end of his career as his skills began to fade.

That seemed to be the end of the formal workout. Here’s where things began to get really interesting. Angelo Dundee turned to the crowd with a broad grin on his face and announced, “Would anyone like to come up and spar with The Champ?”

I was on my feet in a flash. What an opportunity! Someday I could tell my awestruck grandchildren that Poppy had once gotten into the ring with the great Muhammad Ali! I began to step toward the aisle but suddenly felt myself yanked violently backward. I turned to find Maureen with a death grip on my belt and a “Where do you think you’re going?” look on her face. By the time I regained my balance a young waiter had jumped ahead of me and climbed through the ropes to face Ali. Sadly, the waiter would now be the one with a great tale to tell HIS grandchildren while I was left to ponder what might have been. I turned, glared at my wife and sat down with a pout.

A healthy ego might dictate at this point that I offer something macho about how bitterly disappointed I was. Fortunately, my ego is just a little one. While there may have been a bit of regret, I quickly realized after a moment’s consideration that I actually felt relieved. What the hell had I been thinking? I wasn’t looking to be humiliated, and I certainly didn’t want Ali to kill me! With that in mind, I turned back to see what was happening in the ring.

Ali smiled as the waiter assumed an awkward boxing stance. Mine would have been far better, of course! The Champ made a great pretense of winding up to throw a haymaker, carefully keeping his distance from the young man, who looked like he might take a swing at Ali if he could get close enough. They circled around the middle of the ring several times without actually doing anything before a laughing Bundini finally rang the bell and an amused Dundee stepped in to raise the young man’s hand in victory. The crowd went wild.

Looking back, I like to laughingly delude myself that I “woulda moidered da bum.” But in truth I’m quite grateful that Maureen kept me from making an ass of myself, at least on that occasion. Recalling this incident never fails to bring a smile to my face even all these years later. And I’m still pondering what, if anything, I can tell my grandkids about the zany night I almost got to fight Muhammad Ali.

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