Boxers Remember Muhammad Ali

Jun 4, 2016
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, tributes to Muhammad Ali are pouring in from around the world, from former rivals in the ring and from fans. Among them, President Obama, who described Ali as a man who fought for what was right, a man who fought for us. Ali is also being remembered in boxing gyms around the country, as we hear now from NPR's Nathan Rott.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles is loud.

(CROSSTALK)

ROTT: And it smells like leather and sweat. This is the home of some of the greatest fighters in the world - Miguel Cotto, Manny Pacquiao, to name a few. And it's home to their trainer Freddie Roach. He's one of the best-respected trainers in the fighting world, but today he's manning the counter at the front of the gym and remembering a time about eight years ago that Muhammad Ali came into Wild Card Boxing to work out.

FREDDIE ROACH: It was probably the best four hours we ever had in the gym.

ROTT: If Roach is a little hard to understand, it's because he's a former professional boxer himself, and the sport left him, like Ali, with Parkinson's disease.

ROACH: Parkinson's is something that we have to deal with, and, you know, it's a pain in the [expletive] a little bit, but it's something we have to deal with.

ROTT: Before that visit, Roach had every reason to not like Muhammad Ali. When he was a boxer, Roach's trainer was a guy named Eddie Futch. Futch also trained one of Ali's biggest rivals, Joe Frazier.

ROACH: When Ali came through, when he was here, and I witnessed him, what kind of a human being he was, it was really, really good. He was a good - you know, a good person.

ROTT: Ali's impact on the sport of boxing and in gyms like this goes without saying. But for some of the guys here, his biggest impact was outside of the sport.

TOM SALAZAR: I grew up in a poor part of LA, real tough neighborhood off of Temple Street here.

ROTT: This is Tom Salazar. He's in his 60's and is outside of the gym in the parking lot.

SALAZAR: I think for a lot of people in neighborhoods like that at that time, it felt like, you know, you didn't have much hope. You know, you had to just - you know, you got bullied by the police. You got bullied by, you know, neighbors, you got bullied by gangs across the boulevard, you know.

ROTT: But Salazar says some of that changed when Muhammad Ali started coming to his neighborhood. Veronica Porsche, Ali's third wife, lived just down the street.

SALAZAR: He'd come by and give us candy and say hello to us and, you know.

ROTT: He got along with everyone, Salazar says, and it opened some eyes.

SALAZAR: For us, you know, for kids where we grew up, to see a guy like that in our neighborhood gave us all some kind of hope that if he could be here, you know, it can't be that bad, right?

ROTT: Ali helped lift Larry "The Shadow" Musgrove, too. A former pro boxer, Musgrove grew up in rural Mississippi.

LARRY MUSGROVE: Man, as a young black boy, you know, I was like, man, you know? That's how I want to be. You know, because I always say, if you don't stand for something, you ain't going to never stand for nothing.

ROTT: Musgrove says Ali challenged the world in the ring, outside of it, and he always came out on top. Death, though....

MUSGROVE: He couldn't defeat that. You know, I almost feel like he might've said to himself, take a deep breath, you know, I ain't lose. I'm just leaving, you know what I mean?

ROTT: I do, and that's a nice way of looking at it. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: We've heard today from voices far and wide talking about Muhammad Ali. We're going to go out today letting him speak for himself. Ali was perhaps as well-known for his moral stances as for his athletic prowess. Right before his famous fight with George Foreman, Ali was asked why he continued to box. He managed to answer in a way that combined braggadocio and religious faith as only maybe he could.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUHAMMAD ALI: So I'm asking God, Allah, to make me strong. Not for me, don't give me no money, don't give me the fame. I want to win so I can come home and speak for the brother who's living in rat-infested houses, sleeping on concrete in the ghetto, can't go on television and speak. So God, I'm your tool, I'm your servant. Let me get this man tonight and go off blasting.

KELLY: He did blast Foreman, and a month later Muhammad Ali revived one of his most famous lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALI: I'm going to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. His hands can't hit what his eyes can't see.

KELLY: The last word today to a man who called himself the Greatest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.