JOE BIDDLE: Ali a Champ to the end

(AP Photo)

Cassius Clay. Muhammad Ali. The Greatest.

Servant to the needy. Suspended from boxing 3½ years for refusing to be drafted into the Army. Charismatic.

There have been thousands of words written and spoken since Muhammad Ali threw his final punch at Parkinson’s disease last week. He was 74.

It was one opponent he could not conquer in the ring. Thus he fought the brain disease with his money and fame. He raised millions after his boxing career chronicled its final chapter.

The stories are endless, most if not all, inspirational.

While Ali is gone forever, his legacy will live on deep into the future.

I never covered an Ali fight. I did have a one-on-one interview with him years ago. It remains the most awkward interview in my 40-some years of writing sports, more than 31 years and counting in Nashville.

My Ali experience took place in a small trailer in Daytona Beach. Ali was in town to train for what I remember was the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman.

It would take place in the scorching heat of Zaire, thus he came to Florida where the city set up a boxing ring in the middle of a city stadium used for local high school and college football games.

Ali wanted to train outdoors, in the hottest conditions a Daytona Beach summer could provide.

I was apprehensive before the interview. This was the Greatest. Heavyweight champion of the world. He could float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

I had no idea my life would be in danger.

He entered the trailer near the ring, sweating from top to bottom. They removed his gloves, leaving his hands wrapped. I forget my first question and any that may have followed.

Ali started the interview by shadow boxing me. He was throwing combination punches. Many of them were an inch of two from my face, rapid fire punches that would have maimed me for life if they had connected. Thank the Lord, Ali was very much in control. I, on the other hand, was not.

We didn’t use digital tape recorders in the ‘70s. I was trying to scribble Ali’s answers on my reporter’s notebook, all the time trying to remember the rest of my questions I had planned. It was futile. I don’t know which one of us was sweating the most.

Ali was cool, calm and collected. I was a basket case. He talked in machine gun patter. I prayed for a TKO.

He wanted me to print he was the Greatest. No problem, Champ. He wanted me to tell my readers he was pretty. “I’m pretty. You know I’m pretty. You better write I’m pretty. You hear me?’’

Loud and clear, Champ. Loud and clear.

So it didn’t surprise me that the number of stories, columns and commentaries on Ali came fast and furious after his death. He planned his funeral for 10 years and no stone was left unturned. The citizens of Louisville turned out to pay their respects to a painter’s son who put the town on the world map and never forgot where he came from.

Comedian/actor Billy Crystal, who became Ali’s little brother because of his spot-on impersonation of Ali, was magnificent. A long list of speakers paid impressive homage to him.

I mused over two questions that we will probably never find an answer for about Ali.

Whatever happened to the thief who stole Ali’s bicycle as a kid, giving him a reason to learn how to fight and defend himself?

The second question: After Ali refused to be drafted into the Army, who was the draftee who filled his space and whatever happened to him, other than most likely a year in Vietnam? That one is impossible to pinpoint.

As a Vietnam veteran, I never felt any anger over Ali’s decision to skip the war. He wasn’t in the class of Jane Fonda, who was a traitor that got a number of POW’s tortured and killed.

Ali was a people person. He championed the cause of those who had nothing. He was charming, funny and a common sense intellectual.

And, yes, he was pretty. There, I kept my promise Champ. Rest well.

Joe Biddle is a sports columnist. He is a member of the Tennessee Sports Writers Association’s Hall of Fame. Contact him at

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