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Muhammad Ali embraced people, which is why we embraced him

I was a 24-year-old kid working for a small weekly newspaper in the Poconos in 1978 when I made my first trip to “Fighter’s Heaven” — Muhammad Ali’s mountain training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, about an hour away.

Ali was training for his rematch against Leon Spinks, having lost in February to the former Olympic gold medalist who had just seven professional fights — a bout Ali had no business losing.

The camp was packed with people, which was always part of Ali’s training preparation. No one in the public life who I’ve met over the years fed more off the energy of people than Ali. He would stand in the ring after a sparring session at the gym at Deer Lake — the life size painting of him on the wall done by Leroy Neiman in the background — and tell the crowd, “Who else this famous can you come to see work every day? Can you see Paul Newman while he is making a movie?”

His dressing room was off to the side in the gym, with a screen door leading outside. Gathered inside after a workout were sportswriting heavyweights — Dave Anderson, Dick Young — to take notes while Ali held court. And, thanks to Gene Kilroy, one of Ali’s closest friends in his entourage over the years who took pity on the young reporter from a small weekly, myself as well.

That began my regular trip to Deer Lake and my relationship with Ali — perhaps still the gift I treasure the most, particularly now with the passing of the former heavyweight champion at the age of 74 on Friday night.

I became a fixture at Deer Lake. Sometimes, there would be no room full of reporters after his workout. Sometimes, after a while, it would just be me and Ali. One time, he gave me a tour of the entire camp — including his private cabin, showing off the giant hand made bed that he slept in.

Another time, Ali told me while we sat in his dressing room that when he retired, he was going to start a charity organization called WORLD, to help the poor and promote peace. I wrote a story that got picked up by The Associated Press and a number of newspapers. For a kid working at a small weekly, it was a big deal. He never did it, but that was irrelevant at the time.

My mother, who was living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had a mail subscription to our paper, and, of course, cut out all of my stories and kept them in a scrapbook.

Two years later, in a tragic, ill-advised comeback fight against Larry Holmes, I would again make regular visits to Deer Lake. And when my parents came up for a visit, I took them to see Ali one day.

I wasn’t there as a reporter, so I waited with the crowd that would gather outside the screen door at his dressing room after workouts, hoping, like he often did, he would come out and talk and have photos taken. He didn’t always come out, though, and it appeared this one time he was not going to come out.

So my mother pulls this story I wrote out of her pocketbook and starts yelling, “Yoo hoo, Mr. Ali? Yoo hoo, Mr. Ali?” to my utter embarrassment. She gets Ali to come outside. He recognizes me and comes over to my mother. She hands him the story and says, “My son here, he wrote this story about you.” Ali takes it, looks at me and says, “You wrote this? You’re not a dumb as you look.”

This story represents Ali’s greatest triumph — winning over America.

My parents came from the generation that, at the very least, disliked Ali, and at worst, despised and hated him. The reasons were many — the color of his skin, the arrogance of his personality, his support for the Nation of Islam and, primarily, his refusal to be inducted in the draft during the Vietnam War. Yet that generation lined up outside his Deer Lake dressing room in 1980, hoping he would acknowledge them.

He was once viewed at an enemy of the state. Now, in passing, he is being remembered like a head of state.

It wasn’t Ali who changed — it was everyone else. His stance against the Vietnam War was the right side of history — and cost him dearly. Ali never would have served one day in combat. He would have done shows, exhibitions, events for the military. Yet he refused, and as a result was stripped of his heavyweight championship and banned from boxing for more than three years. He risked going to jail until he was vindicated by a 1971 Supreme Court decision that upheld his stance as a conscientious objector on religious grounds.

Ali, though, was a boxer — not a statesman nor a prophet. The ring was his stage, and it was his performances in there that opened the other doors he would walk through as one of the most beloved figures of our time.

He was probably the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, and his prime was likely his last fight before being stripped of the title in 1967 — his seventh-round knockout of Zora Folley, one week after refusing to “take the step” at draft induction ceremonies in Houston.

After three and a half years out of boxing, Ali would return for a remarkable second act — mostly defined by his three legendary battles against Joe Frazier. But it was one fight in particular that helped win over America — the fight that displayed Ali’s courage and heart like no other.

When Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in October 1974, even his most ardent critics stood back and said, “This is a man.”

People feared for Ali’s life going into that fight. Foreman was a fearsome opponent who had won the heavyweight championship by bouncing Frazier — who had defeated Ali in their historic March 1971 “Fight of the Century” — six times off the canvas in two rounds in their January 1973 fight in Jamaica. He followed that up with a one-round knockout of Jose Roman and a two-round demolition of Ken Norton, who had broken Ali’s jaw in victory in their first fight in March 1973.

People close to Ali hoped he would survive the beating he was expected to take from Foreman — not the happy, grill-selling Foreman, but the Sonny Liston-mean-clone Foreman at the time. But Ali fought a brilliant fight, taking the best Foreman had to offer and often beating him to the punch in flurries of hard, effective shots, until Foreman toppled in the eighth round.

That fight, more than any other, changed the perception of Ali.

Like most fighters, Ali fought too long, and his comeback 10-round beating at the hands of Holmes, his former sparring partner who learned his craft at Deer Lake, in October 1980 was a crime. His retirement would be marked by the disease that silenced him, Parkinson’s disease, but he never stopped welcoming people to his world.

Ali had every reason to shut people out — yet he embraced them, right to the end. It will be hard for us to let go.

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