Posts Tagged ‘Muhammad Ali’

Ali, Me and Two Guys Named Frank

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

By Bob Gaydos

Frank Giannino (left) and Frank Shorter

               Frank Giannino (left) and Frank Shorter                                                                  photo by Bob Gaydos

Muhammad Ali was the most famous person on the planet for much of his life and mine. It’s possible that, even in death, he still held that distinction, even though he had long ago lost the physical skills that originally brought him to the world’s attention as Cassius Clay. He was young, brash and, in his own immodest opinion, “the greatest” at what he did.

What he did, of course, was “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” while making his opponents in the most brutal of sports, boxing, look foolish. As Clay, he was unquestionably the best — the heavyweight champion of the world. The title itself conveyed a measure of fame. But it was as Ali that he became most famous and, eventually, beloved and respected by millions.

Not by all, of course. He was human, with faults and flaws. But also, as it turned out, he was a man with deep-rooted convictions. He demonstrated them as Cassius Clay by refusing to report for the draft during the Vietnam War, declaring that he had no argument with the Vietnamese people and would not kill them on the orders of a government — his own — that had denied, and continued to deny, him and other blacks basic rights from the very founding of this nation.

He was threatened with arrest and imprisonment, with the loss of his boxing crown and, as he well recognized, with the loss of millions of dollars. “Lock me up,” he said. In the end, as Muhammad Ali, a Muslim, he won his battle in the courts, reclaimed his boxing title in the ring, continued to speak out against bigotry and became a symbol of courage and respect worldwide.

Ali died last week, at 74, largely the result of the punishment he took in the boxing ring by coming back to prove he was still the greatest. Having just turned 75 myself a few days earlier, I was thinking about Ali and what we do with our lives after a certain point, but more specifically, about people who achieve something special, something unique, something that, if you really think about it, should make you stop and say, “Wow.”

As fate would have it (pay attention, fate is always having it), I found myself at an event in my area that offered up two men in one high school sports arena who’d had their own “wow” moments — Frank Shorter and Frank Giannino.

To say they are both former long-distance runners would be like saying Ali had good footwork in the ring. Shorter started running to school as a young teenager every day, from one side of the City of Middletown to the other, and wound up winning the gold medal in the Olympics marathon in Munich in 1972, a feat credited by many with sparking the running boom in the United States. He followed up with a silver medal four years later.

Giannino, who, despite success, described himself as a “no-talent ultra-marathoner” in high school, went a little farther. Actually, a lot farther. In 1980, he completed what remains to this day, the fastest run across the United States: 3,100 miles in 46 days, 8 hours and 36 minutes. It’s still listed in Guinness; you can look it up.

Both men were in Middletown, N.Y., on a warm Saturday morning, encouraging young runners, the men’s mere presence a testament that special achievements can be as close as your next-door neighbor. Hey, if Frank could do it … Unlike Ali, both Franks excelled in a sport that allows its participants to age more gracefully and sometimes still enjoy it. But they have not rested on their laurels.

Giannino, 64, owns a running store and has shown that determination and discipline that took him across the country 36 years ago in organizing and promoting local running events for years. In fact, he was instrumental in resurrecting the popular running event at which we were all present. 

Shorter, 68, appears at running events and is a motivational speaker. But he has also served as chairman of the United States Anti Doping Agency, the independent agency which has a stated mission of being “the guardian of the values and life lessons learned through true sport.”

Shorter stepped down as USADA chairman in 2003. He has testified before Congress and written articles about drugs in sports. He says he is still involved “unofficially” in keeping sports clean. “I don’t want to sound mysterious,” he said, “but I’m still involved. What’s going on with the Olympics today is that they’re finally doing what they said they were doing years ago. … They told us they couldn’t keep samples for any length of time. Now look. …”

“I don’t do this for the recognition,” he added.

No kidding. Rooting out cheaters in sports is as popular in some areas (Lance Armstrong fan clubs for example) as refusing to report for the draft on moral grounds.

I guess my lesson learned here is that, whatever you do, whatever you may have accomplished, for as long you can, you keep showing up for life. You lace up your running shoes and stay true to your principles. And don’t forget to acknowledge people who do special things. It never hurts to hear a little “wow” once in a while.

