About a year ago Hearne wrote about me doing a second documentary on Muhammad Ali.
In my opinion, Ali is the most famous athlete of all time. Maybe the most famous man in America across the world in the last century. Much of this fame was because he’s about the only person of note known and respected in every nation on this planet.
Alas, the years have not been kind to this boxing hero.
Still there are few who wouldn’t rank Ali as the best fighter of all time. He always thought so, didn’t he?
So as this giant legend’s life grows ever closer to its end, I thought it only fitting to say one more time how much I loved who he was and still is, THE GREATEST.
It’s my feeling that Ali created in many ways the style and swagger of today’s professional sports figures. We all know his now household lines: "I am the Greatest" "Float like a butterfly sting like a bee…Rumble young man rumble."
And he delivered them so well.
Yet like all of us, his road to the top was full of hurdles and hatred He too had his moments in time with booze, dope and too many woman. Ali had several failed marriages over his long boxing career. I think what I liked most about him was his ability to get back on his feet after the world dealt him a devastating blow. His indictment for not going into the army cost him nearly four years in the ring, it also left him broke. It was at that time he found that his religious group and its leaders didn’t really care so much about him when he was down and out.
As a young boy, at first, like many young white men, I didn’t care for his bragging.
I was hoping Floyd Patterson or Ernie Terrell would pound him down. I was a big Sonny Liston fan until Ali, then Cassius Clay, knocked him out. Ali said he was handsome, even pretty and nobody could beat him. As time went on, he called the round he would win his fights in. Early in his career as Champ, this all came true.
Then everyone, it seemed, fell in love with Ali’s conceit and talent. He was really the first black man to rule the entertainment world.
I first saw him even briefly – met him at Kemper Arena here in Kansas City – just after he won back his title in the biggest sports upset of all time by knocking out George Foreman. Ali did an exhibition at Kemper.
I remember he made of fun of the Chiefs Head Coach in attendance, Hank Stram.
He signed autographs and shook hands with all his fans, even me. I never dreamed I would one day work with him, interview him and make not one but two films on his life. CHAMPIONS FOREVER in 1990 and CHAMPIONS FOREVER ALI, THE DEFINITIVE VERSION with my interviews with Ali in 2010.
It was maybe one of highlights of my life at the time, still is.
Odd I got the chance to do all this believe it or not because I was in PRISON.
It’s too long of a story, but I met the man who would finance the film at Lompoc Prison Camp in 1988. His name was Tom Blackburn. We became friends, he was a wealthy Texan who had lived in Hollywood and invested in a designer drug legal at the time called Ecstasy Tom brought in a boatload from Germany. He was near 60 at the time.
He had tried the sex drug and loved it.
Later it was made illegal and he still sold what was left, thus the federal indictment. Tom did a couple years for the mistake. A big, kind man, he came to camp in a Rolls Royce. A hard guy to miss at the time.
Tom was later placed in my halfway house in LA. He brought me to the set of Champions Forever at MGM studios in 1989. I knew all Ali’s fights, the other producers didn’t. Also starring in the movie was Ken Norton, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and of course Joe Frazier.
They hired Reggie Jackson to do the interviews. The movie covered all five of their lives, their fights, and their stories. To this day it is hailed as one of the greatest sports films of all time. Still a top 10 seller around the world. Still on Amazon.com and in most stores that sell DVDs.
I was only a co-producer, but I worked my ass off on this film.
I had no idea it would lead to my best days in Hollywood. I became known as a sports producer and got to do a couple other sports Doc’s. All called Champions Forever. Even did one on auto racing, something I knew little about.
Ali made all of us step up a bit, didn’t he?
He started the big salaries in sports, gave hope to the world that anyone who believes enough in themselves can make it in some way. Never give up. He, like all of us, made many mistakes but in the end he was a winner.
I cried when Joe Frazier beat Ali in their first fight, THE FIGHT OF THE CENTURY. I couldn’t believe my unbeatable hero could lose. But brother, what a comeback. He fought in the last great era of boxing – the 60’s through the early 80’s.
When I met Ali during the filming in Vegas and LA, he was everything I’d hoped he would be.
Mostly he was kind and caring to all. Yes, even his onetime enemy Joe Frazier, who still kinda hated Ali (you can see that in the movie). Years after the film, I hung out with Joe and his daughter in LA. He too was a pretty good guy. They all were.
The movie brought them back together and was the beginning of Ali’s financial comeback. When we shot it they were all hurting for money, except for Holmes. Ali used the film to get back into the limelight and today with his wife Loni is very wealthy.
Still proud, still the greatest.
Yes, he is very ill but he’s handled that with grace and greatness as well. There may never be another like him.
When his last day comes I will surely shed tears. I love the man. I hope many of you do as well.