Howard Bingham: An appreciation

I saw Lonnie Ali’s tweet announcing the Dec. 15 death of Howard Bingham and was saddened though not surprised.

It had been several years since I’d had contact with Howard—though not for lack of trying: I’d called him and emailed him several times over the years, but the number I had no longer had
an answering machine and I never got an email response.

I called the publisher of his most recent book Howard L. Bingham’s Black Panthers 1968 (2010), as he’d come with Howard to my annual Bessman Bash party in Los Angeles, and he’d lost contact, too, same with the people at Taschen, which put out the immense Greatest Of All Time: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali book that was full of Howard’s photos of Ali, including, I think, the fab pic of his baby son, cradled in Ali’s left hand, his right balled up into a fist held at the baby’s face, his own delightfully contorted in clownish anger. Some 20 years later—at least—I called Howard and a serious-sounding young man answered and said he wasn’t home. Who was speaking? I asked. It was his son, he said, “The one in the picture?” I asked. He laughed and said yes.

No doubt Ali’s camp knew about Howard’s whereabouts and condition, but I’d lost touch with them, too, when Ali’s assistant Kim retired several years ago. Indeed, it was only after bringing him up to Michale Olajide, Jr., when I visited him at his Aerospace gym in Chelsea to take down his thoughts on Muhammad Ali after his passing that I learned he was indeed ill–at least that’s what Michael had heard. Then it all made sense.

I’d actually met Michael through Howard, when Howard brought me to a pre-release New York screening of Ali at the Ziegfeld. I was standing with Howard when Michael came in with Angelo Dundee, Ali’s legendary trainer, who had also trained Michael for a while. So I sat with Howard, Angelo and Michael, and became big friends with Michael. And when I called Kim when I got back home, and told her how much I enjoyed the movie—and meeting Angelo—she asked me to wait a moment, and then, sure enough, a frail yet instantly recognizable GOAT whispered into the phone, “So how did you like the movie?”

Howard’s New York Times obit said he took an estimated million photos of Ali in the 50 years of their friendship. It quoted former Times sports reporter/columnist Robert Lipsyte’s summation of Howard as “the kindest, most generous and decent human being in that whole Ali entourage,” who “really kept him on the straight and narrow. He had this beautiful innocence about him. And a very difficult stammer that made him hard to understand.”

Yes, he did have that stammer! But he was also a quiet, unassuming man, who never exploited his relationship with Ali and unlike so many others in the Ali entourage, never took any moneyh from him.

The Times also cited Howard’s “calm demeanor,” which allowed him to stay with Ali through four wives, his conversion to Islam, the stripping of his heavyweight title when he refused military service and his struggles with Parkinson’s disease. It noted that while Howard photographs Ali’s fights, his complete access resulted in historically candid shots of Ali preaching or sleeping, playing with his children or with Elvis Presley, and posing with black leaders like Malcolm X and James Meredith.

“By being there, in hotel rooms and on streets with Ali, Howard saw him in unguarded moments and put together a portfolio that reveals the man Ali really was,” Newark’s longtime Star-Ledger sports columnist Jerry Izenberg told the Times. “His legacy, his pictures, are a necessary piece of the Ali puzzle.”

Through Howard I also had an unforgettable lunch some years ago in Downtown Nashville with the colorful John Jay Hooker, considered perhaps Music City’s most most recognizable and charismatic political figure, and definitely among its most controversial, who himself died a year ago. It was Hooker, who had been close friends with Bobby Kennedy (Hooker served as special assistant to RFK when he was attorney general in his brother’s administration), who befriended Ali shortly before the third Ali-Frazier fight (the fabled Thrilla in Mainilla), immediately after which Ali, victorious but exhausted and sitting on his stool in the ring, turned and said, “I want to say hello to my friend John Jay Hooker.”

Funny, I don’t remember how I met Howard originally, though it certainly was a long time ago. I had an in at Photo District News, a trade magazine for professional photographers that was owned by the same company that owned Billboard—for which Howard got me an Ali quote for an Ali-related story way back when, too. I asked him him if I could interview him for PDN and he said, “It would be an honor.”

It was my honor, of course.

“Howard meant so much to our family,” Lonnie tweeted. “We will miss him dearly but take comfort in knowing he’s back with his best friend.”

I retweeted it and added, “A wonderful, wonderful man. Thanks to him I got to know you….”

@Muhammad Ali tweeted: “The world has lost a great man and an even better friend. Howard Bingham will be dearly missed by all.” None more than me.

Here’s John Jay Hooker speaking about Ali and Bingham:

I am John Jay Hooker: Ali from Genuine Human Productions on Vimeo.

My moment with Arnold Palmer

palmer
(Vestron Video, 1989)

So I’m thinking of hitting that bucket of balls at a driving range in L.A. last month–first time I had a golf club in my hand in years—and finding that my slice was as wicked as ever, all this in relation to the death yesterday of Arnold Palmer, whom I once saw, after being asked to hit an iron some 200 yards down the fairway at a video camera set-up, land it effortlessly within 10 feet.

This was probably 20 years or so ago, long before selfies and maybe even cellphones, so I sure don’t have a picture with me and Arnold, and I can’t say how long my hair was—which could well have been an issue: I tend to let my hair grow long, then cut it short once or twice a year, tops. If it was long, well, I figure that might explain what I felt was Arnold’s coldness, if not outright antipathy, toward me.

Long hair and a beard. Maybe I’m putting too much on appearance. For sure, no one could have been more eager for an expenses-paid trip to Florida to interview Arnold Palmer about a golf instructional home video program he was taping. Notice that I said “home video,” and let me stipulate here that it was for videocassette. Like I said, this was long before the selfies era, indeed, back in the dark ages of videocassettes and VCRs, er, videocassette recorders.

I’d been a golf fan forever, though maybe Arnold sensed that I was a big Jack Nicklaus fan over him, much as I was a big Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali fan over the boxing establishment favorites back in the day—the day, of course, being the 1960s, when I most certainly fit the hippie mold in politics and appearance. Now, sadly, much of my hair is gone, and what I have is so short that Arnold might well have liked me (if he got past the beard, though longer hair—and facial hair—have long since come to the PGA). But I’m sure he’d still sense that politically—and above all, in social class—I’m way to the left of his patrician tracks.