I think I may have read that before. I may have even written it before. But wasn’t this much more enjoyable than politics?


My Dinner with Muhammad Ali

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

By Michael Kaufman

Ali and Michael.

Ali and Michael.

Active-wear apparel giant Under Armour announced Wednesday it has signed a multi-year deal with Muhammad Ali to launch a “lifestyle apparel” line next month bearing his likeness and motivational phrases. It will also use photos of the 73-year-old former heavyweight boxing champion in marketing campaigns. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“Ali is one of the most recognized and celebrated figures of all time,” Under Armour noted.  There was no mention that he was also once one of the most despised and reviled figures in his home country, the USA.  Ali was stripped of his title in 1967 when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and refused induction into the Army after he was drafted. His application for conscientious objector status based on his religious beliefs was denied. The chances are none to none that Under Armour will use one of Ali’s most motivational quotes of that period: “No Viet Cong ever called me a (n-word)!”  It would be three years before he was allowed to return to the ring and resume the career that established him as one of the greatest boxers of all time.

I was a young sportswriter in 1969 working for a leftist newspaper in New York City when I read an interview with then middleweight champion Nino Benvenuti, now regarded by many as Italy’s all-time best boxer. During the interview Benvenuti expressed his admiration for Benito Mussolini, fascist dictator of Italy and ally of Adolf Hitler during the Second World War. Benvenuti liked Il Duce so much he kept a bust of him on display in his home.

So I wrote a column questioning the double standard on the part of the boxing officials who punished Ali for his beliefs while ignoring those of Benvenuti. Someone showed the column to Ali and he called the newspaper to thank me and offer an opportunity to interview him. But he had to call twice because the city editor, who answered the phone in the news room, thought it was a crank call and hung up on him the first time.

My memory of it is vivid. I saw the editor, a crusty veteran journalist pick up the ringing phone and say “Uh yellow!” in his characteristic raspy voice. That was how he always answered the phone.  Then he looked at me and said politely, “Yes, he’s here. May I tell him who is calling?” I saw his face change as he said, “Oh yeah? And I’m George Washington!” and slammed down the phone. He walked over to my desk and said, “Some guy just called for you and when I asked who was calling he said, ‘Tell him it’s the heavyweight champion of the world.’ So I told him I was George Washington and hung up on him!”

Fortunately, Ali called back and at the end of a pleasant conversation during which he asked me to explain what a fascist is he invited me to interview him at his home in Cherry Hill, NJ. A photographer friend came with me and after the interview Ali and his then wife Belinda invited us to stay for dinner. We enjoyed steak purchased from a kosher butcher and Ali commented on the similarity of the dietary laws between Muslims and Jews.

A few months later he made his return to the ring against the unfortunate Jerry Quarry, the first of several tune-ups leading up to the epic championship battle with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden. The Quarry fight was held in Atlanta over the objection of Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, an unreconstructed segregationist who liked to brandish an ax handle as a symbol of defiance. But Sam Massel, Atlanta’s first Jewish mayor, was glad to have his city host the event. I remember thinking he didn’t sound Jewish when he greeted the horde of media people from around the world that descended on Atlanta to cover the event, “Welcome y’all!”

Someone at the opening press conference asked Ali a dumb question. He gave his favorite answer to dumb questions: “Howard Cosell gets paid for being an idiot. What’s your excuse?” That would be another good one to see printed on an Under Armour t-shirt or hoodie. Another that might look dashing on a track suit: “What’s my name, fool?”

Speaking of Under Armour, in doing background research for this piece I learned something I’ve wondered about ever since I first noticed their peculiar crisscross logo. It is composed of the letter “U” on top of the letter “A,” representing the company’s initials – “UA.” Who knew?

Michael can be reached at


Remembering William Greaves

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

By Michael Kaufman

William Greaves

William Greaves

The penthouse suite at the Waldorf Astoria was crammed with sportswriters partaking of the open bar and sumptuous buffet provided by Jack Kent Cooke, multimillionaire owner of the Washington professional football team with a racial slur as its name. Cooke, who died in 1997, was about to announce plans for the biggest closed-circuit telecast yet to take place in the United States: the heavyweight championship fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden.
But before making the announcement and fielding questions he made sure the writers were well-oiled and well-fed.

