July 2016-McCormick Place
The Champ was sitting up in bed, topless, a sheet up to his waist, eating some kind of cream pie. It was a hotel room in Las Vegas, and it was filled with people. Sort of an informal press conference. The Champ was scheduled to fight Floyd Patterson in a day or two. He looked at us and said, in a soft voice, “You want some of this pie? It’s really good. Don’t be shy. Have some.”
If that sounds like a strange scene, it was. This was a young man who was generally portrayed at the time as obnoxiously angry; who had just abandoned his “slave” name, Cassius Clay; who had been taunting his opponent as an Uncle Tom; who had recently been photographed with arms raised, raving like a maniac, standing over a prone and supposedly unconscious Sonny Liston; who almost surely had taken a dive at a championship fight in Maine. And here he was in bed late in the morning, acting almost sweet and instantly likeable, seeming anything but the baddest dude on the planet.
We happened to be there that morning in November 1965, because we had just left a job as a columnist for The Delaware County Daily Times in Chester, Pennsylvania. We had gone to Philadelphia magazine, which was in the early stages of inventing the kind of publication you are reading right now. At the magazine, we followed up on a story that had begun in Chester. Liston was the heavyweight champion. He was an extraordinarily powerful puncher, but he was tainted by mob connections. Richly deserved, by the way. To clean up his act, his management contract had been taken over by the Nilon brothers, Bob and Jim, of Chester. They were in the business of providing concessions at major sports events, and very successfully. Their attorney was a young fellow named Garland Cherry who, for obvious reasons, went by the name Bill.
Bill Cherry, who died in 2010 after a long and distinguished career, was already a local legal star in the 1960s, having shown considerable independence in a suburban Philadelphia county, which was dominated by a corrupt Republican machine.
We wrote about him and the Nilon brothers, first at the newspaper, later at the magazine. He liked our stuff, and invited us to be his guest at the fight in Las Vegas. Liston was no longer champion, but Bill Cherry had written an agreement to promote the first fights of the man who dethroned him—now known as Muhammad Ali. Thus, that brief morning glimpse of the Champ eating a cream pie for breakfast.
The scene seemed odd at the time, but only over the years has it made sense. Clay/Ali was two people. One was the brilliant self promoter—arrogant and entertaining—whose gifts in the ring backed up his bravado. The other was the man behind the mask, the fellow he would have been even if he had not been one of the most famous celebrities of his time.
We have been checking out comments from various sources since his death last month. He lived in Philadelphia for a time, and his presence there was heightened by his rivalry with Joe Frazier, who also lived there. Their three fights were classics. Ali also trained in Miami and always connected to his
native Louisville. People who knew him in all those venues recall not so much the showman, but a man who was always approachable, and who genuinely liked people, especially children who idolized him.
Almost all who knew him outside the circus of boxing found him warm and affectionate—the young man eating cream pie in a hotel room. He was also a family man, aided by four wives. His daughters, as articulate as if they had grown up at fancy prep schools, show a warm and loving father.
The stories of his famous insults of opponents are now revealed as largely part of the game. A respected boxing writer says that fight in Las Vegas, where he allegedly tortured the former champ, Patterson, was part of the show. Ali later gave Patterson another fight, which Patterson did not deserve, because he heard Patterson had tax problems and needed the payday. And although he taunted Frazier and called him a “gorilla,” he showed up at his funeral in 2011, even though very sick himself. Officially, Parkinson’s disease was the culprit, but it is now agreed by those in the boxing arena, that he was the victim of too many blows to the head, a condition familiar in boxing that we used to call “punch drunk.”
Speaking of punchy, which is associated with memory loss, we did not stay in Vegas for the actual fight, and after 51 years we can’t remember why. It must have been a family matter. The Champ would understand.