But I just saw a picture posted of Ali and Arnold together, when they were honorary captains at the 2007 Orange Bowl. And I wrote a piece here last November when Ali expressed his “great pleasure” that Jack, as “one of sports biggest living legends,” would receive the first Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award.

“Jack’s passion for excellence on the golf course is only surpassed by his love and passion for children and their well-being,” Ali said, via a statement. “For decades, he has used his celebrity to bring awareness and support for children’s health. I can not think of a more deserving person for this special inaugural award than the Golden Bear, himself.”

“There are very few in the sporting world who are more synonymous with the word ‘legacy’ than Muhammad Ali, so to have his name attached to the prestigious Legacy Award is so fitting,” said Jack. “He is not only known universally as the ‘Champ,’ but he has been a wonderful global ambassador for sports and our country. This is a marvelous way to honor his contributions past and present, and to ensure that generations going forward will have the opportunity to learn, respect and admire all Muhammad Ali has done for the sporting world. That is why to be the first recipient of the Ali Legacy Award is both humbling and an honor.”

But who knows what Jack and Arnie thought about Muhammad when he was Cassius—let alone when he refused induction into the Army? And I should note my disappointment last May when Jack, whom I also interviewed and who was wonderful, said he’d vote for Trump, calling him a “good man [who’s] turning America upside down [and] awakening the country.”

As for Arnold now, I’m was with Jack all the way—my personal experience notwithstanding.

“We just lost one of the incredible people in the game of golf and in all of sports,” jack said in a statement. “Arnold transcended the game of golf. He was more than a golfer or even great golfer. He was an icon. He was a legend. Arnold was someone who was a pioneer in his sport. He took the game from one level to a higher level, virtually by himself. Along the way, he had millions of adoring fans—Barbara and I among them. We were great competitors, who loved competing against each other, but we were always great friends along the way. Arnold always had my back, and I had his. We were always there for each other. That never changed. He was the king of our sport and always will be.”

And let the final word come from President Obama, who tweeted, with a photo of him putting in the oval office while Arnold and others looked on, “Here’s to The King who was as extraordinary on the links as he was generous to others.”

He went further in an official statement: “With his homemade swing and homespun charm, Arnold Palmer had swagger before we had a name for it. From a humble start working at the local club in his beloved Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to superstardom as the face of golf around the globe, Arnold was the American Dream come to life. Along the way he racked up win after win–but it wasn’t his success that made him King. Arnold’s freewheeling, fearless approach to the game inspired a generation of golfers and, for the first time on TV, enthralled an audience across the world. Sure, we liked that he won seven majors, but we loved that he went for it when he probably should have laid up. That spirit extended beyond the links where he gave freely of himself and poured everything he had into everything he did: from building hospitals to personally responding to countless letters from his fans. And he did it all with a grin that hinted maybe he had one more shot up his sleeve. Today, Michelle and I stand with Arnie’s Army in saluting the King.”

A conversation with Michael Olajide, Jr. on Ali, Horus and fitness

olaj1

I was very lucky to meet Muhammad Ali on several occasions, talk to him on the phone, write about him at length. I was also very lucky to be great friends with his best friend and photographer Howard Bingham, and it was through Howard that I met Angelo Dundee and Michael Olajide, Jr., at a VIP screening of Will Smith’s 2001 biopic “Ali” at New York’s Ziegfeld theater. Indeed, I was so friendly with Ali’s assistant at the time that I called her the next day to tell her how great it was, and she put me on hold for a moment, then a soft and familiar voice picked up and said, slowly, “So did you like the movie?” He hadn’t seen it yet, but I assured him it was great.

I was lucky to become great friends, with Michael, too. A former No. 1 ranked middleweight, Michael Olajide, Jr. was born in Liverpool and moved with his family to Vancouver in 1970. Trained by his father Michael Olajide, Sr. and the renowned boxing coaches Hector Rocca (Buddy McGirt, Arturo Gatti) and Dundee (Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard), he turned pro at 18, and became known as “Silk” for his exceptionally smooth footwork, hand speed and head movement. He fought Thomas “Hitman” Hearns for the World Super Middleweight Title in 1990, having held the WBC Intercontinental Middleweight Champion belt in 1987. His professional record was 28 wins and four losses, with 20 wins by knockout.

After retiring in 1991, Michael served as a fight consultant/choreographer for major movies and theatrical productions, including, besides “Ali,” Brian DePalma’s Black Dahlia and Spike Lee’s Subway Stories, Blade to the Heat (starring Kamar Delosreyes at the Shakespeare Public Theater) and Golden Boy (starring Alfonso Ribiero at City Center in New York). He’s also served as private consultant to celebrities including Josh Hartnett, Mark Wahlberg, John Leguizamo and Iman, and has worked with many, many others–Hugh Jackman, 50 Cent, Liv Tyler, Eva Mendes, Mickey Rourke, Jane Krakowski and Dustin Hoffman, to name a few. Most significantly, though, he developed an innovative boxing fitness program at top New York fitness facilities and eventually launched his own gym Aerospace, with former ballet dancer and spa innovator Leila Fazel.

“My father taught me how important conditioning is to being a true champion,” Michael says. “I think that advice has always stayed with me.”

The Aerospace website greeting, meanwhile, sticks with me: “Welcome to the most savage and serene fitness experience on the planet.” The site explains how the “machine-free sports-emulation high performance fitness center” is geared toward uniting body, mind and spirit via the best workout techniques from professional sports, including Michael’s smooth boxing moves combined with conditioning basics like jumping rope, push-ups and lower body lunges in his Aero workout programs Aerobbox, Aerojump, Aerosculpt and Aeroimpact.

“Using the techniques of professional athletes is the best way to perfect every physical and mental attribute–endurance, dexterity, power, speed and focus,” Michael says. “It’s the most efficient, effective and rewarding workout on the planet. We always say, ‘Everyone flies in space.’”