Then he held court from a throne-like chair positioned above the assembled scribes. He listed the venues where the fight would be shown and said there would have been more sites if the equipment were available. The remaining details were of little interest and by the time he got around to matter-of-factly mentioning the price of tickets—well beyond what most people could comfortably afford—few were paying attention.

When he asked if anyone had any questions, one after another addressed him cordially as “J-a-a-a-ck” and lobbed a softball. I wanted to say something about the exorbitant cost of tickets but I couldn’t think of a way to put it in the form of a question. I also didn’t want to get his attention by cheerfully calling out his first name as if we were old chums. I’d never met the man and so far I didn’t like him any more than I liked George Weiss, the old-school baseball general manager who said of sportswriters, “You can buy them with a steak.”  Nor did I think “Mr. Cooke” would be the appropriate form of address.

So I blurted, “Sir!”

Cooke nodded quizzically and I asked if it bothered him that the tickets were priced so high that most people wouldn’t be able to see the fight. I added something about the public demand being responsible for bringing it about in the first place.

“My name is Cooke, not Jesus Christ,” he replied, and I thought I’d made a fool of myself as he and some of the other writers enjoyed a laugh at my expense.

Later, as I was about to leave, a man walked up to me and shook my hand. He said he was making a documentary movie about Muhammad Ali and he’d like to have my permission to include my exchange with Cooke. I told him I thought I’d made a fool of myself but he said no, I’d livened things up a bit. So I signed a release for which William Greaves paid me the token sum of  a dollar.

William Greaves died Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87. According to the Associated Press obituary, he leaves behind “a vast film archive of black art and culture” that includes hundreds of movies. “One of Greaves’ most widely seen productions was ‘Ali, the Fighter,’ a documentary about the 1971 championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.” I am honored to be in it, albeit briefly, making a fool of myself or not as the case may be.

Michael can be reached at


Why I No Longer Watch Boxing

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

By Michael Kaufman
On March 24, 1962 Emile Griffith defended his world welterweight boxing championship against Benny “Kid” Paret. It was their third meeting: the “rubber match.” Griffith had won the first fight, knocking out Paret in the 13th round to win the title in January the previous year. Paret won the rematch by a split decision in September. Then, two months later, Paret made the mistake of challenging Gene Fullmer for the middleweight title. He took a beating from the bigger, stronger Fullmer before getting knocked out in the 10th round. Now just a few months later he was defending the welterweight title against Griffith.

I was 16 then, still learning the fine points of boxing from my father. I also learned a great deal from the astute commentary of Don Dunphy, the great ring announcer for the Friday night fights on ABC-TV’s “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.” During his 50-year broadcasting career, Dunphy called 200 championship fights and he was at the mike for Griffith-Paret III.

The pre-fight weigh-in had been acrimonious. The Cuban-born Paret taunted Griffith, calling him a derogatory Spanish word for a homosexual. Infuriated, Griffith had to be restrained by his handlers. The animosity carried into the ring as the two battled hard from the opening bell.

Near the end of round six Paret nearly knocked Griffith out with a multi-punch combination but the former champion was saved by the bell. The two then fought evenly for several rounds and in the 12th, Dunphy announced, “This has been a slow round,” just as Griffith was about to unleash a sudden bombardment of punishing blows. He landed 29 punches in a row, the last 18 in six seconds as Paret crumpled helplessly against the ropes. Only then did referee Ruby Goldstein stop the fight. Paret went into a coma and died 10 days later.

Some pointed an accusing finger at “boxing” for Paret’s death, but others blamed Goldstein, who, despite having been a respected veteran referee prior to the bout, never worked another fight. Still others questioned why the New York State Athletic Commission had issued a license to Paret to fight so soon after the pasting he took from Fullmer. Boxing itself lost few adherents. I continued to follow the sport, assuming Paret’s death was an aberration. As far as I knew, the main injuries to boxers were minor cuts, broken noses (like my Uncle Willie had gotten when he boxed in the Navy), and “cauliflower” ears. And every once in a while you might encounter a funny character who acted “punch drunk.” The medical condition now known as “dementia pugilistica” had yet to be defined.

