Ali still front, center for Arum

October 27, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

You should consider yourself lucky if you remember more of Muhammad Ali than the Ali of the past 10 years or so. You're even luckier if you get to hear somebody who knew that other Ali from way back then.

Reports like the one that came out yesterday, from Ali's daughter Laila, remind us of this. Laila, 27 and a boxing champ herself, told the Los Angeles Times that the Parkinson's symptoms with which he has long battled seem to be affecting him worse. "I feel like the disease is progressing," she said of her 63-year-old father.

"It's painful for me," she continued, "because I would love to sit down and talk to my dad about the way he used to be when he was my age, when he was in his prime, because we are so much alike. I can't really do that. I can't share a lot of things with him."

Her pain as a daughter is different from everyone else's, as fans. Still, it's a lucky break that Bob Arum happened to be in Baltimore yesterday. Arum is promoting the Hasim Rahman-Vitali Klitschko heavyweight championship fight next month in Las Vegas, but at a luncheon in a downtown restaurant, he and his colleagues spent as much time reminiscing about Ali as they did flacking the bout.

It wasn't meant to diminish either fighter, but when Ali is the topic, that can hardly be avoided. Arum, nearly 74, has been around Ali for nearly 40 years, from the time Ali was not just on center stage, but on the only stage.

Back then, Ali could threaten the relations between bordering nations, nearly cause a boycott against an international exposition and drive a wedge between two rich arena owners. His presence could also bring a young Jewish lawyer to the bargaining table with the leader of a national Muslim sect. All that over one bout - a 1966 fight in Toronto with George Chuvalo.

Arum, then, was one of the people working like crazy to find a city to hold the fight. That was one of the first bouts Ali had scheduled after his battles over his refusal to go to Vietnam had begun. By the time he actually stepped into the ring, the opponent had changed (Ernie Terrell had backed out after the guaranteed money dried up because of the controversy), and the bout had been moved from Chicago to Toronto with several detours in between.

"We were all set to fight in Montreal, at the Forum," Arum recalled yesterday, "until the American Legion told the city that it was going to boycott Montreal '67 if that `draft dodger' fought there." Then it was on to Toronto, but not until the Ontario parliament had narrowly voted to approve the fight: "I'd never even heard of an Ontario parliament."

Even after that, the co-owners of Maple Leaf Gardens, the site of the bout, were at such odds over Ali's stand that one had to buy the other out in order to get the fight done. "That took some [guts]," Arum said.

Along the way, Arum hammered out financial details of the bout with the father of Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad - Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. The meeting was quite amiable and productive - except, Arum said, "every 20 minutes or so he'd start talking about white devils and spaceships and all of that. It's like he had to remind himself of it. Then he'd just stop, and it would be back to talking about the fight."

Ultimately, the fight in Toronto was a success and opened the door overseas to the banned Ali. His later fight with Henry Cooper in London was aired in America live on a Saturday afternoon on ABC, which had bought the rights. "It got ratings up the wazoo," Arum said. "They fell in love with Ali and they fell in love with boxing."

That love affair between boxing, the networks and its audience lasted until about a decade ago. Arum's presence marks that time. He promoted 25 Ali fights in all, some of which involved competitor Don King.

What little drama there was during that time away could never compete with Ali's heyday. For instance, Arum recalled, the U.S. government had once offered a compromise to Ali that would keep him out of uniform and allow him to keep fighting, with bouts to be promoted by prominent black celebrities of the day.

Several gathered in Cleveland in what is now a famous meeting at a black financial empowerment business operated by the just-retired Jim Brown, with whom Arum had become friends. "All the big stars were there, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, football players, baseball players, Lew Alcindor when he was still in college," Arum said. "They were going to convince him to take that deal.

"Instead, Ali stood up when they were done talking, and he talked to them for a solid hour, explaining his stand and why he was taking it. He ended up convincing them. They held a press conference telling everybody why they were now supporting him. People remember that, but they don't know that it was supposed to be the other way around."

Another story lesser known outside boxing circles involved Ali's second wife Belinda and the two tantrums she threw over the same woman, one at the 1974 George Foreman fight, the other at the third Joe Frazier fight in 1975.

For the latter, Arum had actually been the bearer of the bad tidings; sitting near him on the plane to Manila, Belinda had seen the paper he was reading with a story and photo of Ali and the woman identified as "Mr. and Mrs. Muhammad Ali." She remained calm, landed in Manila, went to Ali's hotel "and completely trashed his room," he said. "Then she got back on the plane and went home."

The other woman, Veronica, became Ali's third wife, and Laila's mother. It's hard to say whether the daughter wants to hear that story from her father. Then again, being able to hear it from him might be exactly what she wants, while he is still with us.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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