Olaj

One other thing about Michael Olajide: Forget how menacing he looks in this picture from the Aerospace website, lean, mean and muscular, with that weird, metallic eye patch covering his right eye. He’s about the sweetest guy in the world.

I went over to Aerospace in Chelsea a couple weeks ago to sit down with Michael and talk about Ali.

What does Muhammad Ali mean to you?

I grew up in the 1970s–and without my father. It was just my mom and sister and myself, and being in Vancouver, there weren’t many positive black images. One was without a doubt Muhammad Ali. But I also loved the way O.J. Simpson would run! Those were my two go-to guys, though as time went on and I got experience with boxing, Ali was obviously it.

You must have been pretty young.

I would argue in elementary school that Ali was going to kill Joe Frazier, when all the other kids were saying Joe Frazier was going to kill Ali, George Foreman was going to kill Ali. Not having a positive black male influence around, I looked to Ali, who provided me with confidence. My younger sister did not have a positive image, in a completely white, Asian society, and as a [black] child growing up you need somebody to hold on to and hook on to. She didn’t have that, unfortunately, but I found Ali and wanted to be like him growing up.

Did he influence you as a boxer?

I started late, when I was 15-years-old. Most people who start in boxing get in when they’re six, seven, eight, and get introduced with kids’ gloves–and by the time they’re 11, 12 and 13 you get used to punches coming at you. When I started watching Ali intensely–and other fighters as well, and seeing what they did—I learned certain maneuvers and practiced them in the gym and they worked so incredibly well. It was like studying a playbook: This person threw a left hand, and this is how you counter it. This one threw a right hand, this is how you counter. There were so many different ways of watching Ali—how he moved, how he recuperated when he got in trouble. It was like a bible of boxing—an encyclopedia of how to take a fighter apart.

But people always said how Ali wasn’t really a classic boxer.

He was unorthodox. As a heavyweight, with his speed and reflexes, he fought like a lighter-weight fighter in the heavyweight division, and could always get away with a lot of those things like having his hands down. But being a lightweight fighter, I knew those were not things I could do and get away with because you’re fighting guys who are just as fast as you, if not faster.

What else can you say about Ali as a fighter?

He was a very unique beast, as well. His vision was incredible, and he could predict what a guy would throw and play off that. And he had an incredible amateur career: Notice how virtually every single great fighter all had extensive amateur careers. You have to serve your apprenticeship first–the only one who didn’t and got to that level and dominated four or five divisions so incredibly was Roberto Duran.

How else did Ali affect you?

It remains in my life how he used to write poems before he fought, and how I’d see him on TV and he’d be picking at his hair afterwards–and I did the same things: I even had those tassels on my shoes! But it was all about believing in yourself: Someone as creative and independent as he was—it teaches you. At first you do what he does and then you find your own way. You just have to be shown the way.

What about his behavior in the ring?

I didn’t talk to dudes inside the ring—none of his braggadocio. That’s not me. But at the same time I understood why he did it: Instead of intimidating the other guy, he was empowering himself. Sonny Liston was big and intimidating and was a knockout puncher and brought fear in people, and the more you face your fear, the less intimidating that fear becomes–and that’s the thing with Ali. You address it and address it and address it over and over again until you see that fear as so much less than what it is. That’s what Ali did.

And Sonny?

He made Sonny so much less. In the heat of situations in ring, you still have to execute—and he took what Sonny liked to put on people and completely reversed it. It was like, “Why are you not afraid of me?” and in boxing, once you get a person hesitating, it’s over! It’s all about who hits who first and most often. So that’s what I thought Ali was able to do—perfect a style to fight someone like Liston, but there was more to it in that he developed a psychological edge that helped him over and over again throughout his career, though for some people maybe it worked against him! Like Oscar Bonavena, and Frazier, of course—it incensed Joe, and every time he gave a super human performance with Ali that he couldn’t have done otherwise, for they were both extremely skilled heavyweights and gold medal-winning amateurs with the highest skills.

How did you meet Ali?

I made a line of “aero fight icons” t-shirts with symbols describing types of fighters. The symbols were part of the “Aero Boxer In-depth Analysis System”: I used to write for Boxing Illustrated,and when a fight was coming up I’d identify the fighters and categorize them using the zodiac symbols according to the way a fighter fights. I graded their attributes on a scale of one-to-10—agility, dexterity, power, resilience, etc., so that people who weren’t boxers could see why one boxer would win over the other based on the stats and assessing these qualities. People think it’s just two guys in the ring and they scrap and the strongest guy wins, but it’s not necessarily like that—someone could bench more than Ali but still lose.

And the icons?

So I had all these “super aeros” icons, with one weighted above the other: Duran, Hagler, Marciano, the Ali icon. I met with him and his wife Lonnie many years ago in a hotel and he loved the idea of it. But my focus couldn’t stay with it and I didn’t end up marketing it–but I hope to have the opportunity to do so in the future.

How did you end up working on “Ali”?

I trained with Angelo Dundee from 1988 to ’90—and he was great. A lot of trainers don’t understand that when you’re taking a fighter over, it’ not a matter or teaching and remaking him but complementing what he’s already doing—and Angelo knew that. He didn’t say, “Ali, you better keep your hands up and go to the body and double up on the jab!” but complemented on what already existed with him and enhanced what he did so well. You have to know the personal style and make it better—bring out the better of you, and not be a conventional trainer and teach you how to stand, for example, but take what’s there and develop it and enhance your game.

How did Angelo impact you?

I think I was unique in not getting the best out of Angelo! Mentally, my love for the sport just wasn’t there any more. You have to love it, and unfortunately I didn’t have the same fire and drive. I found this out when I fought Troy Darrell on NBC-TV in 1987, who was one of Angelo’s fighters. We were both 23 and 0, and Angelo was saying, “We’re gonna whup this kid!” He was shorter than me and no way he could out-jab me–which was my thing–and he shocked the hell out of me! I beat him, but whenever I jabbed he’d slide at the same time and throw his jab and cut my reach down and connect before me! He was just so smart, and I couldn’t understand it during the fight and my cornerman wasn’t telling me how to adjust!

