The classic boxing film, Requiem for a Heavyweight, opens with aging journeyman Louis “Mountain” Rivera (Anthony Quinn) being knocked out by an up-and-coming prospect as a group of legends that include Jack Dempsey, Barney Ross and Willie Pep watch from a television in a bar. When Mountain has a tough time getting up, his opponent rushes over to check on him. The fighter was a young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, and that was America’s first glimpse of his kindness to others.
Ali, who passed away June 3 of pneumonia, was the most recognizable and perhaps, most controversial, athlete of the past 50 years. However, throughout his magnificent life, Ali’s grace to others never wavered. Publisher Malcolm S. Forbes made the famous statement, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” Ali lived it.
Ali’s former personal physician and cornerman, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, was so moved by the boxer’s kindness that his book, Muhammad Ali: A View from the Corner, is chock full of stories of his acts of generosity, including one of him picking up a college student hitchhiking in the rain and then paying his fare home. He would always tell Pacheco that doing nice things only takes a few seconds, but mean so much to others.
Detractors of Ali’s kindness often point out his cruel treatment of fighters, most notably his verbal abuse of Joe Frazier and his savage ring beating of Ernie Terrell for refusing to call him by his new name. It is important to note that he reconciled with both fighters in retirement, and that they are exceptions to the norm. Numerous boxers who faced Ali enjoyed warm relationships following their careers. For example, he watched George Foreman street preach in Houston in the 1980s. When Ken Norton was in a near-death car accident in 1986, he woke up in hospital room one evening to Ali sitting by his bed doing magic tricks.
I never had a chance to meet Ali, despite his numerous visits to the Washington, D.C., area. The District has many people who crossed paths with “The Greatest,” from his political activism to his fights in Landover, Md., to his advocacy for world peace.
One of my favorite stories came from an individual who attended a dinner about 10 years ago in which Ali was a guest of honor. He had brought a book of Ali photos and approached one of his handlers with low expectations to see if “The Greatest” could sign it. To his surprise, the handler told him to wait a moment and then ushered him up to Ali’s suite. He sat with Ali, who went through the book and pointed to pictures that brought out great memories. That kind of generosity is rare in people with fairly normal lives, much less some who had his demands at the time.
Ali once said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” It is fitting that he lived in a mansion for most of his life. Rest in peace, Champ. You were one of a kind.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)