How Muhammad Ali Touched Lives

The death of boxing great Muhammad Ali touched many people, especially those fortunate enough to have known him as a brash and brave young man who transformed sports and challenged the Vietnam War, as Mollie Dickenson recalls.

By Mollie Dickenson

I awoke the other day to learn that Muhammad Ali had died which saddened both me and my husband, Jim Dickenson. In February 1964, Jim, writing for The National Observer, covered Ali’s first fight with Sonny Liston in Miami while I listened to it on the radio.

I was rooting for Ali (then Cassius Clay) because he was so entertaining, besides being beautiful. He was being highly criticized then for being an “uppity” you know what. Jim was then in his two-year stint as a sports reporter – an agreement he had with the Observer with the understanding that he then could cover politics after that.

Muhammad Ali, pictured with one of his famous quotes.

Muhammad Ali, pictured with one of his famous quotes.

One year later, I was in Boston with Jim who was covering Ali again before his second fight with Liston later in Maine. We walked out into the town with Ali and Angelo Dundee for a little training walk and he was just a joyful man. He told me he got his strength and inspiration from the stars, the heavens, the cosmos. All in good fun.

At the gym later where he weighed in, a British reporter said to me, aghast, “Why the man isn’t even a Christian!” Ali was being his usual mouthy adorable self. “Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee.” Hard to believe the attitudes of those days.

That night, Jim was in bed with a sore throat so I had dinner at the hotel cafeteria counter and sat next to Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee who told me that he always told Ali to avoid being hit, to dance backwards and of course Ali danced constantly in the ring and indeed always was moving back.

Ali had an appendectomy soon after that and the fight was rescheduled for May. It was shown on closed-circuit TV at the Armory in Washington DC. We were just in time for the opening bell but no sooner had we sat down than Ali KO’d Liston and the fight was over. It was so fast that the TV had to show it over and over so people wouldn’t think Liston had taken a dive.

My next and last encounter with Ali was at a benefit at the Pension Building in Washington. While Ali was still at the front of the room, I went up to him, thanked him and told him how much I appreciated his stance against the Vietnam War. He was so lovely about it, listened carefully and thanked me. My hero! A beautiful, beautiful man.

Mollie Dickenson is author of Thumbs Up, a biography of Jim Brady.

11 comments for “How Muhammad Ali Touched Lives

  1. Brad Benson
    June 11, 2016 at 14:35

    Here’s a personal story about the one time I was able to be at the arena to see “the Greatest” fight live.


    A Personal Story about “The Greatest of All-Time”
    “I shook up the world!”–Muhammad Ali, February 25, 1964

    I was always a great admirer of Muhammad Ali, from the days of his earliest fights. Therefore, I would like to relate a personal story about the one time I was able to be at the arena to see him fight live.

    Late in his career, Ali had become just a shadow of the great champion he had been during his younger years. He was still the champion, but he was avoiding certain fighters, such as Ken Norton, who had once broken his jaw and beaten him, and whose particular style always seemed to confuse Ali.

    Instead, Ali was now fighting a series of fights against “contenders” who were not top-notch, while avoiding contact with the real contenders. In this manner, everyone earned a paycheck and Ali would not be particularly challenged—or so he thought.

    One of these supposed easy paycheck chumps was a former Ali sparring partner, named Jimmy Young. Ali was much bigger than Young and would have destroyed him in his younger days, but Young had prepared hard and was promising that he would beat his former mentor.

    My own thinking was that Ali was nearing the end of his career and that this visit to a local arena might be the last chance I might ever have to see him fight live. Therefore, even though I expected the fight to be short, I went alone that night to see him fight Young at the former Capital Center in Landover, Maryland.

    As it turned out, Young was more than ready. The fight went the distance and the aging, slogging Ali took a very serious beating from the younger and swifter Young. Ali had occasionally gotten Young in some trouble, but every time this happened, Young would duck through the ropes and thus force the referee, by rule, to step in and order a break.

    At the end of the fight, the stunned crowd was silent, waiting for bad news. However, as the judge’s scorecards were tallied and read, the crowd went crazy and some even booed when a unanimous decision was announced in Ali’s favor. Later it was written that Young’s strategy of ducking through the ropes had cost him the victory.

    Most of those who were present in the arena, including myself, knew that Ali had been given a gift by the judges. His face was swollen and red, his eyes were puffed up and he looked like a severely tired and beaten fighter. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    As the 13th Round began, I noticed that a Prince George’s County Cop had opened a small side exit door, which was immediately below me. Two or three sergeants came out and stood for a while, just observing. When one reopened the door, I noticed that there were about 20 cops standing in the large corridor, just inside.

    I wasn’t sure what was up, but I knew that there had to be a good reason for so many police officers to be hiding in the corridor connecting to this obscure little exit. Then, as the 15th Round was in progress, there was a mass exodus of most of the fans from my section, as well as all the other sections, as people migrated toward the main tunnel from which both fighters had originally entered the ring.