I gutted that fight out and dropped him a couple times and he came out stronger in the middle rounds, but I carried the fight the last few rounds. But that fight was solely on Angelo’s intelligence because I dropped him twice in the first round, and he told him to stop pulling out of the clinches, and he adjusted and adapted.

You fought the legendary Tommy Hearns in 1990 for the super middleweight title.

I lost a unanimous decision. I knew title fights were 12 rounds and not 15 anymore—which makes it an entirely different fight–and should have taken the fight to him earlier and waited until the seventh round before going toward him. Angelo said, “I don’t want you to stop and engage until I say okay,” then I listened and in the seventh, Hector Rocca said too many rounds were going by, “okay, this is the round, start taking it to him.” But I’m not a Hagler-type fighter and have to find the right time to let go. I can’t wade through punches—I’m not built for that. It’s insane how hard Hearns hit! It felt like concrete.

So I started too late, and Tommy’s an incredible boxer as well as puncher and gets on his toes and decides to box! Sugar Ray Leonard caught him, but that’s about it.

How do you assess your pro career?

One thing remains my undoing as a pro fighter: my lack of an amateur career. When you step in the ring, your instincts are an extremely important part of it. You need to trust your instincts. Sugar Ray, Roberto Duran, Ali–any great fighter you name, they all get advice, and what they need, they take, and what they don’t they cut out. They’re their own rudder–they know the direction they have to go to win. But fighters like me listen to their corner and don’t overrule it. It’s what you learn as an amateur—what you have to do. The kind of stuff that’s only the fighter’s responsibility. You have to be able to take what you need and use it, and push the rest to the side–and that has stayed with me in life. What you need in life you take and don’t put aside because nobody knows your experience like you.

So it was your work with Angelo that led to “Ali”?

I’d done some stuff: I choreographed boxing set to music for Blade to the Heat, a great play based on the fight between Emile Griffith and Benny “the Kid” Paret [Paret, who had allegedly taunted Griffith over his sexuality, died from injuries from the fight], with Paul Calderon in the lead role [based on Paret] and Kamar De Los Reyes [based on Griffith] and George C. Wolfe directing. Angelo heard about me doing that and recommended me to Michael Mann when he was directing Ali. He told him, “I know this kid I think can really help if I’m not here, who can be your eyes and keep everything true to what Ali did and knows what real boxing is all about,” and that’s how I got it. And it was incredible! I got to meet Ali and his daughter Laila and go to Mozambique, and it was just a great, incredible experience. Will Smith was great, and I cast [former champion] James Toney as Joe Frazier–and he was perfect. A lot of other real fighters were used, too, including Charles Shufford, who was a top heavyweight contender at the time, as George Foreman. Michael Mann’s set-ups were very beautiful and special, and to this day Will’s rendition of Ali was special—it showed a different side of Ali, a more serious side.

Who else did you get to meet?

I went to Africa and met Nelson Mandela and had dinner with him! It was such a good time! We talked about how much he loved boxing and Ali–and how he was one of his strengths when he was unjustly incarcerated.

You’ve had Aerospace a long time, now.

Fourteen years in the meatpacking district originally, and three years here in Chelsea. In October we’re opening a gym in L.A. Boxing for fitness wasn’t happening in gyms until I started teaching it in 1991, and now it’s everywhere! It’s fun, social, and very much about believing in yourself and finding yourself and taking your experience. My boxing career was my apprenticeship for my teaching people something fun that can go on forever.

What distinguishes Aerospace?

Our methodology is absolutely considerably different! Our level of expectancy of people is not matched anywhere else: When we train people, I expect them to get in the ring with any boxer or professional boxing trainer and know how to throw a punch, not get hit, do anything a professional boxer can do. That’s the goal, and in giving those skills, they also get all the benefits without all the headaches like detached retinas and other injuries!

I’ve seen other classes and people trying to emulate what we do, but the real love and passion isn’t there, and neither is the knowledge: Take people who haven’t boxed before, teach them head movements, feints, fading back, footwork and things that are all so intricate that there’s no way you can learn everything you need to learn in boxing! Not one fighter knows everything! You can study it forever, and we try to capture that and put it in everyone who comes here.

Speaking of injuries, what’s the story behind your eyepatch?

It’s an Egyptian symbol, the eye of Horus—the falcon-god. It’s so interesting to me on so many levels: From the beginning I was an Oakland Raiders fan, and the Raiders logo has an eyepatch and I used to wear one like it. But I wanted a different design and was always interested in Egyptian art and saw the god Horus: He and his brother Set came into conflict and Set hurt him and took out an eye, but Horus came back and conquered his brother. The story symbolized for me taking a negative and making a positive—using the injury I suffered in my career as a strength instead of a weakness. You never stop! In life you have to adapt, and if you can’t adapt, you die and get wiped out. There was a series of things in my life that I was always having to adapt to, and I became good at adapting!

What about the injury?

Initially it was an eye injury from sparring in the gym. I wasn’t in the mood to box and was having spiritless fights and had moved from Vancouver and wasn’t hungry or paying attention–and he was a hungry kid.

I was going through the motions and he whipped this uppercut out of nowhere and dislodged my eye and I had double vision from then on. I was 20 and 0 and 21-years-old or so, and I couldn’t tell the press or anybody in the media. I had to keep quiet so I wouldn’t have to go back to Vancouver, and the boxing commission wouldn’t let me fight. I was able to get by with double vision, but the eye got weaker and weaker and every fight it got worse. That’s why the Hearns fight was easier, because we both had dominant left hands, and even though he had a really fast right, I could pick it up.

But once I hit the Top 10 and had the injury, it was hard. Everyone’s so great up there at the pinnacle, and there wasn’t a greater time than that, with Sugar Ray Leonard, Hearns, Hagler, Wilfred Benitez, Iran Barkley—I could go on and on. You go through the Top 20 middleweights then and anybody could be champion today—that’s how deep with talent the division was, and it’s never been matched in any era in any division, except maybe welterweight with Leonard, Hearns and Jose Cuevas. So the slightest disadvantage is huge when you get in a fight with those guys and are going for a world title. There’s immense pressure on you, and then you get into the Top Five and you can’t afford a single mistake.

