Ali and Wepner
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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
Yesterday Muhammad Ali landed a right cross that will preserve and promote the iconic status of his history for decades to come. Ali signed a $50 million deal with CKX Inc, a company which already owns a major interest in Elvis Presley and other rare stars' estates. For the 50 mil, Ali has given 80% interest in his name, likeness, and image to CKX with the intent to make sure that not only his record as the Greatest of All Time, but his global heroic image as a man of peace is recognized around the world.
Muhammad Ali is 64 now, not so old. But people often paint him as a tragic figure because of his Parkinson's disease. He trembles uncontrollably, can no longer speak audibly, and shuffles along in tiny little stutter steps. He presents as the classic brain-injured boxer but you shouldn't worry about The Champ. Anybody close to him will tell you that he's as light-hearted, as sure of his convictions... and as flirtatious... as ever. Just because his voice is weak doesn't mean his mind has slowed. The last time I got a chance to be with Muhammad, at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, ten years ago, the night he carried the final leg of the torch to light the Olympic flame, he motioned me to come close. I put my ear to his mouth and he whispered, in that same lilting poetry we all knew as Float like a Butterfly, Sting like a Bee. He said, "Pretty and strong. That can't be wrong." And he beamed that charismatic smile that made me feel very lucky indeed to have ever been in his presence.
You might not remember his 1975 fight against Chuck Wepner at the Coliseum in Cleveland. It wasn't memorable, tell the truth. But there's a point to the story. Ali was incomparably superior to Wepner so the first nine rounds were pretty much a coast for The Champ. In the ninth, Wepner oafishly lost his balance and inadvertently stepped on Ali's foot. Once he had him pinned down, he took advantage of the moment and landed a punch to Ali's chest that put him on the canvas. Wepner went to his corner to wait for him to get up and Wepner's manager said "Oh, no, look at him. He's pissed off now."
No more coasting. As soon as the punching resumed, Ali opened up cuts above both Wepner's eyes and broke his nose. With 19 seconds of the fight left, Ali knocked Wepner down for the first time in his career and the referee put a stop to it.
As it turns out, an out-of-work actor was home watching that fight on closed circuit television that night and he decided to write a script based on the moxie of this underdog Wepner. The actor... Sylvestor Stallone. The script... Rocky.
Flash forward about 30 years and picture a beautiful sunny day in New York City. Muhammad Ali arrives at Gracie Mansion, the mayor's mansion, on the East Side of Manhattan for an event and a small crowd has gathered out front, hoping to get a glimpse of the Champ as he walks in. Ali arrives, walking as he does, haltingly, with his wife Lonnie. People call out. He doesn't look up, but he smiles, graciously acknowledging his fans. At the back of the crowd is a big guy who calls out after Ali has passed and is almost at the door of the mansion. "Ali, Ali. It's me. Chuck Wepner. In a Charlie Chaplinesque pirouette, Ali, slowly pivots around and Lonnie continues to brace him as he shuffles back toward the crowd. He never raises his head, never makes eye contact with Wepner. He shuffles along and when he gets to Wepner, he gingerly places his shoe on top of Wepner's foot, a delightful moment of a memory from that night in Cleveland. No words exchanged. No hand shake. Ali simply and gracefully turns and heads back to the mansion.
Don't worry about Muhammad Ali. His body gives the Parkinson's appearance of pain and imprisonment. But his spirit and his mind are free and happy, still floating like that butterfly we knew in the ring so many years ago.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
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