Some six months after the death of Paret, on Sept. 21, 1962, heavyweight Alejandro Lavorante was knocked into a coma in the sixth round of a scheduled 10-round fight with John Riggins in Los Angeles. Lavorante died of injuries sustained in the bout 16 months later. Coming in to the fight with Riggins he had lost five of his six previous matches. In the last two he was knocked out by the young, undefeated Muhammad Ali in the sixth round, and lost via technical knockout to 45-year-old Archie Moore in the 10th. Lavorante was carried from the ring on a stretcher after referee Tommy Hart stopped the fight against Moore, who had been a great light-heavyweight champion and a contender for the heavyweight title, but was far past his prime when he beat Lavorante.

A year after the Griffith-Paret fight, as Lavorante lay dying in a Los Angeles hospital, Davey Moore defended the featherweight championship against Sugar Ramos at nearby Dodger Stadium.

“The fight had been scheduled for 15 rounds,” wrote Morton Sharnik in Sports Illustrated, but in the 10th Moore took such a pounding that his manager, Willie Ketchum, asked the referee to stop it after the bell rang for the end of the round.

Afterward, “Little Davey,” as Sharnik called him, joked with reporters in the dressing room. “Except for a bloodshot left eye, his face was unmarked. It was hard to believe that he had just lost his world featherweight championship in a savage fight.

“But no sooner had the reporters hurried out than Moore clasped both hands to the back of his head and cried out to Ketchum, ‘My head, Willie! My head! It hurts something awful!’ With that, he collapsed into unconsciousness. Ketchum called for an ambulance, and Moore was taken to White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles.” He died 75 hours later.

As Sharnik reported, Moore’s death led to an outcry against boxing, with California’s then governor Pat Brown and the Pope among those calling for its abolition.
I met Sharnik when I went to Atlanta to cover Muhammad Ali’s return to the ring after Ali’s more than three-year exile for refusing induction into the Army during the war in Vietnam. Sharnik went out of his way to help a young, nervous aspiring sportswriter feel at ease in the crowded press room filled with unfamiliar faces. The fight took place Oct. 26, 1970. Ali knocked out Jerry Quarry in the third round.

Ali knocked Quarry out again in 1972. Joe Frazier also knocked him out twice, in 1969 and 1974; Ken Norton knocked him out in 1975. Quarry retired in 1983. Out of money and already showing signs of blunt force trauma, Quarry returned to the ring on Oct. 30, 1992, losing in six rounds to Ron Cramner. In the years preceding his death Quarry was diagnosed with dementia pugilisitica, brain damage caused by repeated blows to the head. A progressive malady, similar to Alzheimer’s disease, it left the once-affable Quarry virtually helpless and in the care of his family. He died in 1999 at age 53.
“For a sport so bound up with physical violence, there has been an almost criminal lack of controlled, scientific exploration in the area of protecting that primary target of a fighter’s fists, the human head,” wrote Mort Sharnik after the death of Davey Moore. “If boxing is to survive…some protection must be provided for the delicate tissues of the brain….

“The promoters wail that artificial head protection is certain death at the box office, but this is hardly a consideration when the alternative may be death in the ring.” Fifty years have passed since Sharnik wrote those words. Nothing has changed.

Michael can be reached at

The “Little Guy” Won Every Round

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

A young Joe Frazier ... "the little guy"

By Michael Kaufman
“Bum decision,” said my father. “The little guy won every round!” The “little guy” was 20-year-old Joe Frazier. It is hard to think of a man who stands at 5’ 11” and weighs 205 lbs. as “little,” but that is how it looked that summer day in 1964 at the Singer Bowl on the grounds of the New York World’s Fair. That was the site for the finals of the U.S. Olympic boxing trials. Winners in their respective weight divisions would go on to represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. The heavyweights fought last.