I was 28-4 with 20 knockouts. They say 27-5, but I say 28-4 because I knocked the guy out [Dennis Milton, in 1989] and the ref stopped it, but these guys where we fought upstate [Albany] were connected and it was a non-TV fight for $100,000—-which was unheard of–and the guy ran around and shouldn’t have held his hands up. I dropped him and he was out and the ref waived the fight off and sure enough, they waited and there was a controversial decision, and they decided that because they stopped the fight because the ref thought he heard the bell! It was so crazy it was out of a movie! Randy Gordon, the commissioner, got a visit from the kid’s managers, and [boxing writer] Michael Katz wrote about it, so did Wally Matthews. Randy told Matthews, “I had to give the fight to Dennis.” Matthews said, “Why do that when it was obviously a knockout for Olajide?” Randy said, “His management said if I didn’t give the fight to him, they’d throw me out the fucking window!” Nobody wants to get thrown out of a window!

Any other thoughts about Ali?

I first met Ali in the early ‘80s, in Vegas. Maybe it was a Tyson fight. Me, Dad, my little brother. There was a big crowd commotion following Ali, and beside him was Bundini [Drew Brown Bundini, Ali’s assistant trainer, cornerman and colorful sidekick]. Bundini looks at me and says, “Hey! You’re that kid Olajide, right? I’ve been watching you!” and he goes, “You wanna meet the champ?” You’re kidding me! So Bundini brought me up to Ali’s room, and that’s how I met him.

They say there will never be another boxer like him? I don’t think there will ever be another human being like him! He was so beyond boxing in what he stood for and what he was able to do. And he appealed to so many people for so many reasons. It was his character, not his color—and the ability to not be affected by the superficial, like so many people. That’s unfortunate in our society.

Tales of Bessman–The Fifth Beatle

Fucked-up times, the Sixties. The Beatles, Vietnam, Muhammad Ali, all intertwined. I think about my own fucked-up time growing up in the Sixties and how much Ali meant to me and helped me–and so many millions of others like me–get through it. And when the not unexpected announcement of his death came in around 12:20 AM Saturday, I rightly tweeted that a lot of people my age would be thinking back a lot over these next few days.

I was right, of course.

I’m thinking now, the day before his funeral, of the first time I saw him in person–almost. It was during his exile from the ring from Marc, 1967 to October, 1970 after he’d refused induction into the Army for not having no quarrel against them Vietcong and was stripped of his title and denied the ability to fight and thereby make a living–during his athletic prime. So he started going around and giving speeches. I and one of my two best junior high school buddies, Don, drove from Madison to Milwaukee to hear him, but by the time we got there, the venue had sold out and they were putting the overflow into a room with a TV monitor.

I don’t remember the speech very well, but it was great to be in the same building with Ali, at least. As for Don, well, we were playing around with needles a lot back then. He ended up going through at least three livers before finally croaking a few years ago. Could just as easily have been me.

Same with Greg, my other best friend in junior high and high school, who hung himself around the same time as Don died. Some insane argument with his sister about the cat getting out.

Greg was with me at the Dane County Coliseum on October 30, 1974 to see the Ali-Foreman fight on closed-circuit. Few people gave Ali much of a chance, and there weren’t more than a few hundred there. As I’ve written before—at least once–when he dropped Foreman at 2:58 of the eighth round, as Foreman went down, everyone in the small Coliseum crowd stood up simultaneously, and when I sat down again, after the knockout’s count-out, I was in a different row. I was so high on joy that I levitated myself into the row behind me.

It was the culmination of my wishing, imagining every single day since he was stripped of his title that he would come back and wear the crown once again. For I was that invested in him as a role model, a man of such great courage and creativity and so fun and full of life–truly the Fifth Beatle. The counterculture as one man.

Probably some time in the mid- to late-1980s, some years after moving to New York, I finally saw him in person for the first time. It was very much like how George Vecsey in The New York Times a few days ago recalled his first sighting, “circa 1968, while Ali was suspended for refusing to enter the military draft, uttering the famous line, ‘I ain’t got no quarrel against them Vietcong.’”

For Vecsey, it was a sunny midday in Chicago, “one of his cities–heck, a lot of cities were his in those heightened times.” Perhaps the Champ was just out for a stroll, Vescey, then a young baseball writer, surmised: “I had never seen Ali in person, but geez he was beautiful, big and limber and smiling, and it didn’t look like he had much else to do but walk down State Street, collecting black people and white people and brown people and young people and old people, surely not everybody in America, for he was a draft dodger and a Muslim and whatever else you wanted to call him, but he was the champion of State Street that day, the once and future champ.”

I was somewhere on Broadway in the 50s, near my office at 57th and Broadway. I saw a crowd and was curious—then saw they were following the Champ and growing in size. In seconds they’d grown by one more—me–who wiggled his way close enough to get an autograph. He stayed with it mindlessly until it dissipated when the leader got into a car and left.

Here’s another account from a few days ago, from New Jersey’s Star-Ledger’s Jerry Izenberg, one of the few journalists to agree to call Ali Ali when he changed to it from Cassius Clay: “I have been in this business more than 60 years and shared time with most of the great ones–Pele and Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, with Joe Willie Namath and Vince Lombardi, and even Jim Thorpe in his declining years. But in all that time, I never knew an athlete who could stop a room, a building or even a city street dead in its tracks, the way Muhammad Ali could and did.”

The next time I saw Ali was at Madison Square Garden, at a Roberto Duran title fight. I don’t remember the year or who he fought; all I remember is Ali’s entrance just before the ring introductions, and joining everyone in the arena in shouting “Ali! Ali!”

Some years later I became friendly with Ali’s longtime photographer and closest friend Howard Bingham. I did a piece on him for Photo District News, and through him got a few quotes for an Ali piece for Billboard—though I can’t remember what it was about. And at one time I was friendly with HBO and got invited to boxing press events. They had one at their office with Ali and his biographer Thomas Hauser, for which I brought along my friend, profesional Muay Thai kickboxing champ Edge Brown. As Ali walked in he spotted Edge ad held up his fists, knowing just by looking at him that he was a fighter. It was the biggest thrill ever for Edge.