    All of these fans were hoping to get a close up look at Ali as he left the ring. Moreover, Ken Norton had made a very visible move during the late rounds of the fight and had taken a seat near the tunnel through which Ali was scheduled to exit. During several previous Ali fights, Norton had stalked Ali and very publicly accused him of ducking him. Now Ali was not afraid of Norton, but Norton’s style confused him and Norton had once broken his jaw, so Ali probably wasn’t anxious to fight him again.

    Also, Ali never liked to share the stage with anyone and he was not about to share the stage with Norton on this evening, especially after such a bad night in which he clearly had taken a bruising and just wanted to get out of the ring. Everyone could see Norton waiting for him and necks were stretching for a better view as Ali left the ring and headed for the tunnel. As he neared Norton, the crowd braced for the inevitable confrontation and Norton stood up–now eagerly anticipating the moment when Ali would have to pass his ambush point.

    Suddenly, Ali and his entire entourage made a sharp left turn and headed like gangbusters toward the obscure little corner where I had been sitting. As usual, Ali was accompanied by his numerous handlers and hangers-on, who were almost running to keep up and were continuously slapping him on the back and saying, “You’re still the champ. You’re still the greatest.”

    For his part, Ali was looking very much like the aging fighter he was. His eyes were red and nearly closed and his face was so swollen, he looked like his head had been pumped up like a basketball. He was staring at the ground and wearing what could only be described as a very serious and concerned expression as he made one last little turn and passed right beneath the corner section where I was sitting as he headed toward the exit door below me.

    Since the majority of the people had already moved toward the main tunnel where Norton was waiting, there were only two people standing at the rail as Ali went by—me and a very attractive, thirty-something, black lady a few rows behind and above my position. Suddenly, as Ali passed, he glanced up and caught a glimpse of the lady. In an instant, his serious demeanor changed. He gave her a sly smile and a very obvious wink, which was only observed by its intended recipient and me. Not a single one of his entourage saw it and, just as quickly as he had done it, he resumed a very serious expression and returned his stare to the ground as he passed through the exit door below.

    After Ali’s departure, we both broke up in spontaneous laughter. We were the only two people who had seen the wink. None of his handlers and sycophants had even noticed!
    To this day, there is only one other person that experienced this one small moment that truly captured the essence and spirit of this great champion.

    Despite all the hype, talk and bravado, Ali never really took himself that seriously. He was a showman first, before he was a boxer and a champion. His sport was nothing before he entered the stage and never has been the same since he left it.
    That is what made him “the greatest of all time”!

  2. Brad Benson
    June 11, 2016 at 14:11

    Here’s the first of my two Ali Stories.

    “Clay comes out to meet Liston
    And Liston starts to retreat
    If Liston goes back any farther
    He’ll end up in a ringside seat!”

    Cassius Clay a.k.a. Muhammed Ali—“The Greatest”

    In the late 50’s and early 60’s, the state of race relations in America was metaphorically manifest in the boxing ring. In my earliest memories, Floyd Patterson had been the World Heavyweight Champion. Like “good old Joe” Lewis, Patterson apparently fit the definition of a “nice colored man” and was therefore an acceptable champion to the white community at large.

    However, when Patterson was unexpectedly beaten by the big white Swede, Ingemar Johansson, a lot of the adults I knew, including a respected teacher, suddenly became fans of Johansson—at least until Patterson won the rematch. Still, when Patterson regained the title, white America seemed to give up on Johansson and accepted the “polite” Patterson back as “their” champion—all the while secretly yearning for the next “Great White Hope”.

    Then something terrible happened! Patterson got whipped by Sonny Liston, who was alleged to have drug problems, associations with the Mafia and, worse yet, had spent time in prison. Liston was largely snubbed by the press on the day after he won the fight and a rematch was quickly arranged in the hope that Patterson might win again, as he had against Johansson.

    On the night of July 22, 1963, Liston won again and everyone knew that Floyd Patterson would never be the champion again. People seemed distraught. “Who would ever beat Liston?”…“This was terrible for boxing!”…”Why would they even let a felon like Liston fight?”…

    After that, for a time, boxing was temporarily forgotten, as bigger events took over. Dr. King gave his “I have a Dream” Speech at the end of August. President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, and then, following a very depressing Holiday Season, “The Beatles” salved our National Wounds with three straight performances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February, 1964.

    Still, in the background, a brash young fighter named Cassius Clay was beginning to make noises that were being faintly heard through both the National Trauma and the Beatlemania which followed. Dubbed the “Louisville Loudmouth”, Clay was talking up a storm and rising fast, so boxing promoters arranged a fight that they were sure would be an easy payday for Liston, might silence the uncomfortable Clay, and finally, might help to sell the unsavory Liston to a doubtful American Public—both black and white. After all, if Liston was the antithesis of everything that people might have wanted as champion, then the braggadocio Clay was virtually the anti-Christ.

    My brother and I watched this previously unthinkable metamorphosis occur with great interest. We were genuinely amused that our grandfather, a big boxing fan, had been steadfastly against Liston just a few months before, but seemed now to have forgotten his position from just a few months before. He was now rooting for Liston as if he was the new Floyd Patterson and assured us all that the brooding Liston would put an end to the loudmouth Clay.