Frazier’s opponent was Buster Mathis, some four inches taller and nearly 100 pounds heavier. Most of the pre-fight buzz had focused on Mathis, especially because he had beaten Frazier in one previous meeting that year—Frazier’s only loss as an amateur prior to the Olympic tournament. Mathis had cruised to the finals, dominating smaller opponents.

We had ringside seats. My father was a knowledgeable boxing aficionado and enjoyed sharing stories with me about his favorite fighters, such as Joe Louis, Benny Leonard and Sugar Ray Robinson. As a young man he had enjoyed putting on the gloves and sparring with his friends until one day he broke the nose of his best friend Abe Bolker, and he never boxed again. Yet he always spoke proudly of his younger brother, my uncle Willie, who was a boxer in the Navy during World War II. And he still followed the so-called “sweet science” or “manly art of self defense,” as boxing was often called.

My first memory of boxing is the Rocky Marciano-Joe Louis fight in October 1951, when I was 5. I watched on a 10-inch TV screen with my father and uncles at my aunt Sadye and uncle Joe’s house in Far Rockaway. Everyone was sad. I didn’t understand what Uncle Willie meant when he said of Louis, “He’s a shell.” A shell was something you found at the beach. By 1951 Louis was years past his prime and fought only because he desperately needed the money.

Some 47 years after the Frazier-Mathis fight in the Olympic trials a few memories still stand out. Mathis was extraordinarily fat. He towered over Frazier but the feisty “little guy” was not intimidated and was the aggressor throughout. My father said the judges almost always prefer the aggressor to a fighter forced to be on the defensive for most of a fight. A rare exception was Muhammad Ali, who we watched train for his first fight with Sonny Liston in 1962. The first day we saw Ali (then still known as Cassius Clay) spar at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach my father said, “This guy has no chance. Nobody ever won a championship fight backing away all the time.” But by the end of the second day he changed his mind: “This kid is gonna beat Liston. I’ve never seen a heavyweight with such quick hands and feet!” Few experts agreed. The final odds for that fight were something like 8-1 in favor of Liston.

Mathis wore his trunks very high in his fight with Frazier in the Olympic trials. He looked comical but it served him well: When Frazier hit Mathis with legitimate body shots, the referee warned him about low blows. In the second round, he penalized Frazier two points for hitting below the belt. Frazier would say later, “In a three-round bout a man can’t afford a points-deduction like that.” Despite losing the second round because of the deduction, Frazier was a clear winner in the eyes of almost everyone but the judges. The decision was heartily booed.

“All that fat boy had done was run like a thief,” Frazier complained. “Hit me with a peck and backpedal like crazy.” When Frazier returned home to Philadelphia he was so upset that he considered giving up boxing altogether. But his manager Duke Dugent and trainer Yank Durham convinced him to make the trip to Tokyo as an alternate in case something happened to Mathis. Good thing they did. Mathis injured his hand and couldn’t compete. Frazier went on to win the gold medal.

Frazier and Mathis would fight again as professionals four years later at Madison Square Garden, and again there were some dubious aspects to the matchup. By then Ali had been stripped of his title for refusing induction into the Army during the war in Vietnam. The Frazier-Mathis fight was proclaimed a “world championship” match by the New York State Athletic Commission. To be honest, I don’t remember the fight as much as I remember the way Jimmy Cannon, a sports-writing legend, spat on the sidewalk as Leonard Shecter and I walked past him on our way in to the arena.

Mathis again wore his trunks high but this time it didn’t help. A relentless Frazier wore down the bigger, heavier man, and the fight was stopped in the 11th round. From 1968 to 1970, Frazier made six defenses, including a fifth-round TKO of World Boxing Association champ Jimmy Ellis in a “unification” fight. But everyone knew who the real champion was, and in the summer of 1970 public pressure forced the overseers of boxing to grant Ali a license to fight again. Demand quickly grew for a showdown between the undefeated champion and Frazier.

Ali knocked out top contenders Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, setting the stage for one of the most anticipated heavyweight title fights in boxing history. I was privileged to cover those and many other memorable boxing events. But I haven’t watched a fight in years. I’ll explain why in my next post.

Michael can be reached at