From Clay to Muhammad—1942-2016

Down Life’s Highway – Roy Dunn

Muhammad Ali, 74, who many believe was the greatest fighter of all time, died Saturday, June 4, 2016. All day Saturday and Sunday many people told their Ali stories. I have an interesting Ali story as well, but pondered writing it thinking that after hearing so many Ali stories, readers might be turned off with another. This story is special to me because of the people it involved and how it came about.

In February, 1964, Sonny “The Big Bear” Liston was heavyweight champion and on Feb 25, he would defend his title against a young fighter named Cassius Clay, from Louisville, Kentucky. Clay had won the light heavyweight division in the 1960 Olympics, turned pro and went up to heavyweight. He had won 20 fights, no losses. Among them he had beat Ingemar Johansson, Archie Moore and Henry Cooper. Liston was a heavy favorite. That’s where my story begins.

The fight was to be shown on a closed circuit screen in Lake Charles. I chauffeured my old friends Judge Sid Callivett, Sheriff Chester Holts and barber Joe Blanda to see the fight. I often drove the Judge and Blanda to sporting events, high school football, etc. Liston was a feared fighter, a decade older than Clay and we all believed Liston would win. All except Blanda, who predicted Clay would outscore him in the 15-round bout. Twenty-two year old Clay won on a TKO in the seventh round, to become heavyweight champion of the world.

A return match was held on May 25, 1965. The four of us again drove to Lake Charles to attend the fight. Blanda got caught up in a long line in the restroom, Sid got a coughing spell and by the time he caught his breath and before Blanda returned, the fight was over. Clay knocked him out in less than two minutes of the first round. The bout ending was highly controversial. Clay had become a member of the Nation of Islam and taken the Muslin name Muhammad Ali. Some people claimed Liston threw the fight, possibly he was controlled by the Mafia or he feared retaliation from Black Muslim extremists. Six-years later, on Jan. 5, 1971, Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home. He had been dead over a week. His death remains a mystery. He had won 50 fights, 39 TKO’s and four losses.

 In 1967, during the Vietnam War, Ali refused, for religious reasons, to join the Army. He was convicted of draft dodging, stripped of his title and banished from boxing for three years. In 1971, the Supreme Court reversed his conviction. Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title on Jan. 28, 1974 at the “Rumble in the Jungle,” in Zaire, against champion George Foreman.

By then the Judge and the Sheriff no longer held office, however Blanda, even though much older, continued to cut hair. I had gone into the newspaper business and was a partner in the Triangle Press, later sold to Cox Enterprises, parent company of the Port Arthur News and who later acquired the Orange Leader. The name is still being used and the press is now located in Orange. Anyway, one of the partners in the press, attorney Eugene Wright, who had attended law school with Wayne Peveto, somehow became one of Ali’s lawyers and drew up his fight contracts and other stuff. Gene had introduced Phyl and I to a guy from Canada named Larry Messier. He was a promoter, PR man and personal manager for different stars. Once when we was with him, he called Kris Kristofferson, made small talk with Rita Coolidge who said Kris had run to the store, she would have him call later. That’s when I learned that the stars are often normal folks like us, just running to the store.

Larry was well connected to the Leon Spinks group. Leon would be fighting Ali for the world championship on Feb. 15, 1978. He was a low ranked contender, not expected to win. Just before the fight, Gene set up a phone interview with Ali and Larry got me an interview with Spinks, who predicted he would beat Ali. Everyone at The Opportunity Valley News listened on different phones to the interviews. Debbie Fusilier will still remember the excitement of the calls. As Spinks predicted, he beat Ali and became heavyweight champion on a 15-round split decision in Las Vegas. A couple hours after the fight Larry called from Vegas and put Leon on the phone. He was hard to understand with plenty of noise in the background. He said, “I told you I would beat him and be champ of the world.” I congratulated him and thanked him for the call.

The rematch was set for Sept. 15, in New Orleans. Gene had been to Ali’s training camp and brought me a cap that he said the champ wore when he ran. The cap survived two hurricanes that destroyed our home. Before Vegas Spinks had only won seven fights and Ali hadn’t taken him seriously. This time it would be different. Ali went back to a strategy he had previously abandoned. He trained and when he showed up in New Orleans he was in excellent condition. The old champ wanted to regain his title and become the only three time heavyweight champion.

Gene got me six tickets to the fight in New Orleans. Lucky and Gert Lusigian, Butch and Edna Lusigian and Phyl and I made the big fight billed “The Battle of New Orleans” We had great seats and the place was packed with sports stars and movie stars. Ali regained his title and after the fight everyone descended on the New Orleans Hilton. The lobby was packed. We were able to get a picture of Phyl in front of one of the many ice sculptures since we were celebrating her birthday. A van drove up and two chef looking guys, dressed in white, got out and for some reason they asked me where to put the food for the Ali party. We cleared some tables and I told them “right here.” The food was from a five-star restaurant and I signed the tab. We invited everyone in the lobby to Phyl’s birthday party.

The only regret I have is that I was asked if I wanted to go up to the suite and meet Ali and I declined. I had seen Sugar Ray Leonard and a host of stars go up. I didn’t want to ask for everyone in my group to go, but I also didn’t want to leave them behind even though they urged me to go.

Only Edna, Phyl and I remain from that night. My old friends that I witnessed Ali’s first championship fight with have long ago died. I loved those old guys. I believe Gene, the attorney, has retired and lives in the Woodlands. I was privileged to watch Ali recapture his third world title. He was “The Greatest.” The entire experience was another great trip Down Life’s Highway. I followed the life and legacy of a legend. The Muhammad Ali fights I didn’t see, my two boys and I followed on the radio.