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The champ was sitting up in bed in his suite at the El San Juan Hotel when the former champ was ushered into the room.
“Jack Dempsey,’’ Muhammad Ali said, drawing out the name reverentially in that famous raspy voice. “Who ever thought when I was a little boy [fighting] in Golden Gloves and watching films of Jack Dempsey that he’d come to visit me at my bedside.’’
The year was 1976, the month was February and the occasion was Ali’s scheduled bout against a Belgian waffle named Jean-Pierre Coopman. Dempsey, one of the most celebrated athletes during the so-called Golden Age of Sports, the Roaring Twenties, had flown to Puerto Rico to aid the promotion of the one-sided fight in which Coopman’s only defense was a charming smile.
Although born five decades apart in distant parts of the United States and from different racial backgrounds, the two champions had much in common. Dempsey was accused of avoiding service during World War I while Ali refused his draft call during the Vietnam War. They were the top box-office attractions of their time, Dempsey the main draw in the first million-dollar gates achieved in any sport, Ali the catalyst for the closed-circuit phenomenon that dominated the 1970s.
Among the major differences between Ali and Dempsey, as well as such notable successors as Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, were the places in which they did business. Dempsey was a world champion in name only. He held a home-ring advantage against all opponents, domestic and foreign, never taking his title beyond the nation’s borders. Dempsey defended his crown against Georges Carpentier of France, but in Jersey City. His fight against Luis Angel Firpo of Argentina was held in New York.
Similarly, Louis’ most formidable challenger was Max Schmeling. But even after the German upset him, the return bout was staged in New York. Marciano rarely strayed from the East Coast, and his only foreign challenger was an English crumpet named Don Cockell.
Ali was different, starting with his introduction to stardom at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. To him, a world championship was an excuse to experience what he called “offbeat countries.’’ He fought in London, Frankfurt, Zurich, Tokyo, Dublin, Munich, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. He gave exhibitions in Sweden, Scotland, Venezuela, Argentina, Trinidad, Colombia and Denmark. His two greatest fights, the ones that earned him everlasting acclaim, took place in Zaire and the Philippines against American opponents, George Foreman and Joe Frazier. He wowed the populace wherever he went, creating home crowds in Africa, Asia and Europe as well as North and South America.
The only continents he skipped were Australia and Antarctica, the latter apparently because penguins lacked the money necessary to entice him and his extensive entourage. “Muhammad will fight anywhere, anytime, as long as the money’s there,’’ promoter Don King was fond of saying. And the man proved it year after year.
For that reason, he not only was the most famous athlete in the world, he may have been the most famous person in the world. “If there were people on the moon, if there were people on Mars,’’ he reflected, “I’m the onliest man from Earth they’d want to see.’’
He remained an international celebrity even after he left the ring, traveling as an ambassador without portfolio as long as his health allowed, then lighting the torch at the 1996 Olympics in his last major public appearance. It remains a scene that was both sad and inspiring.
And it brought to mind that day in Puerto Rico when the champions of two generations came face to face. “I never thought I’d be sitting next to Jack Dempsey,’’ Ali said to his visitor. “Jack, you look great. How old are you?’’
“I’m 81,’’ Dempsey replied.
I hope I’m around ’til I’m 81,” Ali said.
That would not be the case; when Ali died Friday night, he was 74. But he certainly crammed a lot of life into the years he was given, even after his ability to talk — which many thought was his foremost weapon when he first stepped upon the world stage — was diminished by the punishment he had taken in the ring.
“I’m too much,’’ he once said. “There ain’t going to be another like me.’’
It’s the truth.
Joe Gergen is a former
Newsday sports columnist.