Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Muhammed Ali Visits Tampa, August 1973

Perhaps the greatest boxer ever and one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet, Muhammad Ali had never been in a ring in the city of Tampa before August 1973.

His first formal visit, it turns out, wasn't in a main event bout at a sold-out Tampa Stadium. Rather, it came as the guest referee for a six-round preliminary fight, a gig hardly worthy of his lofty status in the sports pantheon. But on a warm evening 35 years ago this week, Ali and Tampa finally had a formal introduction.

As July turned to August, the Jim Croce song “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” enjoyed its final week atop of the Billboard charts. Much like the song's namesake character, Ali became the “baddest man in the whole damn town” upon his arrival in Tampa. One might wonder why Ali, with all of his fame, would agree to a guest-referee appearance on a card in Tampa. Ali came to Tampa from Miami Beach, where he had been preparing at his usual stomping grounds -- the legendary 5th Street Gym -- for an upcoming fight against Ken Norton. Chris Dundee, a fight promoter in Miami and the brother of Ali trainer Angelo Dundee, helped arranged Ali's visit to Tampa with local boxing promoter Keith Lancaster.

“We're trying to help boxing in Tampa,” said Chris Dundee. “Ali just happened to be (in Miami) and it's a good opportunity for Tampa to have him without too much expense. His fee is pretty steep."”

Many local reporters got their first glimpse of Ali at a news conference held at the downtown Holiday Inn. The self-proclaimed "greatest of all-time," Ali artfully deflected an issue that loomed like an elephant in the room: The time Tampa denied him an opportunity to box. When he was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. military, Ali found this sort of rejection commonplace across America. Tampa took its turn when promoter Ron Gorton settled on Tampa Stadium as the site of a bout between Ali and Joe Frazier. Even though both participants agreed to the venue, the Stadium Authority rejected the idea and helped prolong Ali's three-year exile from the sport. Instead of bringing up this humiliating slight, Ali politely said of his trip to Tampa that, “I like to meet people,” before adding, “The world is a field born to cultivate. If you cultivate it, it can produce anything.”

The business at hand during the media session concerned Ali’s upcoming rematch against Norton. In March 1973, Ali squared off against Norton -- then a relatively unknown boxer -- and suffered a 12-round split-decision loss, only the second defeat of his career. Making matters worse, Norton broke Ali’s jaw with a wicked shot in the second round. Ali, who struggled throughout the match, conceded the defeat at Norton’s hands was a blessing in disguise.

“That was the best thing that ever could have happened to me,” he said. “I was doing things all wrong, and now I can see that. I was fat and out of shape and wasn't saying my prayers, and I was eating everything, staying up, drinking five cups of coffee with three bags of sugar in each.”

Then, as if flipping a switch, he raised his voice to get into character and started hyping the upcoming rematch with Norton.

“You are all invited to the dance on September 10. Come see Muhammad Ali in concert! My partner’s gonna be Ken Norton, and I’m gonna dance the night away. And when I dance, everybody’s in trouble!”

He then sprung to his feet and began shadow-boxing -- against an imaginary Norton, perhaps -- talking about what he was going to do in the ring and how he would do it.

On hand were two trusted members of his entourage, trainer Angelo Dundee and his Tampa-born physician, the "Ring Doctor" Ferdie Pacheco. Subdued and disinterested, both reluctantly settled in for the familiar show on display for a roomful of reporters all too eager to eat up Ali’s antics.

Between bobs and weaves, Ali delivered a freestyle routine made up of one-liners and thinly veiled promises.

“And in this corner from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the former ‘champeen’ of the world, weighin’ 208 pounds ... Norton’s eyes gonna roll back when he hears that 208 pounds! I got a good five more years to stay on top, and I ain’t nowhere near through yet!”

Still moving around the room with the energy of a 20-year old, Ali just kept on going.
“I’m gonna beat the HELL outta that Norton. I’m gonna move, shuffle, dodge, dance, jab, stick, talk to him, humiliate him!”

To punctuate his performance, Ali added a jab at future nemesis George Foreman.
“Then when I get through with that Norton, I’m gonna take on that world tramp -- I mean champ – George Foreman.”

Suddenly out of breath, Ali sat down to take a few more questions from reporters. One asked if he had become depressed following his loss to Norton. Ali turned serious and answered by saying that it would be foolish to get upset about losing a fight when people are dying in the world every day.

Toward the end of the media session, a reporter asked about Ali's recent travels to Africa. Ali spoke thoughtfully on the subject and described the experience as life-transforming.

Few who witnessed the event that night at Curtis Hixon Hall are likely to describe it in the same terms. A crowd of about 2,200 fans turned out for the show, which disappointed promoter Keith Lancaster, who said more people would have attended if there had been more advance notice of Ali’s appearance. As it was, Lancaster had only one day to prepare for the guest of honor.

Still, those in attendance were treated to Ali's ring antics, the highlight of an otherwise dull match between light heavyweights Nathaniel Gates and Lonnie Robbins. During the match, Ali bantered with the crowd, shadow-boxed as Gates and Robbins exchanged blows, did his patented shuffle, and even removed his shirt as if to feign entry into the fight. In an outcome of little historical consequence, Gates won in a unanimous decision.

After the match, Ali expressed some hope of returning to town for an exhibition at Tampa Stadium. First, however, he had some unfinished business with Norton and Foreman. Ali defeated Norton about a month later in Los Angeles, and went on to have a legendary rivalry with Foreman, producing some of the most memorable boxing matches of all time. He never did come back to town for an exhibition at the stadium, but for one night, Tampa fight-goers had a brief glimpse of “the greatest” on his ascent back to the top of the boxing world.

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