After Braving World's Biggest Clusterf%&k, Riptide Wins Audience With Muhammad Ali
|You might be surprised at what he had to say about LeBron.|
Dundee, a little mole-ish old man, stepped out of a Yellow Cab with nary a murmur of recognition from the hundred-plus reporters clamoring outside the gym. But once he was identified inside, Dundee was nearly crushed by overzealous cameramen, prompting the event's PR planner, Rachel Charles, to scream: "Everybody needs to get back or get out!"
Then a crowd formed around famed announcer Bert Sugar--just because, with his fedora and fat burnt-out cigar, he looked like somebody famous associated with boxing. After the TV news reporters were done blasting the amiable Sugar with questions about the gym--"The air conditioning's great," he quipped to the sweat-drenched crowd around him. "Tell Angelo to throw another log on"--they invariably turned to the reporter next to them and asked, "Who was that?"
Heavyweight fighter Shannon Briggs pulled up in the passenger seat of a Chevy SUV and looked coyly at the many reporters lingering outside. Nobody recognized him--despite a gigantic frame and orange dreadlocks--until one reporter did, and then Briggs got his wish: He was swamped with news cameras, forcing a cop to tell his driver to pull up to a better spot for a maelstrom.
This re-opening--a term used in the loosest sense, because the original building has since been torn down and this new gym is like a glossy Disneyland version of its former incarnation--was the world's biggest media clusterfuck, and this comes from a reporter who survived A-Roid-apalooza.
Rachel Charles told me that the VIP-portion of the event would start around 7, but that I should arrive at 5 pm to 5:30 to "get some face time with Angelo and Muhammad", so I showed up fifteen minutes before that. There is no fashionably late when you're talking about a chance to interview one of the world's most important figures in both sports and civil rights. At just before six, the mass of reporters mooed our way past the velvet ropes and into the steaming-hot gym, where you could interview Dundee if you wanted to risk an assault charge. No sign of Ali.
At 6:30, we were all told to wait outside while "we prep the room for the person you're all here to see". Meanwhile, invited VIPs began showing up and joining the reporters outside the ropes, creating an unruly mob all trying to figure out how the hell to get back into the place. As it turns out, the answer was through a busty woman with Raggedy Ann dyed-red hair and a clipboard--who had each person on the list sign a waiver promising not to take any pictures of Ali. Which kind of defeats the whole purpose if you're a reporter.
By 7, it was announced that the gym was "over capacity"--with the majority of the crowd still waiting to get back in. The mob was pissed, as mobs tend to become. One dude with a cross earring and a black blazer over jeans lamented that he had flew from Canada "just to stand outside in the heat", then started bragging that his cardio routine was the only reason he wasn't sweating his silk shirt off. A former boxer, Scott Ross, berated a bouncer in a Brooklyn drawl: "Let me ask you something: I get invited to this event, and get here exactly on time, and then I'm told that you're 'over capacity'? That's offensive, brotha!"
Like all reporters trying to gain re-entry, I had one hope at this point: Just to see Muhammad Ali, because I've already been here two hours. And then God smiled on me. Or, more specifically, Raggedy Ann looked at me, and handed over the waiver-on-a-clipboard for me to sign. I was back in!
Half an hour later, sweating like Danny DeVito on a treadmill, I made it to a back room where I had heard Muhammad Ali, unbeknownst to many of the reporters milling around the main gym area, was holding court.
I glimpsed him through a slightly ajar door before a musclebound dude with a faux-hawk closed it on me. He looked, yeah, slightly worse for the wear, but he was still Muhammad Ali, damnit.
I loitered around the door until the reporter with Ali stepped back out. He looked like he had just had sex with God. I wanted that feeling. And I got my wish: Faux-Hawk Buff Man wordlessly allowed me in and pointed to an empty metal chair across from Ali, who was in the same. I was given no parameters.
"How you doing, brother? Thanks for coming out!" boomed Ali, still loud, still gregarious. He was wearing a cream guayabara and matching linen pants. And, oddly, Skechers.
"I'm good, Muhammad, thanks for having me."
"You have any of those egg rolls they have out there?" He demanded, and I noticed that next to his chair was a small white plate stained with duck sauce. When I shook my head no, he looked begrieved. "Well, shoot."
I couldn't tell if that was a lamentation or a command, so I chose the latter. "Way off the topic of the gym, but I'm curious. A lot of great athletes--Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson--have criticized LeBron James for joining a 'super team' instead of trying to win a championship in Cleveland. You're the world's greatest competitor. What do you think?"
Ali looked confused, like he hadn't heard me correctly. "Who are you talking about? Uncle Tom?"
"Um, Lebron James."
Ali said emphatically: "Uncle Tom."
"Wait," I blurted. "Are you saying LeBron is an Uncle Tom?"
He fixed his gaze on me. "I bet Chad can bring you some egg rolls."
"Uh, that's okay," I said, while thinking, holy shit. "So where do you live now, Muhammad?"
"A great big mansion in Georgia. Wanna see it?"
"You have a photo?"
"No, Jack--do you want to see it in person. I like the cut of your jib. I liked the opening question about that basketball player. You got gestalt. Here, take my cell number and call me in a day or so. It's [Muhammad Ali's number]. We can spend some more time together at my place, and you can work on a real big story. You like big stories?"
Before I could answer, Ali called out to his buff assistant: "Chad, let me get those!" And Chad suddenly showed up at the Champ's side with a paper bag. Ali started digging through it and came out with two bright red fruits, the name of which was on the tip of my tongue. Oh, it was a--
"You want a pomegranate?"
Well, actually what happened was I wandered around the crowded gym--no Ali in sight--and had a free Tilt sports drink that tasted like watered-down Gatorade. At nearly 8 pm, I took back my humanity by stepping outside and heading home. Muhammad Ali probably doesn't talk like a 30s-era newsie. But the part about me sweating like Danny DeVito--that part was true.