MUHAMMAD ALI, THE MOUNTAINSIDE and ME
Muhammad Ali had his jaw broken when he lost his first fight against Ken Norton back in ’73 and was about to have his first public sparring session before their rematch. Reese Schonfeld, the man who created CNN, was running UPITN at the time, a video version of the UPI words-only feed, and I was a free-lance producer who supplied sports segments for this pioneer TV news feed. Reese sent me and a New York film crew, camera and soundman, to Ali’s training camp outside Allentown, Pennsylvania, on a mountainside area called Deer Lake. Allentown was my hometown.
Once again, God had screwed me. I never was a sports fan, had little interest in boxing, and here I was going to interview this colossal egotist, the self proclaimed “The Greatest!” and I could care less. My Dad had been an amateur boxer and had once jumped on my back and tried to bury my face in the lawn by pounding on the back of my head. I guess I was lucky that the grass was soft and I had had many hours of playing high school football without a facemask.
We met Ali at his campgrounds on the side of a little mountain that was in Allentown’s backyard. He said part of his training regimen was to chop down trees and he would be happy to chop a tree down for our camera. Great! But would he mind an interview before and he agreed. These two guys from New York who were the camera crew wore jackets, ties and leather soled shoes and we had to climb down the mountainside to get to the particular tree Muhammad had chosen as the sacrificial lamb. I was dressed casually, wearing sneakers.
We sat in the shadowy shrubbery with the camera and portable light filming from over my shoulder and I didn’t have a clue about what to ask Muhammad. So, I asked the stupid, hypothetical questions reporters always ask about what he thought was going to happen today, tomorrow and the next day. Not having brought his crystal ball with him down the mountainside, Ali gave me the only reasonable answer he could think of given who he was. He was going to beat the bee Jesus out of Norton today, tomorrow and the next day.
Just then, the batteries ran out of juice and we hadn’t shot Ali chopping down the sacrificial tree. The two pot-bellied guys helped each other climb back up the mountain to get a fresh battery, which left me alone on a mountainside with “The Greatest”. What I wanted to know was what made this outrageous guy tick but before I could throw my first question he started jabbing me with quick fantasy bullshit: how he had named all the huge boulders on this property after famous fighters.
Of course, there was the Rocky Marciano rock, the Joe Louis rock, the Jersey Joe rock, and so forth and so on and on and the guys came tumbling downhill with the battery and I had never laid a question on him. He had kept me at a distance, outboxed me, and we weren’t even in a ring. So, I came up with a suggestion: Tell us out loud what you’re thinking while your chopping down that tree. His eyes lit up, the portable light lit up, the camera rolled and that phenomena called “The Greatest” manifested itself.
“Norton!“ chop! “Norton!“ chop! “Norton, Norton!“ chop! chop! And then a poem, a limerick, something about how he was going to beat the bee Jesus out of Norton; all in the rhythmic beat of the chopping. The tree fell and “The Greatest” exited up the mountain, stage right, out of camera, and another Ali moment! Cut! and print it for posterity! (It aired once and “mysteriously” disappeared from the UPITN library, never to be seen again. A lost masterpiece!)
We followed him up the hill to the log cabin dance hall that had a ring set up in the middle for the public sparring demonstration of his broken jaw’s durability for his rematch with the chopped-down Norton. There were folding chairs around the ring and a guy I went to high school from Allentown was in the small crowd of about 30 to witness “the main event”.
Ali had gone in a room off to the side to change into his battle togs. The soundman came up to me with a large splinter from the Norton tree and asked if I would ask Ali to autograph it. Why not, I thought and entered the side room. Ali was standing there with a few of his people. He was stark assed naked! “Hello, Champ”, I said even though he was officially not the champ at this moment, but, after his performance on the mountainside, he will always be the Champ to me, “Would you mind autographing this stick of wood for the soundman?” Without a blink and a big smile he did. I loved this man. He was truly “The Greatest” and it had nothing to do with boxing, it had to do with generosity.
The sparring was short and tame, no one had blood in their eyes or in their hearts. It looked like it was all over. The Champ took off his gloves, went into his corner and came back into the center of the ring. All of a sudden a magician’s cane sprung from his hand and then flowers. He performed a magic act for all us folks , free of charge, unexpected; what a guy!
There is a Noguchi museum in Long Island City filled with large rocks, all with artistic names. I’d love to take the Champ there now to play with him and the rocks. Once again, I had been wrong. God had actually blessed me and all those touched by “The Greatest”!