A remarkable day filled with tales of The Greatest

A remarkable day filled with tales of The Greatest

Updated Mar. 4, 2020 7:48 p.m. ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Larry Holmes gave Muhammad Ali the beating that sent him toward retirement, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do. Later that night he went to Ali's darkened room, and told his idol that he loved him.

That love never faded, only on Friday the man who began as a sparring partner for Ali had to share it with the world. He was an honorary pallbearer as the champ was sent off for the final time before adoring crowds that couldn't stop chanting ''Ali, Ali, Ali.''

The remarkable day came alive with tales of The Greatest told by presidents and paupers alike. They were told in speeches and conversations, in letters and prayers, all with the hope that in telling them, Ali would never truly be gone.

Holmes was the heavyweight champion and should have gotten the biggest money for the fight outdoors at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, but asked promoter Don King to pay Ali more because Ali needed the money.


''It was hard fighting my idol, fighting a guy who gave me a job,'' Holmes said ''But how was he going to turn down $10 million? I told him, just don't get hurt, that's all.''

Holmes made $3.5 million that night, beating an Ali that was a shell of the magnificent champion of earlier years. He pleaded with the referee to stop the fight, pleaded with Ali's corner to throw in the towel as Ali stood there taking his punishment in the form of jab after jab from Holmes.

This was, after all, the man who gave him a job as a sparring partner. The man who took him to Africa to get him ready for George Foreman.

The man who gave him a black eye the first time they sparred.

''They wanted to put ice on it, and I said no,'' Holmes said. ''I wanted to show it off. Nobody back in Easton (Pa.) would have believed I actually sparred with Ali unless I showed it to him.''

A lot of people in Louisville surely had their own Ali stories to tell. Not just from the jam-packed arena, where President Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal moved the crowd to laughter and a few tears, but all around the town Ali loved, too.

There was Yvonne Ford Wilson and her two friends, who graduated with Ali from Central High, and who arrived in the heat five hours before the ceremony. Wilson wasn't going to cross the street to the arena until she reached deep into her purse and pulled out an oversized plastic butterfly and a stuffed animal bee she brought for the occasion.

Her favorite memory of a young Cassius Clay? Watching him stand on a street corner making loud siren sounds to startle drivers into thinking they were being pulled over by the police.

''We thought we were hip and we called him a square,'' Wilson said. ''But he was generous, he was nice. He is what the world sees today, the same man he was then.''

Most of the thousands of others who lined Ali's procession route, some running alongside to throw flowers on the windshield or kiss his hearse, had never met Ali. But that didn't stop them from giving their love, too.

They talked about where they were when Ali fought, how they felt when he took a stand. The younger ones told how they grew up listening to their fathers spin Ali tales themselves.

That's how it was with Ali. Everyone felt some kind of connection.

''If I had a dollar for every story about my father, I could paper the sky,'' daughter Maryum Ali said.

It's tempting to over romanticize it now, but the outpouring of love over the last week is testament to what Ali meant to people. He made everyone feel like they were the most important person in the room, whether they were leaders or a country or children with terrible medical problems who smiled for the first time in the hospital when he sat down to play with them.

Their love was on display as his funeral procession wound its way through his old neighborhood, stopping briefly at the tiny pink house where he grew up. Across the street was 82-year-old Lawrence Montgomery, who used to employ Ali on occasion to watch his children.

The youth he knew ran neighborhood streets in heavy boots, chasing the bus to school, and talked about nothing but boxing. Instead of asking to be paid to babysit, he wanted nothing more than bologna sandwiches.

''He told me `I'm going to be the heavyweight champion of the world,''' Montgomery said. ''I said, boy, you're crazy. You can never do something like that. But he proved me wrong.''

The full force of Ali's mark on the world is still being measured, but the way the world changed in his lifetime is easier to measure. This was a man, remember, who came home from the 1960 Olympics with a gold medal he threw into the river after being refused food at a Woolworths's lunch counter.

As the motorcade made its way downtown in front of the historic Brown Hotel, crowds hoping to get a glimpse of the coffin, the family or actor Will Smith swarmed into the streets. It was there in 1961 protesters staged a sit-in to demand that public facilities be open to blacks like the brash young boxing champion who had just embarked on his pro career.

Standing on the sidewalk there was Sarah Hunsberger, a young white teacher from Atlanta with two young black children. The children were those of a friend, and Hunsberger to drive the twin 9-year-olds seven hours to witness history in a way that would have seemed unimaginable 55 years earlier.

''I can't comprehend it, the stories people have been telling about those days,'' she said. ''It's hard to imagine as a country we allowed people to be treated like that.''

There were some funny stories, too, and not all of them came from Crystal, who had the crowd roaring at his impression of Ali and Howard Cosell.

Like the time Robert Shannon, a 119-pounder training for the Olympics, almost became a member of Ali's family. Shannon lived with Ali and his third wife, Veronica, for several months and they always came to his amateur matches.

''His wife wanted to adopt me,'' the curly haired Shannon said. ''I was 17, but looked like I was 12.''

Shannon would go on to have the ignominious distinction of being the only U.S. boxer in the 1984 Olympics not to win a medal. He cuts hair now in the Seattle area and money is tight, but he flew across the country for one last chance to be close to Ali again.

''My wife said go, and I did,'' he said. ''I had to come and say goodbye.''

On a glorious day the likes of which Louisville - and the world - will never see again, he had a lot of company.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg