Working With the Greatest—Mohammad Ali

In 1976, when I was VP of children’s programing at NBC I bought an animated show called “I Am The Greatest.” This was to star Ali and two kids on a weekly series of adventures. Ali had to record his own soundtrack, and I took on the role of directing some of those sessions. Over time we became sort-of buddies-going down a new road for the both of us. Working with Ali did give me a chance to know this complex person. I traveled with him and his family in their van. I was at his training camp. Early one morning I rode with him the morning after a fight, which, in his prime, he would have finished in two to three rounds at the most. It took a 12 round decision for him to retain his title. It was clear he was slipping with each fight. When I picked him up at his hotel, we were on our way to an audio recording session. He slumped in the passenger seat, all the sass and bravado we associated with him absent. In this intimate moment I asked him, “Champ, why do you do it? Why do you keep fighting?”

In a quiet and subdued voice he began to speak of his fear of ending up like so many of the boxers he knew-broken physically and broke financially.

By now he made a lot of money, but in his mind surrounded by these broken men, the ghastly possibilities that haunted him were forcing him to continue fighting. He spoke of getting a “Jew” financial advisor – the use of the word was implying a really smart person. He spoke of how he was buying real estate and so on. It was a revealing and poignant conversation. I had seen other sides of Ali; the mischievous side; the ego maniacal side. This was the side very few had experienced.

I recall a wonderful moment with Ali and the others who were involved in the production of a TV special we created to introduce our schedule. We were walking along Central Park South in NYC on our way to lunch. As part of the production we were using celebrity look-alikes. One looked remarkably like Telly Savalas, who at the time, had the lead on a very popular detective series, “Kojak.” Ali insisted the Kojak look-alike walk a few pace ahead of him so that Ali could see how many people rushed up to him, and he, Ali, could enjoy how they were fooled. The trouble was, all the oncoming people saw was the self proclaimed most famous man in the world, Mohammed Ali. They rushed past the ersatz Savalas screaming Ali’s name. Ali was getting more and more pissed. His ploy wasn’t working because, of course, he WAS the most famous man in the world!

I recently received this email from my son Tracy who was with me at Ali’s training camp. Tracy–now a teacher in his mid-50s—was about 13 when this happened.

“We drove a long way to his ranch where he had a boxing ring. He had me get in the ring with him, said I called him a nigger, and pretended to whoop me.

Then we went out to lunch. I swear it was a Howard Johnson, or something similar. Lots of his family was with us, including a baby girl, who I think was the one who grew up to become a female boxer.

And I also remember that neither you nor I took pictures!

Good times!

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