I'm going to tell you about Bundini giving me the shirt off his back, about the feel of the wind, how age brings you down off your toes, and a bunch of other stuff, but first I'm going to put you on hold. If you flip through magazines from back to front—hey, it's a free country—don't read any further until you finish Gary Smith's terrific piece on Muhammad Ali's entourage (page 47).
Ali and I go back to when he was Cassius Clay and there was no entourage. But I'm getting ahead of myself, being a front-to-back man, because before I met Ali, I met Slim Jim Robinson, only I didn't know it at the time. Feb. 7, 1961. I was in the lobby of Convention Hall in Miami Beach, where Ali was to have his fourth pro fight. A skinny guy carrying a little AWOL bag caught my eye since he was walking like he had a train to catch. Next time I saw him he was getting into the ring to fight Ali, so in a sense he introduced me to him. He wasn't wearing a robe. Either he couldn't afford one or didn't own a bigger bag. And the reason he had been in such a hurry was he was late for the fight. (He should've slowed some, for in this case it turned out to be better never than late.) Slim Jim Robinson. When the bell rang he took this stance: right foot as far back as it could go and turned almost the other way around, so if, as he suspected, he found out he didn't belong in the same ring with Ali, he would be halfway home. He was right. TKO 1.
Ingemar Johansson was another story. The Ring Record Book doesn't list an Ali-Johansson fight, but it happened. I was there. The fight took place that same month. Ingemar was in Palm Beach training for the third Patterson fight, and someone thought it would be a great idea if he came down to Miami Beach to spar with Ali. Someone was wrong.
They were to go three rounds. Ingemar quit before the end of two. Ali didn't put a licking on him. He hardly hit him. But then he didn't try. He just came to dance. What happened was Ingemar couldn't hit Ali. And, oh, how he tried. He tried to jab him in the first round, and Ali's head wasn't there. Ingemar was steamed, so in the second round he tried to knock Ali out with his big right hand. What he nearly did was throw out his back because all he was hitting was air. So he climbed out of the ring.
I'd never seen anything like it. Still haven't. Never will. The kid—Ali was 19—undressed the man. I knew right then he was going to be heavyweight champ. What I didn't know was that I'd seen his best fight.
November 1962. We were in a hotel in L.A., where Ali was to meet Archie Moore—just me, Ali, Angelo Dundee, who trained him, and his brother, Rudy. He and Rudy, in bed sheets, popping out of closets to scare Ang, stuffing burning rags under his door, reaching out their window with broomsticks to rattle his blinds, Ali reciting his poems on street corners. Once I saw Ang slip a note under Ali's door. "I help him with his poetry," he said. TKO 4.
But as Moore said afterward, "When you fight a man, he's past his prime.... One thing—if Cassius live, he certainly got to grow older."
One day before he did, Ali said, "Sometimes I wonder when a big fist comes crashing by and at the last minute I move my head the smallest bit and the punch comes so close I can feel the wind, but it misses me. How do I know to move just enough? How do I know which way to move?"
Then he no longer did. Then came the entourage, the great clamorous mob. When he fought George Chuvalo on March 29, 1966, in Toronto, Bundini was history, for having hocked Ali's championship belt. But before he was canned, I asked if I could have one of his FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY, STING LIKE A BEE T-shirts. He told me he only had six, but if I put him in the story, he would make do with five. How could I leave him out? Man was a quote machine.
After the fight, in Ali's room, crowded with Muslims, a voice said, "What's he doing here? He don't belong." To which Ali said, "He stays." I asked who'd spoken. Minister Louis, I was told, sings calypso. What's he sing? "The White Man's Heaven Is The Black Man's Hell."
Minister Louis, who became Louis Farrakhan, was right about me. I didn't belong. The music had stopped, Ali had come down off his toes, the entourage swarmed and squabbled. I went on to other things; Ali, too—the Rumble, the Thrilla, great flat-footed fights. But once in a movie house in Greenwich Village, since razed, after a boxing match on theater TV, I heard a familiar voice boom out, "Giiil Rogin, world's greatest spoatswritah!" The Champ.
In the ensuing years I told that story to other writers who covered him, and each one said Ali had said the same thing to him. Ali was right. There were a lot of us greatest. But there was only one of him, never be another. On his toes, dancing, hands held lightly at his sides, wicked smile, feeling nothing but the wind.
Gilbert Rogin is corporate editor of Time Inc.