From Rome to Vegas and Beyond, a Sportswriter Remembers Muhammad Ali

It started for Jerry Izenberg at the 1960 Summer Olympics.

One of the best remembrances of Muhammad Ali this weekend comes from Jerry Izenberg. Partly because the 85-year-old Newark Star-Ledger sportswriting icon includes the bad with the good.

Izenberg first encountered Cassius Clay in 1960, on the steps of the Summer Olympics village in Rome. The boxer had the light heavyweight gold medal hanging around his neck:

“I’m the best. I’m the best. I’m gonna be the heavyweight champion of the world… heavyweight champion of the world… and I’m pretty, too…”

On he went in that non-stop staccato banter. Within a few years, it would become the soundtrack to every major heavyweight fight, and the background music to drastic changes in America itself, during the 1960s and ’70s.

In the fall of 1980, it was a different story. Ali took on Larry Holmes in Las Vegas, losing by TKO. His handlers stopped the fight after the tenth round. Here’s how Izenberg remembers that Oct. 3 night:

And here, I admit, I committed the most unprofessional act of my entire journalistic career.

Seeing the battered state of a man who had been my friend for so long, I jumped out of my ringside seat on press row and shouted up at referee Richard Greene. “For God’s sake, Richard, stop it now!”

Later, when I told Holmes that I had asked the ref to stop the fight, Holmes smiled sadly and said, “Me, too.”

But my strongest memory of that night applies to a bittersweet epitaph offered by an elderly African-American men’s room attendant at 4 a.m. as he handed me a towel.

“Did you bet the fight?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I bet on Ali.”

“Pardon me for asking, but why?”

“Why? Why? Because he’s Muhammad Ali, that’s why. Mister, I’m 72 years old. I owe the man for giving me my dignity.”

There’s plenty more in the Izenberg column. And crosstown in the Post, a fun related memory from Mike Vaccaro. Just a few weeks into his time with the paper in 2002, Vaccaro met Ali at Gallagher’ Steak House, where the boxer was launching Muhammad magazine. When Vaccaro told Ali that his mentor was Izenberg, Ali was intrigued:

“You know Jerry?” he said, and his face formed into a frown. Then slowly, he raised his right arm, formed a fist and nudged my jaw with a benign jab. “You’re ugly. Just like him.” And then he smiled. “Tell him I said that.”

Izenberg was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame in 2012 and will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y. next weekend.

Image courtesy: Newark Star-Ledger