ED PIERCE: MEETING ALI ‘THRILL OF A LIFETIME’
By Ed Pierce // April 16, 2013
Champion Was Cordial, Candid In Conversation
BREVARD COUNTY • WEST MELBOURNE, FLORIDA – The older I get, the harder it becomes to access exact details in my mind of experiences from my youth.
But I do have one crystal clear memory I will certainly carry with me to my dying days.
A phone call early one morning in April 1975 completely changed the course of my life and resulted in an interview with one of the most famous athletes of all time.
The voice at the other end of the phone call was that of my University of New Mexico college journalism professor, Tony Hillerman, who told me he had recommended me to UPI for an upcoming gig covering some boxing matches in Las Vegas.
A few hours later, a UPI assignment editor called and booked me for my first professional job in journalism.
The pay for the assignment was $275 to write ringside accounts about two fights at the Las Vegas Convention Center. It included a round-trip ticket for a flight there and three nights lodging across the road from the fights at the Landmark Hotel and Casino.
I felt that it was pretty good gig for a 21-year-old with only college newspaper writing experience to my credit and really a perfect way to launch a professional reporting career.
The second fight on the undercard pitted an aging boxer from Dallas named Ernie “Big E the Enforcer” Smith and Larry Holmes, a promising young heavyweight from Pennsylvania who would one day become the world champion himself.
The main fight was between Ron Lyle, a former Colorado Prison inmate, and the reigning world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who was just one fight removed from 1974’s infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” in which he regained the title by defeating George Foreman in Zaire.
Boarding a flight in Albuquerque about two weeks after the initial phone call, I met photographer Bill O’Brien upon arrival about 9 p.m. at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and he drove me to the Landmark Hotel, well known for being the former penthouse residence of Howard Hughes.
O’Brien and I made plans to set a time to do some preliminary interviews Thursday morning as the fights were scheduled for that Friday, May 16.
I checked into the Landmark and was shown to my room, which overlooked the lagoon-style swimming pool at the hotel.
Sometime after 1 a.m. that night, I found I could not sleep and chose to get up and walk around the hotel.
Somehow I ended up in a second-floor coffee shop at the Landmark and sat down near a well-dressed gentleman who told me he also had trouble falling asleep that night.
I introduced myself and we chatted about the weather, the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, and eventually the conversation drifted to boxing.
Seems the man I was talking to was none other than Chris Dundee, who told me that he was in town for the fights on Friday night and was a boxing promoter.
But he was much more than an ordinary boxing promoter. He told me he had been in the fight business most of his adult life and now in his 60s, he ran a gym in Miami and was thinking of purchasing a small stake in the company managing boxer Larry Holmes so he was there to look him over.
Oh yeah, he also told me he was the older brother of Muhammad Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee and said if I called him the next day, he might be able to arrange for me to meet Ali.
I was completely flabbergasted at his offer, jotted down his room number on a coffee shop napkin and thanked him before returning to my room.
If I thought I had difficulty sleeping before, the possibility of actually meeting one of the world’s most famous men the next day really sent my brain into overdrive.
As agreed to the night before, I called Chris Dundee and met him by the elevator after 1 p.m. the following day and we rode up together to the 16th floor.
It was Chris Dundee and myself, as O’Brien wasn’t allowed to accompany us upstairs with his camera to document the interview.
My knees were shaking as we arrived at the door of Room 1618.
A tall private security guard answered our knock and let us in. I was introduced first to assistant trainer Wali Muhammad, who hugged Chris and appeared to smile a lot, but talked very little
He took us into an adjoining room where I met Angelo Dundee and a little 7-year-old girl named Maryum, who told she was from Chicago and missed her grandmother. I later found out that Maryum was actually Muhammad Ali’s daughter, but didn’t I know it then.
Moment at hand
As I talked to Maryum, Chris Dundee chatted with his brother Angelo, who turned to me and mentioned that I must be pretty good to be covering the fight at such a young age. I told him I was thrilled to have the job and was ready to meet his fighter.
He agreed, but told me I could only stay for a few minutes and to make my questions for the champ brief.
Angelo led me through another doorway and there sat the champion, dressed in black slacks and a light green polo shirt and sipping an iced tea while talking to another man, who I subsequently learned was a cornerman and friend of Ali’s named Drew Bundini Brown.
Having been introduced to Ali, the champ quickly asked me where I was from.
Telling him, he extended his hand, shook mine and told me, “You look pretty young to be doing this, so ask me anything you like.”
My mind suddenly drew a blank and I stammered slightly trying to gain some composure.
“Have…have…you…you been with Angelo very long,” I asked him.
“He’s been my trainer for 15 years,” Ali said.
By now I realized I’d better pull myself together or else I wouldn’t be able to use any of this in a story.
“What’s Howard Cosell really like,” I said.
With that one, Ali’s eyes opened wide and he smiled and said, “Let me tell you something, Mr. Cosell is one of the nicest people I have ever met. He’s been incredibly great to me and I think the world of him.”
I had time for one last question and so I asked him about Ron Lyle and the upcoming fight.
“He’s very tough, but I am going to win,” Ali said. “I can’t take Lyle lightly though. He knocked out Buster Mathis and beat Jimmy Ellis. He’s no match for me and you’ll see that tomorrow night.”
With that, I was ushered out of the room and returned to my room, still in awe of meeting Ali.
In meeting Ali, I thought he was not at all like his public persona of a brash, self-centered athlete who enjoyed hearing himself speak about himself in volumes.
He was gracious and humble and sincere in our conversation and made me feel at ease.
The next night Holmes made short work of Smith in the undercard, knocking him out in the third round.
Then in the main event, Ali and Lyle battled through the first 10 rounds of a hard-hitting bout, with Ali continually trying to bait Lyle to come closer, but he didn’t fall for the ploy. Most people there that night had Lyle ahead on points after the first 10 rounds.
Finally in the 11th round, Ali stunned Lyle with a right-handed punch and continued with a flurry of blows while Lyle appeared dazed and flustered while dropping his hands and letting down his guard
The referee stepped in and stopped the fight and once again Ali retained his world heavyweight championship.
I filed the story that night and flew back to Albuquerque the next morning and eventually wrote more six more stories over the next year for UPI and a few for other local newspapers before I decided to join the Air Force in the spring of 1977.
This May will be 38 years since I got that big break and I’ve reflected a good deal about how one of my first interviews was with such a famous person.
To be candid, I was lucky and in the right place at the right time. It was the thrill of a lifetime for me and an incredible opportunity.
Wish that happened to me more often.