Backstage with Ron Onesti :
Yes, I even have a Muhammad Ali story!
Another champion of pop culture has left us. Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, lost his final bout with Parkinson’s Disease recently at the age of 74. He possessed a rare connection between seriously competitive sports and mainstream entertainment.
Ali was larger than life, both in physical presence and social stature. He was commonly referred to as a “showboater” and “The man, the myth, the mouth.” The Ali of that era was comically arrogant, making a career by combining his winning pugilistic efforts with a strong poetic positioning of his philosophies.
e did it all with the beauty of butterfly who also stung like a bee. Yes, he definitely talked the talk, and unlike many of his contemporaries, had the winning “punch” to back it all up. He referred to himself as “The greatest,” a self-proclaimed legend who actually was legendary, and one of the biggest stars of the 20th century.
As a child in the late ’60s/early ’70s, I can remember Ali all over the television, appearing on talk shows, variety shows, even on “Sesame Street!” He was on TV so much I really don’t remember him as much for boxing as I do for being on the popular shows of the day. I am talking about “Sonny and Cher,” “Laugh In,” “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and countless other television shows. My favorite was “Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast” where The Champ took his legendary battle with famed sportscaster Howard Cosell to the podium, even lunging for Cosell’s celebrated toupee on the air.
And who didn’t impersonate Ali at the time? We all did! Especially when Billy Crystal did it. I think it was more us impersonating Crystal impersonating Ali, rather than our own attempt at Ali himself, much like Eddie Murphy doing James Brown. We all do Murphy doing Brown, not The Godfather of Soul himself.
I have been fortunate enough to be heavily involved with the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame, located on Taylor Street in Chicago’s Little Italy. It began as a boxing hall of fame, so I have had the honor of meeting some of the most legendary names in the sport (most recently, serving up my meatballs to Evander Holyfield). One of the guys I got to be pretty good friends with was the illustrious and famed boxing trainer Angelo Dundee. He trained fifteen champions, most notably a young Cassius Clay, working as the boxer’s cornerman for most of his bouts.
Dundee, who passed away in 2012, told us about the famed fight between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971. Frank Sinatra was actually a photographer for the event! It was HIS photo that made it as the cover of Life Magazine. It was a little known fact that Sinatra was an avid photographer, and the promoters of the fight thought it would be great press to have Frank as the “official” photographer of the fight.
Angelo would always refer to Ali as his “kid.” And every year, as Angelo would come to Chicago for the Hall of Fame’s annual gala, he would promise to bring Ali to see what we had created, when the time was right. That time came when we unveiled a statue of the undefeated heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano. We had many famed boxers there, including Vinny Pazienza, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Tony DeMarco, Joey Giardello and many others. Also among them, a guy I couldn’t believe actually showed up, the subject of the Robert DeNiro classic “Raging Bull,” Jake Lamotta.
The event was outdoors as we closed off Taylor Street in front of the Hall of Fame. We all waited with baited breath. “Will The Champ actually show up?” We really were not sure. Then a stretch limo pulls up and, after ten long minutes being parked, he emerged.
I have been around celebs most of my life but this time, I was totally in awe! A true international superstar. This was several years ago, but the onset of Ali’s Parkinson’s disease was already clearly evident.
I introduced myself to his daughter Rasheda, who accompanied him. She was married to an old friend of mine and Chicago restauranteur, Bobby Walsh. So they introduced me to him and it was magical. We slowly walked from behind the Joe DiMaggio statue that is at the center of the piazza across the street from the Hall, where his limo parked. He walked slowly, leaning heavily on his daughter. He looked up at the DiMaggio statue and gave a half smile and a thumbs up. A “from one icon to another” moment, I thought.
We sat him on a platform stage next to the Marciano statue, yet to be unveiled. He was pretty reserved, but I had the honor of talking him through the ceremony, and describing everything that was to happen. Then I turned around and standing behind me was none other than “The Raging Bull” himself, Jake Lamotta. He welcomed Ali like a long lost brother, very emotional. I could see Jake was visibly broken about the Champ’s impending condition. Unfortunately, this was all happening just as the ceremony was to begin. So I had to ask Jake to take his seat. If you ever saw the movie, you would know that I actually endangered my own life by telling Lamotta what to do.
Regardless, I had an incredible moment as Lamotta cradled Ali’s face in a very brotherly fashion, and I had my hands on Jake’s shoulders, sharing the moment. That would be the last time they would see each other. A rare moment I will remember forever.
My father had his first bout with cancer at that time. Ali was one of my dad’s favorites, but he could not attend the event. I told the Champ’s daughter about my dad, and she looked at me with an understanding of my heartbreak.
The event was short, but wonderful. Ali then stood slowly and walked with his daughter back to his car. She thanked me and gave me a great hug. All of a sudden, he peeked out from behind his dark black sunglasses and came to life with a slow right hook towards my face. I thought, “What a trophy I have!”
They got into the car and remained there for a few minutes. I was waiting for them to leave so I could start the takedown of the event. All of a sudden, the door opened and Rasheda handed me a pair of red Everlast boxing gloves The Champ signed to my dad!
All I can say is that we believe that gift is what got my dad through his cancer situation. It was a TRUE gift!
Ali was such an ironic figure in that he was someone so vocal and was vocally silenced by such a dreaded disease. His life was defined by his “fighting,” but his mission was to promote peace. He was one of the most physically powerful men in the world, but was reduced to a physically weak individual. But it is not ironic that he was a man whose life touched so many people.
Most people will always remember him carrying the torch for the 1996 Olympic Games. But I will always remember him for the torch I will always carry. The boxing gloves he gave my dad, and the moment I shared with him and Lamotta.
Now that my dad is gone, those gloves have helped me get through my own personal challenges. Those gloves fueled me to get up after being knocked down, on many occasions. I will pass them on to my daughter, thus allowing her to “carry our family torch.”
Thanks, Champ. I may not finish my career as the heavyweight champ of the world, but I will definitely “go the distance,” facing my challenges, one round at a time.