/Ali’s indelible mark touched Mississippi too

Ali’s indelible mark touched Mississippi too

Ali made an indelible impression on the world, Mississippi included. Many of his descendants grew up with him. Sometimes we weren’t sure what to think of him. One thing is certain: He made life infinitely more exciting. You either loved or loathed him from the beginning. There was no middle ground. I was a fan. He was just so appealing. Even though I tried to avoid him, I loved him more. When I was 18, I drove from Hattiesburg, Mississippi to Jackson in 1971 for the Joe Frazier fight. It was the “Fight of the Century”. The closed circuit show at Mississippi Coliseum was closed. It was jam-packed and it was a festive atmosphere. The video stopped working after the first few rounds. Festive became ugly, and then we finally got a photo of Frazier, who had been brutally beat, winning a decision. All three Frazier fights were on closed circuit. The excitement of boxing has never been greater. The morning of September 15, 1978, I woke up in Monroe, La. and looked out from my second-floor apartment. The Ouachita River had caused my Toyota to float down the street. To get to New Orleans, I took a hitchhike in a boat to ride with a passing person to rent a car and drive there that night to see Ali take back the heavyweight title from Leon Spinks at the Superdome. He was no longer the Ali of his youth. He was not as powerful in his punches as he had been in the past. He had enough ring knowledge to whip Leon. I was seated ringside alongside future champ Larry Holmes who openly supported Ali. There are many Mississippi connections to Ali. Lucian “Sonny”, a Tupelo native, was the first professional fighter that knocked him down in Ali’s 10th professional fight. Ali won the fight by TKO in round four, as he predicted. Three years later, Banks was killed by injuries sustained in a fight with Leotis Mart. (Read more about Ali’s Mississippi connections at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame website. Ali arrived in Mississippi shortly after defeating Spinks to film Freedom Road with Kris Kristofferson. Tony Byrne, then-Natchez mayor, recalls: “You remember, I was sure I wasn’t going be like him,” Byrne explains. “Then, he arrived and he charmed everybody including me. Ali was a huge hit in Natchez. “There was concern that the Ku Klux Klan would try to kill Ali at that time. We called Cliff Finch, the governor at the time, to set up an escortee from the Louisiana line. Our sheriff’s office provided an escort. Byrne said, “There wasn’t any protecting Ali.” He wanted to be open and mingling with people. He would get on the magic trick bus and stop at school buses. “The people here, black, and white, absolutely loved Ali.” Byrne stated that Ali told him that all his brags before fights and his clowning inside the ring were modeled after Gorgeous George. As a kid, Ali saw Gorgeous George’s matches in Louisville. He was horrified at how many people hated him and paid big money to see him. Byrne stated that Ali told him Gorgeous George was making $1,000 per match, while the guy he was wresting was making $100. “He said that stuck to him.” Tyrone Keys, an ex-NFL and Mississippi State football player, had breakfast with Ali in 1978 when the champ visited Mississippi State. Keys was a Jackson native. Keys was taking a break from the Natchez movie. Keys stated, “Just me and he.” He made me feel like a friend. He knew that I was a good football player and had potential to be a pro. Keys spoke to me about fame and relationships five years later. Keys was in Los Angeles on a rainy day and stopped by a restaurant for breakfast. Keys stated, “It was so heavy that it was going to rain so much, I was going get soaked.” “Then, I saw this man coming towards me with his umbrella. He was a man I recognized as Muhammad Ali. Keys came to my door and said, “I saw that you pulled up and didn’t want you get wet.” Keys then got out and reintroduced Ali to me. They went back to the restaurant for breakfast. What are the chances? A rainy day in L.A. Ali and Keys arrived at the same restaurant in the same city of 3.4million? Keys stated that Ali and Keys arrived at the same restaurant at the same time as the first medical report about Ali’s injuries. He spoke openly about it. He asked me what my thoughts were, which I will never forget. Keys couldn’t tell, so he asked me if i could tell. As we all know, Ali’s physical condition deteriorated each year. But, Ali would provide one more thrill to this writer. It was the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The Clarion-Ledger was the newspaper I was covering. Many of us were in the press box trying to guess which U.S. Olympian would light up the flame. Muhammad Ali was my pick. It was just that I didn’t know if Ali could actually light the flame. Although it was difficult, he managed to do it. Even though it was a difficult moment, twenty years later, I still feel the chills when I think back to that day. Rick Cleveland writes a weekly sports column running Fridays at Mississippitoday.org. To support this work, make a regular donation today to celebrate our Spring Member Drive. This will allow us to continue important work such as this story.