I have known Tokyo Rosenthal for the best part of a decade, I love his music, but maybe I love his stories even more, this is a man with a 1000 songs, but a million great tales. I have Interviewed him half a dozen times, once each CD plus a couple more for good measure. I always like to map out a game plan for an interview, but with Toke it goes off the rails faster than a Japanese Bullet Train hitting a herd of Kobe Beef. Usually his stories are funny, this one is of more of a serious nature.
Perhaps the best way to sum up my relationship with Muhammad Ali would be to say, “I was into Muhammad Ali before it was cool”. Or should I say Cassius Clay? Having grown up in a fanatic boxing household I was exposed to him beginning with the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he won the Gold Medal, and read about his first pro fight against Tunney Hunsaker in Ring Magazine. I finally saw him fight live on TV on the Saturday Night Fights against Sonny Banks and then Billy Daniels, who was trained by the father of a classmate of mine, Victor Zimet. My 6th grade graduation yearbook had autographs from two teachers mentioning “Clay” in their inscriptions because of my constant referencing to him in class. You must understand, that being a Wrestling fan, I totally got Ali’s channeling Gorgeous George and Buddy Rogers. I was just smarter then most of the “rubes” and didn’t let any of it over ride just how good a boxer he was.
I didn’t live in a world where meeting Ali, or any professional athlete, was on the radar. So I followed his career by TV, boxing publications, newspapers, and radio. And quite a career it was. I couldn’t afford to see him fight live but the first time I was ever in the same room with Ali was when he was on a college campus lecture tour during his government imposed exile from boxing. This was at The University of Rhode Island, my Alma mater. I was transfixed by his speech that night. At the same time I felt like I was “too hip for the room” as most of those in attendance could tell you very little about his career and were just jumping on the bandwagon because he was a draft dodger like most of us.
It would be about 15 years later when our paths crossed again. By this time I had steered my Cable TV career into running a nationwide sports network called SCORE, owned by Financial News Network. My love for boxing, and a poor but passionate amateur boxing career, led me to televising quite a bit of boxing on our programming schedule. In this incestuous world I soon found myself hanging around with many of the “Damon Runyon” like characters of this sport, most notably Don King. So it was following the Leonard – Hagler fight that I found myself in a lounge at the Vegas Hilton with “DK” at about 2am having a night cap when Muhammad Ali, bigger then life, walked into the bar. Now because of my position in TV Sports, and my prior time as a baseball photographer, I was used to meeting sports celebrities. But Ali wasn’t just any sports celebrity and I wasn’t just any Ali fan. In those days before Smart Phones, hotel photographers followed celebrities around the grounds taking pictures of the guests with the VIPs and selling them. Well I couldn’t get one quick enough with “The Champ” and as I look at the pic now, I appear to be frozen in place with a wide grin. I figured this was the first and only pic I’d ever get with him and gladly paid the ransom to the “shutter bug”.
Even though I was quite involved in boxing the next several years our paths only crossed at a post fight party after Mike Tyson beat Bone Crusher Smith for the Heavyweight title and I found myself between the two of them in a very opportunistic picture.
But then Harold Smith came into my life. Smith was best known at this time for having pulled off the biggest computer fraud heist in history from Wells Fargo and was fresh off of a 5 year jail sentence. You see, Harold used the money he stole to put on some of the biggest fights of the early 80’s and also used Ali’s name to promote both amateur and pro boxing under the name of MAPS, “Muhammad Ali Professional Sports”. Ali received some sort of stipend for loaning his name and showing up at events but was innocent of any wrong doing and Harold never said any different. However when Harold was paroled, he picked up his relationship with Ali just where it left off. He did drop by to see me first and offer me the live telecast of fights from Jakarta, Indonesia hosted by figurehead Ali. I soon found myself part of an all expenses paid junket to Jakarta with Ali, Larry Holmes, Tim Witherspoon, and Kool and the Gang for live entertainment. But before leaving I spent an afternoon with Ali in his Los Angeles hotel suite where we shot promos for the upcoming fights on our network. Ali’s Parkinson’s Disease was not nearly as bad as it was about to become, so he and I were able to “mock spar”, discuss his past fights, his future comeback, and how he did the magic tricks that he had just performed for me. All of this was captured on video tape and still photography, all of which I still have, all of which is one of a kind. Quite a day.
We flew over on separate flights but when I saw him in Jakarta I said, “Told you I’d be here Champ”, to which he replied, “You call me Tramp?” By this time I had started to commentate boxing on TV and during our broadcast of the fights Ali came down and sat with me on the air. I asked him if seeing Holmes up there made him want to come back and he replied, “You’re stupider then you look!”. The trip carried on and I learned how to make that “cricket noise” from him, a sound made by rubbing your thumb and pointer finger together and placing it next to people’s ears and scaring them. Ali caused a near riot at one of the Mosques in Jakarta when he showed up drawing over a hundred thousand people. The cover of BOLA, then a major Indonesian paper, had a large headline with a huge color pic of Ali, that said, “Assalamualaikum, Ali. I got him to autograph it for me on the flight on the way back. Boxing Fantasy Camp was over for the moment.
So Harold Smith was back in action, now promoting Tommy Hearns, and then calling me about “The Brawl At The Wall”, the first professional fight in China since Mao had taken over back in ’48 or so. And guess who the figurehead of the event was going to be? If you guessed Muhammad Ali you were right. I must say this was an amazing event that I executive produced and also commentated. It was sad however to see how Ali’s condition had deteriorated. There would be no guest commentating by him this time. Actually very little conversation at all. Very frustrating for me, far more frustrating for him. But he did visit the Great Wall, and not surprisingly, everyone in Bejing seemed to know him. Truly the most famous person on Earth. I did get the opportunity to speak more to Lonnie, Ali’s wife, who was also from Louisville, Kentucky, the birthplace of my wife, Carrie Klein. Lonnie knew I wasn’t kidding about my connections there when I said “Loovul”. We hit it right off, and the event went off without a hitch too, especially when Ali was introduced to the crowd who went wild.
Harold continued to tap into the Asian market and soon called me to help televise and commentate an event in Macau honoring, you guessed it, Ali! It was now 1994 and I found myself in Hong Kong on a dock with Muhammad, awaiting the high speed ferry to Macau. Ali managed to make the trip and visit with all the dignitaries. Once again there was no shortage of recognition from the locals. They all knew him, even those not born before his last fight. Conversation was next to impossible but he was still performing his tricks, could pound the heavy bag when prompted by a crowd, and had that twinkle in his eye when the Parkinson’s medication didn’t take it away.
That was the last time I saw Muhammad Ali in person. If you would have told me then that he would survive with Parkinson’s Disease over another 20 years and outlive two of his rivals, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, I would have said “No Way!”. But this was Ali, not some mere mortal. In 1996 he was in Atlanta lighting the Olympic Torch. Ten years later you’d see him at his daughter Laila’s fights. I made sure to visit The Ali Museum in Louisville recently on one of our family jaunts. Just an incredible building. And like everyone else I trembled every time his name came up thinking it was bad news. Finally it was. Ali was mortal after all, but he was “The Greatest”! I can’t measure the effect he had on my life except to say it’s akin to The Beatles and The Yankees of my era .To describe it further would be just a cliche, similar to many of the tributes I’ve been reading and watching. All I know is that I was on board with him from day one and happy to have spent the times that I did with him when I was given the opportunity. He was truly unique and special. My Times With Ali