There was another HBO event, a screening, I think, at the main public library. I brought my friend Rena, a photographer, and she brought a Polaroid. So I was able to get a picture with Ali and have him sign it. Then, before the “Rumble in the Jungle” documentary When We Were Kings came out, I got invited to a private dinner with Ali and his wife Lonnie and maybe a dozen or so others, at a restaurant on 57th Street near my office—neither of which still exists. The invite was either through Howard or another friend, David Sonenberg, the successful manager then of acts like Joan Osborne and The Fugees, and a producer of the film. Ali was already well into his Parkinson’s disabilities and hardly spoke, but it was here, I think, that I told him what I said here earlier, that there wasn’t a day gone by from the time he was stripped of the title to when he got it back that I didn’t dream about it happening.

They had a big screening of When We Were Kings at Radio City, which I went to with Tim White, the late Billboard editor and my dear friend. Tim had actually hung out with Ali years earlier at his training camp in Pennsylvania for a Rolling Stone feature, I think. At the after-part we got the chance to have a few moments with Ali and Lonnie, who remembered me from the dinner a short while earlier. Again, he couldn’t say much, but she was wonderful.

That was the last time I saw Ali, but incredibly, not the last time I spoke with him. Ali was about to come out, and Howard was in town for a screening at the Ziegfeld and got me in. I hooked up with him when I got to the theater, and moments later he was warmly greeted by Angelo Dundee! So I sat with Howard, Angie, and a guy who was with Angie, who turned out to be the former No. 1 middleweight boxer Michael Olajide, Jr.–a wonderful guy, who had acted as technical advisor on the film and is now a dear friend, not to mention successful gym operator (Aerospace NYC).

I had remained friendly with Ali’s assistant, Kim Forburger, and the next day I called her at Berrien Springs, Michigan, where they were based at the time. They hadn’t seen the movie yet, and she was thrilled to get my advance rave review.

She then told me to hold on for a second, and when the second was up, her voice was replaced by the soft, unmistakable voice of Muhammad Ali, whispering, “So did you like the mooovie?”

I ecstatically stammered for a few moments about how good it was, how great he was, how thrilled I was, and let him go—then thanked Kim profusely.

When the Alis moved to Arizona I lost touch with Kim, and sadly, in the last few years I lost contact with Howard. Angelo is gone, with The Beatles, Don and Greg, and now Muhammad.

The fucked-up Sixties were almost 60 years ago. That great line, “If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there,” is a cliché—but a valid one. I’ve forgotten plenty, much of it just as well. But I haven’t forgotten who brung me here, my friends, my idols.

Today I rail a lot about the overuse of the word “icon.” I’ve even written about it here. But Muhammad Ali, more than anyone, defines the word. Everyone else is second at best, if not trivial.

Thinking back to Don and Greg, I’m sorry they didn’t live long enough to outlive Ali, if for no other reason than we’d all still be together now in spirit watching his funeral tomorrow.

There will always be so much to think back on for those of us whom Muhammad Ali touched so deeply, who loved him back so deeply for all the love he gave us just by being. But a simple summation comes to mind, thanks to the four other Beatles: “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”

World Kindness Day, Muhammad Ali and Jack Nicklaus

It’s horribly ironic that the Paris massacre took place on of all days, World Kindness Day, yet altogether fitting that the man who most exemplifies kindness is the world’s most famous Muslim.

“Kindest person I know?” tweeted Matt Lauer. “@MuhammadAli. Always has been, always will be.”

Hear! Hear!

Ali is somehow always in the news. It’s always a big anniversary of one of his famous fights, or the passing of another opponent, another big endorsement deal, publicized support for a person or cause or sports team, and of course, concern for his health.

In the last few weeks have come new reports of his impending demise, which resurface understandably at least once every year. But they were quickly denied by a family spokesman, and sure enough, tweets under both the @Muhammad Ali and @realALI_me Twitter handles have continued, some with photos showing the Greatest of All Time if not lively, most certainly alive.

But the big Ali news of late came last week when it was announced that Jack Nicklaus has been chosen to receive the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, which was established in 2008 to honor athletes and sports figures who have embodied the ideals of sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy. It was renamed in tribute to Ali last month during a ceremony at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville that was attended by Ali, his wife Lonnie, and such notables as George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Shaquille O’Neal.

Ali and Jack remain my two biggest sports heroes, and I’ve been lucky enough to interview them both.

“It gives me great pleasure to know the first Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award will be given to one of sports’ biggest living legends, Jack Nicklaus,” Ali said, though I’m sure Lonnie read his statement. “Jack’s passion for excellence on the golf course is only surpassed by his love and passion for children and their well being. For decades, he has used his celebrity to bring awareness and support for children’s health. I can not think of a more deserving person for this special inaugural award than the Golden Bear, himself.”

Jack received the Congressional Gold Medal earlier this year (along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—which he also has, it’s the highest honor given to a U.S. civilian), and now joins Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Earvin Magic Johnson as Legacy Award honorees.

“There are very few in the sporting world who are more synonymous with the word ‘legacy’ than Muhammad Ali, so to have his name attached to the prestigious Legacy Award is so fitting,” said Jack. “He is not only known universally as the ‘Champ,’ but he has been a wonderful global ambassador for sports and our country. This is a marvelous way to honor his contributions past and present, and to ensure that generations going forward will have the opportunity to learn, respect and admire all Muhammad Ali has done for the sporting world. That is why to be the first recipient of the Ali Legacy Award is both humbling and an honor.”

What I love so much about this is that Jack comes from a completely different world than Muhammad—white, establishment, well-to-do, the type who likely would’ve hated him when he was Cassuis Clay and especially after he changed his name and religion and refused induction into the armed forces. But Jack was always a great sports fan and greater sportsman, and he and Ali famously met at the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Ali’s Louisville hometown.

Ali actually had a previous experience on a golf course that was also famous–and nowhere near as pleasant. Just before his first fight with Ken Norton in 1973, he was hitting golf balls at a driving range and sprained his ankle. He explained that he was bored just standing there and hitting balls, and decided to try driving them after a running start. Ali went on to lose the Norton fight on a split decision, and suffered a broken jaw in the process.

