Remembering The Greatest
Journalist Jerry Olenyn recalls the gentleness and humility of Muhammad Ali
I was a 25-years-old sportscaster when I first met Muhammad Ali.
I’d been invited to his Los Angeles mansion by Thad Spencer, a former heavyweight contender who was trying to start a career as a fight promoter in Bakersfield, where I worked. He’d hoped to convince Ali to attend the boxing card to increase ticket sales.
Ali was wearing white pajamas when he opened his front door. For about 15 minutes, I sat next to the champ in a study off the foyer. At one point, he gave me some pamphlets on Islam. I told him I was a Christian and suggested, perhaps naively, that he should consider converting to Christianity. He smiled, tapped me on the knee and said, “We believe Jesus was a great prophet.”
He gently took the pamphlets back and brought out some magic tricks, which I later learned he performed for many of his visitors. For five minutes, I was Ali’s audience as he performed his magic.
Later in the year, Ali did attend the boxing card in Bakersfield. His presence brought out a large crowd, and he stepped into the ring to shadowbox with Spencer, who, two decades earlier, was in line for a title fight that never came.
Before the fight, he came to the KGET-TV studios where I was the sports director. We spoke on live television for about five minutes.
At 43, four years after his final fight with Trevor Berbick, Ali’s speech was beginning to slur. During that interview, he spoke of his youth and displayed the great humility that made him such a respected man. “When I was a kid, I wanted to see Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano, or any great champion,” he said. “And I always said, if I ever made it, I would do what I could to meet the kids.”
My career took me to Las Vegas and beyond covering many of boxing’s finest champions, but nothing matched experiencing the gentleness, graciousness and genuine kindness of The Greatest.