    The big fight occurred on February 25, 1964 and, as usual, my grandfather was perched in his big yellow chair near the radio. The fight lasted for six rounds and, as I recall, my grandfather had briefly gone to the kitchen, only to return to hear that the fight was over and that Liston hadn’t answered the bell for the seventh round. “The fight was fixed!” he thundered, “Whaddya mean he didn’t come out?”

    No one could believe it. Not only had the unbeatable Liston been beaten, he had cowered in his corner. Soon after, Clay announced that he was changing his name to Muhammad Ali and all hell broke loose. At the time, few would realize how much that name would play a role in their lives over the next few decades.

    Several months later, Liston and Ali were scheduled for a rematch, but Ali was forced to withdraw a few days beforehand and this time the press really let him have it—accusing him of chickening out. However, Ali’s hernia was very real and the fight had to be rescheduled.

    This time, there was no question in anyone’s mind that Liston would dominate. Nearly every major sportscaster and fight fan felt that the first fight had been a fluke and that Liston would train harder, win this one early, and “win it big!”

    On the night of the rematch, May 25, 1965, my grandfather had barely gotten his radio “tuned-in” when the bell sounded and mere seconds later was screaming, “Liston is down! Liston is down”. The ringside announcer then counted Liston out in unison with the referee and the bell again sounded.

    Right away people at ringside were declaring that the fight had been fixed and that no one had seen Ali connect with the knockout punch that sent Liston to the mat. Many of the newspapers decried the “phantom punch” and openly declared that the fight had to have been fixed, which was not an uncommon occurrence in those days.

    In the coming days, there were investigations and all manner of complaints in the press, but Ali was the Champion and no one could beat him, so they found another way to stop him and brought in the power of the State.

    After that, many people seemed to lose interest in boxing. On the other hand, I became a lifelong fan of Muhammad Ali and saw many of his greatest fights by close circuit television, including the “Thrilla in Manila” and the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman.

    On April 30, 1976, I was finally able to see Ali fight live and in person, when he fought Jimmy Young at the Capital Center late in his career, but that’s another story. To my mind, he really was “The Greatest”.

  3. Bill Bodden
    June 9, 2016 at 23:57

    It is inconceivable to believe that Muhammad Ali and Dr. King would be anything less than appalled to see how the members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other prominent African-Americans have joined the warmongers in recent years – Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell in the GWB/Cheney Administration and all the African-American politicians who were exposed on television endorsing Obama and Clinton.

    And, how in the hell did Bill Clinton get invited to give a eulogy at Ali’s funeral service? What a disgusting piece of hypocrisy those words must prove to be!!

  4. Zachary Smith
    June 9, 2016 at 23:39

    I know of nothing which might suggest Ali was anything but a fine fellow, but I disapprove of extended comments about him which ignore the fact he participated in a barbaric ‘sport’ to entertain knuckle-draggers who enjoy watching men getting beaten into early dementia (Dementia pugilistica).

    Boxing ought to be totally banned in civilized nations, and serious consideration ought to be given to doing the same with the other violent ‘sports’.

    • Joe Tedesky
      June 10, 2016 at 01:51

      Zachary, A great movie to watch is ‘The Harder They Fall’ which was Humprey Bogart’s last film. Above when I spoke about my Mum and I getting a kick out of Ali, I should have mentioned how we loved him out of the ring. I just had to set the record straight, since I brought my mother up…out of respect for her.

      • Zachary Smith
        June 10, 2016 at 10:33

        I meant the comments by Mollie Dickenson – sorry for the misunderstanding.

        • Joe Tedesky
          June 10, 2016 at 18:34

          No apologize necessary, instead a thank you for your comment, because my Mum hated anything violent.

    • June 10, 2016 at 03:12

      I agree, Zachary, that boxing is barbaric, but it could be improved if the fighters were required to wear protective head gear. And what about UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship)? That is really barbaric and should be outlawed completely. We don’t need to get into gratuitous violence in films and on TV (including the news) and internet videos, but that too serves the same sadistic voyeuristic instincts. As “civilization” progresses, technologically at least, our worst instincts grow and are obliged. We all know that there is a world of difference between physical atrocities that can be shown in a way and for a purpose that encourages our humanity, e.g. films about Auschwitz, and the larger flood of junk that only feeds our basest instincts, which I will not call “animal” because I know of no evidence that animals are sadistic or enjoy Schadenfreude.

  5. June 9, 2016 at 13:28

    I wholeheartedly agree. He was an intelligent, sensitive and principled man, as well as a great boxer. (I don’t recall any other boxer that was actually aesthetically pleasing to watch, at least at the height of his career.) Anyone who doubts his intelligence and verbal agility should watch the YouTube videos of his interviews with even the likes of William Buckley. Most of all, like Ms. Dickenson, I appreciated his stance against the Vietnam war.

  6. Joe Tedesky
    June 9, 2016 at 13:09

    My memories of Ali, takes me back to when I was young, and how my mother and I got a kick out of him. I also recall how many of our white family and friends were intimidated by his actions. My mother would shout these people down, and really get their goat by admitting how she though Ali (Cassis then) was really good looking too. Those were the days. If there is a heaven I hope my mom gets to meet the Champ.

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