In 1999 Jack was chosen as Sports Illustrated’s Individual Male Athlete of the 20th Century.

“Jack is the ultimate ambassador for golf and the sporting world,” said Sports Illustrated group editor Paul Fichtenbaum. “From his play, which set the standard in golf for decades and is still held up as the benchmark today, to his successful business pursuits and tireless efforts to support a range of charitable causes, Jack is one of a kind. Having spent a lifetime using his celebrity and influence for philanthropic endeavors and goodwill missions while serving as an inspiration for so many people around the world, Jack represents the ideals of the Legacy Award and stands up perfectly next to the award’s namesake, Muhammad Ali.”

Indeed, Jack has supported numerous charities and with wife Barbara started his own–the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, which provides pediatric services in various communities
nationwide and has raised tens of millions of dollars over the last decade.

Ali, of course, has devoted his life to promoting world peace, civil rights, cross-cultural understanding, interfaith relations, hunger relief and humanitarianism. His name has been attached to at least a score of charities and institutions, including the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.

He remains the role model for courage and grace in the face of enormous challenges and odds, and that he is still here is a blessing for all of us.

Tales of Bessman: Of Magic and Muhammad Ali

I don’t believe in magic or anything, but I did actually levitate once.

It was at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, the night of Oct. 30, 1974–until Obmama’s election, the happiest night of my life, the night Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire.

Not a day had gone by from June 25, 1967, when he was stripped of his heavyweight title five days after his conviction by an all-white jury for draft evasion (“I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong,” he said, famously. “No Viet Cong never called me nigger.”) and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, to the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” with the seemingly invincible champion Foreman, that I hadn’t dreamed of him regaining that which had been taken, not only from him but from all of us for whom he represented so very many things starting with opposition to the war in Vietnam and ending with the fight for justice for all—including, on this glorious night, himself.

Maybe someone did, but I don’t recall anyone giving Ali much of a chance in hell. In fact, the few people who loved him since his Cassius Clay beginnings (including me) and the many more who had grown to love him for the dignity in which he dealt with his questionable crime and its indisputably costly consequences, genuinely feared for his health, if not his life at the hands of the feared Foreman, who punched so hard that he seemed to actually lift both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton into the air.

But when he dropped Foreman at 2:58 of the eighth round, as Foreman went down, everyone in the small Coliseum crowd stood up simultaneously, and when I sat down again, after the knockout’s count-out, I was in a different row. I was so high on joy that I levitated myself into the row behind me.

It was his greatest victory—that and his 8-0 unanimous Supreme Court decision overturning his draft evasion conviction and affirming his right to refuse induction on religious grounds—when everyone knew that, in fact, he never would have seen combat anyway, and had refused induction—at the incalculable price of the best years of his boxing career and the intense hatred of much of white America–out of principle.

I’ve been lucky to meet Ali over the years on a handful of occasions (including a small dinner party) and even spoke with him on the phone and become big friends with his best friend, the legendary photographer Howard Bingham. And today I wish the Greatest of All Time a happy 73rd birthday after defying the odds once again.

I’m referring, of course, to his biggest and longest fight, against the ravages of Parkinson’s Syndrome, which he was diagnosed with in 1984. I just read where the average survival span while suffering from Parkinson’s is 16 years. “By that estimation it is extraordinary that Ali has lived beyond his late 50s,” wrote Jeff Powell in a South African independent newspaper group’s online service.

“Thirty years, going on 31 now, is a monumental tribute to the fighting spirit which continues to infuse Ali’s life so long after it galvanized the hardest game of all, nerved him to champion civil rights in America, steeled him to oppose the Vietnam War and even now rouses him to condemn the violent extremists who pervert the religion to which he converted,” wrote Powell. I couldn’t have put it better myself, hence I gladly quote him.

Powell’s full piece is here, but I’ll take one more line from it—“Parkinson’s has virtually silenced what was once the most loquacious tongue in sport but it has not dulled a kaleidoscopic mind as dazzlingly brilliant as his footwork and handiwork in the ring”—while adding that the awful disease has not stopped him from continuing his path of greatness, albeit at a much slower pace, never complaining, never shutting himself off from people, though he long ago lost the ability to dance, as he did so adroitly in the ring, let alone speak.

But today, on his birthday, fears for his life have resurfaced to a greater degree than before the Foreman fight. Just after spending two weeks in the hospital for what was thought to be pneumonia, then diagnosed as a severe urinary tract infection, he was readmitted after reportedly being “unresponsive” at home, then released again yesterday. All this follows his absence at the October premiere of the I Am Ali documentary, and periodic reports of his imminent demise.

Yet somehow he’s still with us, thanks to his courage, determination and will to live and essentially be there for us all.

He has blessed us with a career of history as an athlete, celebrity and world statesman, and blessed us more with his continued example of over 30 years of holding his head high in proud in the face of the most debilitating adversity. Again, the word “dignity” comes to mind.

My birthday wish for him remains selfish, that he will continue to bless us and the planet with his presence, against the inevitably ever-increasing odds that he always manages to surmount with his special magic, or as Powell put it, “with the fortitude with which he resisted the sledgehammer punches of Sonny Liston, Foreman and so many others in a golden era for heavyweight boxing.”

Tales of Bessman: Ray Sadecki, Harmon Killebrew and Henry Aaron…AARON

Nothing like the death of a baseball star from your youth to make you reflect on your own mortality and what you wished would have been.

Ray Sadecki died Nov. 17 at 73. He won 20 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964, when the Cardinals won in the World Series—and the British Invasion began. And I was 12.
He died from complications of blood cancer. I’m being treated for prostate cancer.

But he also had a ballplayer’s name. A real baseball player’s name. Made me think back on Harmon Killebrew, who died back in 2011, or Henry Aaron, who’s still alive.

Playing center field and batting cleanup, No 44, Henry Aaron…AARON.

Hank Aaron. Like I said, a real baseball player’s name, like Harmon Killebrew. Both were really special, on and off the field.

