Former SI Writer Gary Smith Tells Muhammad Ali Stories

Legendary Sports Illustrator writer, Gary Smith discusses his encounters with Muhammad Ali throughout his career on the Afternoon Drive.

Read some excerpts and listen to the whole interview below:

On first time Smith met Ali:

“I was as a 25-year-old Cub reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. They sent me up to Deer Lake. Ali was preparing to fight Larry Holmes. It was well deep in his career and he was at the real down side at this point. I arrive there and he just finished his workout. He is exhausted and laying on the massage table. I am the only reporter there and this was not what I pictured. He asked me what I needed and I told him what I needed. I spoke with him for two and half hours with nobody else there and that really told me a lot about who he was.”

After that how did the relationship grow from there?

“I would never call it a relationship. Ali was magnificent in moments of that great of immediacy. I had the good fortune of 67 times after that being able to sit down with him and spend time with him.  He was funny and had a twinkle in his eye. He even played practical jokes.”

What were your expectations on how to deal with Ali?

“Seeing him so many times growing on TV and seeing him on the screen with mobs of media I thought he’d be numb to it by that point. I didn’t think he’d have that personality or connection at that point. I thought he’d go through the motions more, but it never felt like that. When I went and found him in 1988, seven years after he retired. I showed up at the farm house he was living in, in Michigan. We drove to some abandoned gym and he hands me a stop watch and starts shadowboxing with the heavy bag. It was almost like he was creating fumes for your story. That immediacy with him was always there.”

When could you first see the Parkinson’s taking over?

“I think it was when I working on a story for Angelo Dundee the trainer. I met him in a coffee shop in Chicago and he gave me everything I needed to know about Dundee and it was great. I started to see he was really slow and the words were coming slower. Within that year I met him up in Michigan and then you could really see it. When he took me to that abandoned gym and how quick he was moving in the first round, but by the third round he was dead on his feet. It was so difficult to watch him even try to get his key in the car to open to door. There wasn’t even a glimmer of compliant or self-conscious about it.”

Listen to the complete interview below (it starts at about the 9:30 mark):

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