Muhammad Ali Was Naked When We Met

AP Photo, File)

Muhammad Ali was naked when we met.

Naked. As in stark.

We were in a Tokyo hotel locker room the summer of 1976. My eyes never strayed south of his face, I swear. He smiled and knew.


Champ, as his enormous posse of hangers-on called him, was preparing for the weigh-in for an unusual bout the next day with a Japanese wrestler named Antonio Inoki. He was an immense man by Japanese standards with a jut-jaw that surpassed even Jay Leno’s.

Called the “World Heavyweight Martial Arts Championship Bout,” the 15 rounds were actually a rough precursor for what would become today’s mixed martial arts contests, as described in an entertaining book later by Josh Gross.

Ali was in Tokyo because…$6 million. Guaranteed.

And that was 1976 money.

Even at 34, Ali was in a mischievous mood. He pulled on boxing shorts. Nothing else. Winked at me. Donned a white robe and headed for the door, led by longtime trainer Angelo Dundee.

I’d never been a boxing fan. My entire boxing experience consisted of covering a pro fight at ringside in Saginaw, Michigan in a 1963 summer job with UPI. The two men there were exchanging blows directly above me, when one punch connected hard to the side of a head, sending a shower of spit and sweat into my face.

But I’d been intrigued by Muhammad Ali’s public personality — a brash, trash-talking, Olympic champion who called himself The Greatest and rhythmically chanted hip-hop before it was Hip-Hop.

He attracted publicity like mosquitoes at an evening picnic. I remember a night walking to the university library listening to one of his three championship bouts on a transistor radio. The cocky kid had predicted knocking the other guy out in the fourth round.


And he did!

So, I walked to the Tokyo weigh-in inside the packed hotel ballroom close by Ali’s side. Inoki was holding forth on the stage about what he would do to the American. But he fell silent when that charismatic American walked in. Every head turned. Cheers broke out.

Show time.

Ali was slowly bouncing down the aisle as he did in the ring. A platoon of sycophants surrounded us, telling him he was The Greatest. When Ali. fists raised, made a feint in the direction of the stage, they urged, “No, Champ!” “Not now, Champ!” “Save it for tomorrow, Champ!”

Ali leaned down toward my face with a gleam in his eye. “I don’t want Inoki,” he said. “I want that redhead.”

Sure enough, amid all the shouting, clapping, and bright lights, he had spotted a stunning woman with red hair a few rows away.

On stage, aides removed the robe. Ali’s physique was amazing – a massive chest, long arms, a taut 218 pounds on a sculpted 6-3 frame. A far cry from the emaciated man who would wheeze his last from Parkinson’s disease almost exactly 40 years later.

Inoki died earlier this month at 79 of amyloidosis, a rare organ disease.

The pair weighed in. Then, the two men stood nose-to-nose for the obligatory confrontation photo. The bout was seen in 37 countries, and I was on a trans-Pacific phone line to my employer in New York the entire time describing it blow-by-blow (there weren’t many) and kick-by-kick (there were many).



Muhammad Ali
AP Photo/Michael Probst, File


As a physical contest, the much-touted bout was a dull disappointment. Ali danced around the ring. He landed a total of two punches, both left hooks to Inoki’s huge head. The wrestler was wisely fearful of Ali’s fabled reach. So, he spent most of the time on his back or butt, landing countless kicks to the boxer’s left calf.

There were boos at the draw’s end.

A media mob clamored outside that locker room immediately afterward. I pushed my way through and Dundee let me in. There was Ali straddling a locker-room bench, exhausted, rivulets of sweat streaming down his back. Blood seeped out of that battered calf and ran down to his heel.

“I’m tired,” he said.

Ali’s posse took that as an order. Each began running around the locker room shouting. “Everyone out! Everyone out! Champ needs quiet.”

Without explanation, Dundee grabbed me by the shirt, shoved me into a narrow locker, and slammed the door. “I’ll be back.”

The shouting subsided maybe in five minutes. Seemed like 20 in there.

Dundee opened the locker. And there was Ali, still alone, still exhausted, still hunched over on the bench, not looking like a champ. The gloves were gone. The tape remained.

I straddled the bench in front of him.

“I wouldn’t have done this,” he said, “If I’d a known he was gonna do that. Nobody knew this was gonna happen. So, we had a dead show.” He said it proved boxers are superior to “rasslers.”


“If he’d a gotten into hittin’ range, I’d a burned him good.”

I agreed. The world-famous boxer was talking no jive then.

How does the leg feel? “It hurts bad.” He would spend two days in the hospital for fear of blood clots.

We sat there together quietly. His head was still down. His body cooling for the umpteenth time after a bout. The blood drying. The cocky, fabled heavyweight world champion who used to predict when he’d drop opponents seemed very vulnerable and human in those moments. Like a little boy.

I thanked Muhammad Ali for his time, wished him well at his next bout in Yankee Stadium three months away. He nodded. I got up and started to walk away.

“Hey,” Ali said. I looked back. He’d turned and was smiling at me. “Did you get the redhead’s name?”


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