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.”

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.”