by Jim Wells
On an overcast, gloomy Saturday, unusual in this particular city, a tall, magnificently dressed man sauntered into the lobby of the Westward Ho Hotel. It was late 1960s and the man’s imposing physique, accented by a finely tailored pinstriped suit, stopped observers in their tracks as they gawked and stared in stunned wonder.
Was it really him?
He had the bearing possessed by men of power and influence, although few realized that afternoon how influential he would become. Yet, it was all there, the striking good looks, the air of confidence, the grand demeanor.
His presence added class to the ornate surroundings of the old hotel in downtown Phoenix, a place of respite for movie stars, the wealthy, even the politically powerful and on this day to a man once known as Cassius Clay but in the last few weeks as Muhammad Ali.
He had been stripped of the heavyweight title he won from Sonny Liston for refusal to subject himself to the draft made necessary by the conflict in Viet Nam yet would come to be revered for his strength of character, his charm, his charisma and his commitment to the downtrodden everywhere. Nonetheless, controversy was his constant escort.
A bellboy approached Ali that day, expressing sympathy for his current trials and tribulations and support for his decision to place principle ahead of all else. The fighter responded, as he would so often in the future, with a lengthy, articulate defense of his beliefs and how they applied to the politics of the time and the nation as a whole. In the years that followed he would demonstrate a willingness to use any occasion to speak out against injustice and intolerance where he found it, a trait that worked as well on a lesser level, within the sport of boxing at which he excelled like no others before him and perhaps ever again. Muhammad Ali was a master salesman, man of principal and a fighter like no other, with fast hands and feet unseen before or since in men his size.
“He was the dominant athlete of the twentieth century,’’ said Johnny Love, a long-time professional boxing fan and the handicapper for the Minneapolis Tribune. “My dad says the same thing and I know that it’s hard for him. He was always a big Joe Louis fan.’’
David Miller, the chart-man at Canterbury Park, recalled the Great One’s magnificence on Saturday. Ali, the only three-time heavyweight champion of the world, died the night before from complications associated with the Parkinson’s disease he had battled since the 1980s.
Miller recalled numerous articles quoting jockeys over the years on their favorite athlete. “They always said ‘Muhammed Ali,’’ he recalled. “He was the man at time in sports when Giants walked the Earth.’’ Indeed, it was such a time, a time of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, a time of Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and Larry Holmes.
Jockeys, trainers, horse owners, horse players and almost anyone else you cared to ask on Saturday were aware of Ali’s death the night before.
“I learned a lot about him from reading quotes by (the Cleveland Cavaliers’) LeBron James,’’ said Niante Humphrey, 22, the cook in the jockey’s lounge. “LeBron talked about all the good things he did that I didn’t know about, the charities and his principles.’’
Once known as the Louisville Lip, Ali was born in the city that has hosted the Kentucky Derby since 1875, a city where the greatest horses of all time have run and known as well as birthplace of one of the greatest fighters of all time.
Will we ever see another heavyweight with the hands and feet of the Ali?
“Nope,’’ said Oscar Quiroz, one of the track photographers.
“He really brought pizzazz to the sport,’’ said trainer Bernell Rhone.
“He revitalized boxing when it needed it most,’’ said trainer Jerry Livingston.
“It’s really hard to lose the great ones,’’ said track vet Doc Bowman.
Ali was not highly educated but was regarded as an exceptionally bright. “He certainly outsmarted a lot of people, that’s for sure,’’ said Jeff Maday, Canterbury’s director of media relations.
He outsmarted them in and out of the ring. During a visit to the Twin Cities in the early 1990s he captivated a crowd in another hotel lobby, first getting their attention by performing magic tricks at which he excelled. Once mesmerized by his sleight of hand, the crowd was his for the taking, and Ali launched into a sermon on the social and racial ills that needed attention in the Nation.
He had quick hands and feet, a quick mind, a strong sense of social justice which he expressed fearlessly… and he left a matchless legacy.
He was simply …the Greatest.