Muhammad Ali was bored.
He had traveled to New York with his daughter, Rasheda, and cooped up in a hotel, away from his Michigan farm, he had nothing to do, nowhere to really go. So his daughter, an author, called her publicist, and pleaded for some form of amusement for the father she loved so much. “Come up with something,” she asked Jules Feiler.
So he did. Feiler, a professor at NYU and president of a New York-based PR firm, made phone calls, he found transportation, and soon, he and Ali were on their way to Silver Cup Studios in Long Island city which, at that time, was in the midst of shooting the HBO series “The Sopranos.”
“He was shaky,” Feiler said of Ali, his body already wracked with the deteriorating signs of the Parkinson’s disease that would lead to his demise about a decade later. “He walked a little funny, and when people saw him, they started crying . . . People were knocking stuff over when he walked by.”
But Ali soldiered on, reaching his target: James Gandolfini, the titular Tony Soprano, a great fan of the champ. He was in a fake hospital bed, hospital gown caked with fake blood, reading a real newspaper (Gandolfini was on break from shooting).
“He didn’t know he was coming,” Feiler said. “Muhammad walks up to Gandolfini and smacks his newspaper. James doesn’t react. He smacks it again and he finally looks up.”
What Gandolfini, now deceased, said next is not suitable for a family newspaper, but suffice it to say he was shocked and delighted. It wasn’t an uncommon reaction when it came to Ali, who, many said, carried a vivacious spark that was greater than his illness. Those who knew him speak of his confidence and his kindness, and famously, his willingness to fight anyone — no matter how long the odds when he first started, or how dangerous when age finally took its toll, his legacy already secured.
“He was brilliant,” Feiler said. “He played life like a violin.”
Though Ali’s death, which occurred late Friday due to a respiratory illness worsened by his Parkinson’s disease, was not unexpected, the demise of the fighter known simply as The Greatest has kick-started waves of tribute and remembrance.
“Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. Period, ” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “If you just asked him, he’d tell you. He’d tell you he was the double greatest; that he’d ‘handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder into jail.’ But what made the champ the greatest — what truly separated him from everyone else — is that everyone else would tell you pretty much the same thing.
“Like everyone else on the planet, Michelle and I mourn his passing. But we’re also grateful to God for how fortunate we are to have known him, if just for a while; for how fortunate we all are that The Greatest chose to grace our time.”
Those who truly knew him agreed. When Gerry Cooney was first starting out in the boxing world, Ali would call his mother to assure her that her son would be all right, he said. The Huntington native, now a SiriusXM radio host, never fought Ali, but did take on some of his most famous opponents, Larry Holmes and George Foreman.
“He had this glow about him and he always backed up his words,” Cooney said. “He was the most famous man in the world. They said in the darkest corners of the earth, in mud huts, you would find a picture of Muhammad Ali. That’s the hope he gave people.”
Marc Ratner, vice president of regulatory affairs for UFC and former head of the Nevada Athletic Commission, said he saw Ali fight seven times, the first when Ratner was about 17. “He changed the world,” Ratner said. “It was his hand speed and how he made the other guys look average. For a heavyweight, he did things I’d never seen.”
There are other, quieter stories, too. Butch Yamali and his father used to run the now-shuttered Dover Delicacies in Manhattan, and would often cater parties for boxing promoter Don King. Yamali was about 16, working one of his dad’s events, when he first met Ali. Yamali would supply food or drink or whatever Ali needed while the fighter held court, talking to anyone and everyone. Even him.
“Who am I?” Yamali said. “I’m a 17-year-old waiter and he talked to me like it was nothing . . . He was such a nice guy.”
Cooney remembers Ali a few years ago, struggling to speak, but still stopping to sign autographs at a movie premiere. Feiler remembers Ali at his farm in Michigan, sitting together in the dark corner of a small gym. “We didn’t speak, we didn’t have to,” Feiler said.
And though it was hard to watch the once mammoth of a man so pummeled by sickness, Feiler noted Ali would find his outlets. He liked to draw, Feiler said, and he was deeply involved in charitable work. When Feiler was about to leave the farm, he noted someone had sent Ali a VHS of an A&E biography of his life, “and he just sat there and watched it,” a spectator to his own achievements.
Ali had his controversies. Many didn’t agree with his politics, and he decried the Vietnam War and would not fight when such an act was still out of the norm. His conversion to Islam similarly garnered critics at the time. Kevin Collins, a former boxer who runs the Westbury Boxing Gym, noted that he “didn’t agree with [him] politically . . . but there was nobody better, nobody more talented, and he did fight for his causes, even though I don’t agree.”
Time, though, has softened the edges. And as news spread of his death late Friday into Saturday, the tributes and memories dominated the day.
“I truly loved the guy,” Feiler said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“When he fought George Foreman [in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in 1974], the whole world was afraid for him, that he was going to get killed,” Cooney said. “He knew better then all of us . . . He had the greatest will. He could have gone into the Army and he could have gone to war and all he would have had to have done is walk around and travel [and not see action]. And he chose to do what he did. He was fully respected and loved.”
Ratner summed it up, saying Ali “was so much more than a fighter.”
“He was,” he said, “the greatest.”