When I was a youngster growing up, I always enjoyed watching the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports with my father on our small black-and-white television set on Friday nights. My dad liked to watch these weekly boxing matches shown nationally at 10 p.m. but not alone, so that sort of was my free pass to stay up beyond my normal curfew. I even got to stay up and watch the Greatest Fights of the Century that followed if my eyelids hadn’t already started slamming shut.

Between these two pugilistic Friday night programs I was exposed to such great boxers as Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Willie Pep, Joe Wolcott, Jake LaMotta, Floyd Patterson and scores of big-name fighters from the 1940’s and 1950’s. My interest in Friday night boxing dwindled tremendously during my teen-aged years when dances and parties highlighted the weekend agenda.

But while in college and after graduation I did take notice of a young fighter about my age from Louisville named Cassius Clay that was a sensation in the National Golden Gloves competition and even bragged to whoever would listen that he was “The Greatest.”

And while being a professional baseball player myself during that time, I ran into scores of boisterous young athletes who talked a much bigger game that they produced, so I had a tendency to ignore them all, including Clay, who had just turned pro. It was a couple of years later when I got a “real job” as an assistant sports editor for a daily newspaper in Orange, covering not only local sports events, but also anything that was happening at the Astrodome in Houston, thanks to our good friend Bill Giles, who publicized and was in charge of press credentials at the Astrodome.

As luck would have it, Cassius Clay was fighting to defend his world heavyweight boxing title in the Astrodome against a Houston-area challenger named Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams, who was defeating local heavyweights left and right at the time. Giles called our sports office and asked if anyone from our sports staff was planning to cover the fight. Before we could answer, Giles added, “I have some real great ring-side seats right next to Howard Cosell.”

Sports editor Gary Snyder, me and local photographer Buzzie Gunn all received credentials for the prize fight right on the ring-side ropes. Gunn photographed our sports action shots during high school and college games and was testing out the fastest film that just hit the marketplace.

Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali, had such a quick jab that photos merely revealed a blur and all the naked eye could see was the opponent’s head snapping back. We occasionally got showered at our ringside seats from the sweat being blasted off of Big Cat’s face. Any doubts I had about the talent level of Clay were quickly put to rest during that Big Cat Williams’ bout which ended with the challenger laid out flat on the canvas in the second round, according to one of my sports columns dated Nov. 16, 1966.

“A quick research of Clay’s record showed that of his 141 amateur fights, Clay lost only seven. He moved quickly from the junior division of the Golden Gloves to the regular competition.

“He captured six Kentucky Golden Gloves heavyweight championships in 1960 at Madison Square Garden. Professionally, he won all 27 bouts by knockouts and became the Heavyweight World champion Feb. 25, 1964 when he knocked out Sonny Liston inMiami Beach,” the article continued.

“Since then he has successfully defended his title seven times against Liston, Floyd Patterson, George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, Karl Mildenberger and Big Cat Williams.”

The column concluded with the prediction, “Muhammad Ali is the greatest boxer of this day and age and possible the greatest that ever put on a pair of gloves.”

Since retiring from his successful battles in the ring, Muhammad Ali has been waging a more courageous fight against Parkinson’s disease for the past 30 years with his wife Lonnie always at his side along with around-the-clock caregivers.

“I was supposed to be at this man’s side for this journey,” Lonnie was quoted in the June edition of the AARP Bulletin. “That isn’t to say I didn’t have to struggle…But there was always a light at the end of the tunnel.

“I am so fortunate that I have a husband who doesn’t complain about anything. He is not a moaner, a whiner or a poor-me kind of person. Muhammad has learned how to not sweat the small stuff. He is amazing that way.”

The Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center is part of the renowned Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. The center handles about 10,000 patient visits a year, including 1,000 new Parkinson’s patients last year. The Ali Center footprint was expanded to 26,450 square feet in 2013. The center features 30 exam rooms, a balance-and-gait lab, clinical research areas and a rehabilitation gym.

A team of five neurosurgeons also offers what has been called the world’s premier deep brain stimulation program. In the near future, the Ali Center will offer a certification course for Parkinson’s caregivers. Community outreach with a bilingual approach is a major focus, including helping patients who might need financial aid.

KWICKIES…San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt, a graduate of Hudson High School in Lufkin, had two pins removed from his broken left thumb last week and should be ready for a rehabilitation assignment by this weekend. When he went on the disabled list early last month he was leading the team in home runs with nine and batting near .300.Chuck Noll, who built the “Steel Curtain” Pittsburgh Steelers into one of the most dominant NFL franchises in the 1970’s, died Friday night at the age of 82. Pittsburgh had never reached a league championship game since their founding in 1933, won only one game in Noll’s first season, but then went on to coach four Super Bowl champions in the next six years.

San Diego Padres former star Tony Gwynn died Monday at the age of 54. After retiring from baseball, Gwynn took over the reins as head baseball coach at San Diego State, where he had coached for only two seasons before he died.

German golfer Martin Kaymer led from start to finish to win the U.S. Open handily by eight strokes last weekend over runners-up Rickie Fowler and Erik Compton. Kaymer dominated the field much like Tiger Woods used to and waltzed away with the $1.62 million first place money after shooting nine-under-par with rounds of 65-65-72-69—271.

The San Antonio Spurs were all business in dismantling the defending champion Miami Heat 104-87 Sunday night and winning the NBA Finals in just five games. The Spurs tied the Los Angeles Lakers by winning their fifth NBA championship since 1999. The Heat was trying to win their fourth title since 1999.

JUST BETWEEN US…Houston Astros rookie first baseman Jon Singleton became the fourth player in Astros history to hit a home run in his first major league game after being called up from Class AAA Oklahoma City on June 3. Singleton joins Mark Saccomanno (2008), Dave Matranga (2003) and the late, great Ken Caminiti (1987). Singleton, regarded as the top first base prospect in baseball by MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus, was acquired by Houston in a trade that sent Hunter Pence to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011.