Killebrew’s death brought forth a slew of nostalgic reminiscences from Facebook friends and tributes from sportswriters everywhere. I, too, got into the act, with a piece I wrote for examiner.com, in which I noted that as great a hitter as he was, he was apparently as great a human being. Phil Mushnick, the great sportswriter for The New York Post, picked up on both aspects in his tribute: “Was there ever a man with a more appropriate name than Harmon Killebrew? A fellow named Harmon Killebrew could not have been a spray hitter or middle reliever. He could only have been a big, bald, friendly guy from Payette, Idaho, who hit 573 home runs. And Killebrew didn’t use steroids or HGH, just a bat.”

But the death of Killebrew evoked deeper emotions in those of us who were kids when he was at the height of his career. The death of any boyhood hero will have an effect on the boy who still resides inside the man.

Playing first base, No. 9, Joe Adcock…ADCOCK.

Joe Adcock was first baseman for the Milwaukee Braves in 1957, the only Milwaukee Braves team to win the World Series. I was five-years-old in Milwaukee, but his, Aaron’s and so many other names (Eddie Mathews…MATHEWS, Warren Spahn…SPAHN, Lou Burdette…BURDETTE, Andy Pafko…PAFKO, Del Crandall…CRANDALL, Billy Bruton…BRUTON) are indelibly etched in boyhood memory from hearing the County Stadium announcer repeat each name twice–then reading about what they all did that night in the next day’s papers.

Then there was Earl Gillespie. The voice of the Braves from 1953 to 1963, Gillespie was an excitable radio sportscaster who drove my father crazy with his theatrics–which I loved. He always used to shout “Holy cow!” whenever there was a spike in the action (this carried into his broadcasts of University of Wisconsin-Madison football games, i.e., “Holy cow! What a boot!” to make vivid a long punt). His signature home run call went something like this: “Here’s the pitch to Henry Aaron. [Excitedly] It’s a swing and a drive way back into center field! This could be…IT IS! A home run for Henry Aaron!”

Other things I think I remember but I’m not sure. I think we had the great Braves reliever Don McMahon come visit us once at an Indian Guides meeting (the Indian Guides were a father-son YMCA program for kindergarten through third grade) but it might have been a different Brave. But I’m certain I saw Sandy Koufax hit his first homer–he only hit two–off Spahn at County Stadium in 1962, beating the Braves 2-1 (he laughed as he rounded the bases, like he couldn’t believe that he did it and was embarrassed, as he was a terrible hitter); I also remember seeing the Chicago White Sox’ Nellie Fox hit two homers in one game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, and remember seeing someone hit an inside-the-park home run (I think it was the Cubs’ George Altman).

But what I really remember is fantasizing Earl Gillespie reading my name off a Braves’ lineup–Jim Bessman…BESSMAN–and feeling an awful letdown. Bessman…BESSMAN just didn’t have the authentic baseball ring of Aaron…AARON, Adcock…ADCOCK or Bruton…BRUTON. And besides, I sucked at baseball. To this day I’m haunted by my ineptness.

I couldn’t hit worth a shit. Invariably struck out. Dropped fly balls, that is, if I got anywhere near them. Grounders went through my legs. Never got any better at sports.

But now and then I can hit a fairly decent golf ball–when I don’t slice it into the next fairway. Talk about finding water, I once found water playing in the desert in Scottsdale!

But what always bothered me is I could never hit it very far–seeing as though I’m a good 20-30-40 pounds overweight at close to 200. God knows I’m heavy enough to hit a baseball out of the park.

It must be a wonderful thing, hitting a home run. That’s why all these contemporary players just stand there and admire themselves while they watch their drive way back into center field invariably hit the wall–if it goes that far–and then they’re stuck with a single when if they’d run it out, like they did back in Killebrew’s day, like any kid knows how to do, they’d have made second, easy.

God, I’d love to see if I could do it.

Some years ago I walked the field of the Tulsa Drillers minor league ballpark when I was there for a Beach Boys concert. Tried to figure if I could hit one out. Didn’t think I could.

I mentioned this to my old music business friend Steve in Nashville. Steve’s tall and lanky, a great athlete, who played college ball and earned a tryout with a minor league team, until he got busted for pot–cruelly ending his big league ball dreams. Now he was playing in some serious summer leagues and coaching his son’s little league team (“Shake a hand, make a friend,” he instructed his kids, as they shook hands with the opposing team after every game. How quaint!).

“We have a game tomorrow afternoon,” Steve said one day in June when I was in town on country music business. “Come on down and I’ll pitch to you.”

Okay. It was a just a little league park. But it had a fence and everything. It was the chance I’d been dreaming of for some 40 years, probably.

Now Steve had long explained to me that weight has little to do with home run power. It’s bat speed, really–in golf, club head speed. It’s a simple matter of physics–if physics is a simple matter. Steve also tried to explain that the way a power hitter swings the bat is that one hand pulls, the other pushes, and there’s a real snap to it. Of course I had no idea what he was talking about and was going to have to just swing a bat stupidly with both hands.

At least I remembered to step into it. But I hadn’t swung a baseball bat since I started wearing glasses–and that felt odd. But, hey, this was my big chance.

I also hadn’t taken into account my hands blistering, and even though I train in Filipino stick fighting, my hands swelled up and tore up pretty quick. I was making solid contact, but mostly line drives and grounders. But I finally got one up and away, way back, and IT WAS! A home run for Jim Bessman…BESSMAN! And yes, it was the thrill of this boy’s lifetime.

We ended on that high note, and Steve asked me to throw a few to him. He hadn’t hit in a while, and I hadn’t thrown in a lot longer and could barely get it anywhere near the plate–let alone in Steve’s strike zone, big as it is.
I don’t know what’s harder, hitting a ball or throwing one, but I finally served up one that Steve could chase down, lean over, and essentially scoop up and launch like a rock out of a catapult over the fence, over a building, on and on until it soared out of sight. I’m not sure that it ever came down. My mouth is gaping open now just remembering it.

The glory of sports. The joy.

That’s how I remember Harmon Killebrew. Hank Aaron.

The 1960s Green Bay Packers. And as he slows down to his inevitable stop, Muhammad Ali.

Thanks for the memories, Ray Sadecki.