Friday, May 29, 2020

Insight: A milestone to remember

To be honest, I am not someone who sits back and counts down to reaching milestones in my life and career. Yet I recently reached one of those anniversaries where I had to stop and think about how in the world was I able to pull that off?

Earlier this month, I surpassed 45 years of working as a journalist and it all started with a ringside seat at a heavyweight championship boxing match in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 16, 1975. The events of that day are as crystal clear to me as if it happened yesterday, but time does march on and it became the first of thousands of newspaper articles containing my byline produced under the pressure of relentless deadlines.

Muhammad Ali was 33 when he beat
Ron Lyle in May 1975 in Las Vegas to
 retain the world heavyweight title.
A phone call with a job offer from a national wire service came to my home following a recommendation from a college journalism professor. 

The pay offered was $275 to write ringside accounts about two fights at the Las Vegas Convention Center, including the world heavyweight title bout between challenger Ron Lyle against champion Muhammad Ali. It included a round-trip ticket for a flight there and three nights lodging across the road from the fight venue at the Landmark Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

I eagerly accepted the offer and the next thing I knew, I was checking into the Landmark Hotel and Casino as a 21-year-old who was about to come face to face with one the most famous athletes ever. On my first night in Las Vegas, I ended up in a second-floor coffee shop about 1 a.m. and met a boxing promoter, Chris Dundee, who was attending the matches to evaluate talent on the fight’s undercard, namely a promising young boxer by the name of Larry Holmes.

Chris Dundee offered to introduce me later that day to his brother, Angelo Dundee, who served as Ali’s trainer. The next thing I knew, I was on an elevator that afternoon headed up to the Landmark’s famous penthouse suite, recently vacated by reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes.

A security guard greeted us at the door and within a few minutes I was interviewing Angelo Dundee about Ali’s title defense against Lyle, a dangerous opponent who had a reputation as one of the hardest punchers of all-time.

A few minutes into my discussion, Angelo Dundee stopped and asked me how old I was. When I told him that this was my first professional assignment and I was just 21, he smiled and pointed to a door in the suite and told me I had five minutes exclusively with the champ.

I knocked and entered the adjacent room where two men sat and talked. One was Ali’s cornerman Drew Bundini Brown and the other was the champ himself, barefoot and dressed in tan slacks and a multi-colored polo shirt. Ali had his feet up on a coffee table and was watching a soap opera on TV as I nervously approached and stammered out questions for him about the fight with Lyle.

Four minutes in, Brown mentioned that the champ had to start getting ready to appear at the fight’s weigh-in and Ali then told me I had one question left and to make it count.

I knew the bout was being televised on ABC’s Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoon and when I had first arrived at the airport, I had noticed an entourage of media people, including broadcaster Howard Cosell, who was there to call the fight live on the air before millions of viewers. 

Therefore, my final question for Ali was “Can you tell me what Howard Cosell is really like?”

Ali proceeded to tell me in detail about his unlikely friendship with Cosell. He talked of how the broadcaster would slip him cash to take his family out to dinner when he was a young struggling boxer and how he would visit Ali’s home in Louisville and play on the floor with Ali’s young children.

My preview story for the Lyle-Ali championship ran on the front page the following morning of more than 400 daily newspapers in America. It was successful largely in part because I was able to break through Ali’s veil of media hype and to humanize him as a devoted father and Cosell’s caring friend.

Now that I’m older, milestones usually don’t mean very much to me, but this one does. Not many journalists can say their first story was to interview the most famous person in the world at the time, yet I can and that’s an achievement that surely doesn’t diminish with the passing of time. <

— Ed Pierce

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