Reader submission: My Ali Memory

During my four years in Miami I probably covered a couple dozen world boxing champions at the Fifth Street Gym on south Beach, pretty seedy at the time. The Fifth Street Gym was owned by Chris Dundee, the less famous brother of Angelo, both of whom lived in Miami.

The Fifth Street Gym was like a Hollywood boxing stereotype. It was on the second floor (a drugstore was on the first floor). You’d walk up a dingy stairway to be greeted by a sign which read, “50 cents Admission; No Deadbeats Allowed.”

The gym had a ring, heavy bang, and light bag. It was dark, hot as hell with practically no ventilation…a spartan environment which training fighters loved.

In addition to the various world champs who temporarily trained there (including Roberto Duran, Victor Galindez, Alexis Arguello, etc.), Chris Dundee’s main staple was the up-and-coming local fighters, so we’d often do local features on those boxers (almost never amounted to anything).

Chris, for whatever reason, took a liking to me and let me know when Muhammed Ali would be training at the Fifth Street Gym for one of his comebacks. This was before the Ali-Holmes fight was solidified, but there were plenty of rumors.

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali

Chris arranged for the interview when Ali finished his workout. I knelt to interview him as he was given a chair to rest. It was just me, Ali, the videographer ….and a host of about 50 onlookers who got word, and came to watch Ali. The interview took place in March 1980.

I first asked Ali about fighting Larry Holmes; he acknowledge it was still up in the air but that Larry Holmes was “too big, too slow, too ugly to be representing the colored folk.”

I countered with, “What about the possibility of fighting Scott LeDoux before Holmes.” Ali responded, “Scott LeDoux, you, anybody….as long as it gets me a fight with Larry Holmes.”

At that time, one of the onlookers shouted, “What about me?”

To which Ali responded, “YOU!!! You ever dreamed you fought me, you’d better wake up and apologize.”

The give-and-take with someone of that stature was one of the more magical moments of my broadcasting career.

I asked him maybe one or two more questions and got the vintage Ali responses.

When I ended it with, “Thank you, champ” he pulled me close and whispered in my ear, “ No, thank you. You’re better than Howard Cosell.”

But, that’s not the end of the story.

At the time, WCKT-TV had a very restrictive policy about story length…a “Talking Only” (sound bite only) could be 30 seconds maximum and a “package” (reporters reportage combined with “sound bites’”) could be only 1:15 (a minute-and-30 seconds). It didn’t matter that a reporter could deliver a boring and comparatively insignificant report as long as he/she did it in under 1:15, then that was okay. However, a scintillating, informative “sound bite” of 30-plus seconds was a major violation.

I had 1:35 of vintage Ali. I was, at first, rebuffed in getting the whole interview on the air, since it was technically a 1:35 sound bite.

I finally convinced the sports director to view the minute-and-a-half vintage Ali, who reluctantly agreed to make an exception.

When it aired – and it was ‘GREAT TV” – people from all over the newsroom rushed to congratulate me. But it wasn’t ME. It was ALI.

I simply had the good sense to stay out of his. However, I did make the mistake of not saving the interview, foolishly thinking a news director would not be interested in how managed a 1:35 soundbite with one of the icons in American history. Now, of course, I realize how incredibly foolish many news/sports directors were … and are.

Dan O’Brien
Greenwood resident