They are all gathered in the suite in Munich—the one who tastes the sweat on the champ's body; the one who licks the champ's mouthpiece; the keeper of the lists; the keeper of the heavy bag; the Raphael of the side deal—all of them standing there as if they were blind men on the streets of Calcutta, sensing that their tin cups are about to be smashed. The air is tense, the breathing heavy as Muhammad Ali, at ease in his bed, first searches the room with his eyes, then speaks.
This is an article from the Sept. 27, 1976 issue
"You, Bundini!" yells Ali, who had called the meeting after he heard about soaring hotel bills. "Bundini, how many phone calls can you make in a day? How many meals can you eat?"
"That's right, Champ!" wails the Amen Man, Jeremiah Shabazz. "Go on, Brother."
"Aliii, Champ," moans Bundini, his eyes filling with tears. "Whyyyy, Champ, you pick on Bundini?"
"I feed you niggers," Ali goes on. "I take you all over the world. You see places. You learn things. Never been anywhere in your life. You treat me like this."
"That's right, right!" echoes Jeremiah.
"A lotta sausage eaters 'round here who don't tell the truth," says Walter Youngblood, an earnest man, a Muslim and an assistant trainer.
"Who you talkin' about?" asks Ali. Youngblood remains silent. Ali screams, "What kind of friend are you? You make a statement and then don't tell me who you mean."
Youngblood is furious and genuinely ready to rumble with Ali. He takes off his jacket.
"Come on over, sucker!" shouts Ali. "Come here, and I'll throw you out the window." He suddenly smiles; he is calming down now. "Look, fellas," he says. "I don't mind you eatin'. You want three steaks for dinner, get three steaks. I don't want anybody goin' hungry. But I don't wantcha wastin' food. Sendin' food back." The audience relaxes.
"Another thing," says Ali. "You can't be callin' New York and Chicago and L.A. every minute. I don't mind a man callin' his wife and kids once a day. Five minutes on each call, all right. I git homesick myself."
Says Ali, later, "Nobody has this kind of crowd around him. Not even Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley. That's because I have a genius for a manager—Herbert Muhammad." Shaking his head solemnly, the genius only says, "I find it all rather regrettable."
A burden for promoters, the Ali entourage—whose table manners and conduct have been deplored in the ornate dining rooms and lobbies of some of Europe's grandest hotels—is a study in every human excess, a phenomenon of the attraction of power.
"These people," says Herbert, "are like a little town for Ali. He is the sheriff, the judge, the mayor and the treasurer. And he is more merciful than just. He believes in forgiveness. If he stressed justice, there wouldn't be anybody around."
Ali's town is divided into three categories: the workers, the hangers-on and the groupies. Not among these: Cassius Clay Sr., magnanimous and oddly charming Old Cash, whose first target in any city is the piano bar, where he sings My Way over and over, and is fond of saying, "If it weren't for Old Cash, there ain't no Ali"; the genteel and lovely Odessa Clay, Ali's mother, strolling placidly about in her big, flowered dresses; and the eccentric brother, Rahman Ali, formerly known as Rudy, who likes to sit in hotel lobbies wearing a bright track suit and a fez, listening to tape decks and signing autographs from mid-afternoon to three in the morning—the lobby is then empty, the pen is still in his hand.
Rahman is a case—in point, that is. An ex-fighter, Rahman simultaneously aggravated the champ's artistic sensibilities and his great heart; having watched him one evening eating a banquet table of left hooks, Ali turned to Angelo Dundee and said, "That's it. Get him outta there forever. I don't want him fightin' again. I'll take care of him." Herbert says, "Anybody would do that for a brother, but it says more than that. You see, Ali would go for the devil if he was an underdog." Another who has known Ali for years says, "You don't have to be brilliant to hustle Ali. He's a setup. He's a giving man." Says Lloyd Wells, whose own status lacked definition until he was put in charge of hotel bills and rooms, "These are professional hangers-on here. We get the best in the business."
Ali's payroll for the workers is about $70,000 a fight, yet there is that old question when money is being divided in boxing: What does he do? Angelo Dundee, the only pure boxing man in the camp, is the nominal trainer cum propagandist. Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, familiar with the English language and etiquette, is medical caretaker in the corner. Luis Sarria, the silent, meditative old Cuban, is the gifted masseur. Then there are Youngblood, who tastes the sweat and watches the equipment, and Bundini Brown (who often licks the mouthpiece), the other assistant trainer.
Moving on, there is Pat Patterson, the Chicago cop with his pearl-handled heater, who is the security. There is Gene Kilroy, the white Red Cap and concierge; C. B. Atkins, also out of Chicago, who would make a deal for a ton of dead mosquitoes if he could see a dollar in it; and finally Shabazz, the Cromwell of the grotesquerie, the administrative assistant, the intelligent, quick, forever whispering Amen Man who used to run a Muslim mosque in Philadelphia. Come fight night, Ali's corner is a zoo, with jobs and egos and neuroses banging into each other.
Out of the ring, the struggle goes on like one of those old European wars, and hardly anyone is spared. "Look at Angelo, big-shot trainer," says one. "Didn't even have a shower for Ali after the Manila fight." "I build Ali up to condition," says another, "and Wells tears it all down." "If the champ ever sees Bundini put his tongue on his mouthpiece," someone else says, "that will be all for big mouth. Champ's funny 'bout those things." Do you "hear a hiss when Shabazz is around?" a worker asks.
Climbing all over each other like crabs trying to get out of a can, some of the workers will do anything to impress Ali. They will argue over who will take the heavy bag to the gym, who is going to ride in Ali's limousine, who will take off the champ's shoes—usually the specific duty of Bala, the Malaysian body servant whom Ali found in Kuala Lumpur, got to like, and gave $15,000 to go to hotel school in Germany. Who can forget that scene at the gym in Munich when Ali was working on the light bag? The bag's upper support was weighted down with plastic bags filled with sand to keep it steady. As Ali hit the bag, the sand dribbled onto the floor, and two workers, like wild insects, dived to clean it up, one saying to the other, "Get away from me, boy. I'm handlin' this mess."
Beyond the workers are the hangers-on and groupies. It is hard to draw a bead on them, but they are in full swarm before a fight, under one pretense or another, always with some sad tale for Ali, eyes always sharp for a loose hundred or two suddenly dropping from the champ's largess, ears pricked for the clanking of a side deal to be made. Some of these hangers-on are from Ali's boyhood—like fat Ed Hughes, who massages the champ's scalp and makes all the trips because, it is said, he once fell off Ali's bike, hurt his leg, and the champ has never stopped feeling guilty about it. A few helped Ali when he was in exile, and he always told them, "You're payin' your insurance. I don't forget."
With some pain, much patience and a bit of sadistic pleasure, Ali sits back and watches it all like a munificent cardinal, playing one against the other, dispensing his goodwill to the counselors of the realm and the heart, to the advisers on the martial arts—right down to a gentle hello to the poor little rich girl from the South who has followed him around the world, certain he will one day marry her. "It is in the stars," she says confidently. And the show goes on—a carnival of T shirts and buttons, once the exclusive corner of Bundini, who has since sold his T-shirt business, supposedly for $100,000.
"I'm powerless," says Herbert Muhammad, aware that when he fires someone, Ali hires him right back; aware that his own position is constantly under siege in this unending Byzantine nightmare.
Ali himself is aware, too, seems to yearn for an answer other than "yes."
"Angelo," he once said, "you're white. You're not a Muslim. You don't depend on me to survive. Tell me how I look. Say it!"
Correctly, but ironically, Angelo squeaked, "Great, Champ! Just great!"