Las Vegas News Bureau
Published Saturday, June 4, 2016 | 12:14 p.m.
Updated Saturday, June 4, 2016 | 3:02 p.m.
For 55 years, Las Vegas was a second home to legendary boxer Muhammad Ali.
He recorded five victories at the old Las Vegas Convention Center, lost two world title fights at major resorts, supported his boxing daughter Laila for her two Southern Nevada bouts and was in the stands to watch his grandson help lead Bishop Gorman High School to the 2015 mythical national title.
Ali’s death Friday at 74 brought back colorful memories of Ali’s visits to Southern Nevada, dating to the early 1960s, and reflections of the imprint Ali has left on the sport.
Ali’s longtime friend and manager Bernie Yuman said that while there was no question that Ali indeed loved Las Vegas, it perhaps was more appropriate to say that Ali loved the way Las Vegas embraced Ali for so long.
“Ali saw Las Vegas as the entertainment capital of the world and he absolutely loved the spectacle of it all,” longtime resident Yuman said Saturday. “And he loved to be around the people who for decades were the fiber of this city.”
As Yuman mourned the passing of his friend, he said that, in many ways, Ali lived on and continued to score knockout victories over his life’s demons.
“Muhammad Ali is as much alive today as ever,” Yuman said. “He triumphed in life and he triumphed over his 30-plus-year debilitating (Parkinson’s) disease. We should not be sad that Ali is continuing on his journey because he has left us such a beautiful legacy of giving, of spirituality and of respect and dignity.
“Ali was an electrifying stream of consciousness — the type never before seen in sports entertainment and the likes of which will never be seen again.”
Yuman said Ali set a lasting example by courageously fighting poverty and racism wherever he found it and that Ali should be remembered for his involvement in the “single most important act of civil disobedience to U.S. history.”
Yuman was referring to how Ali risked a prison term and sacrificed the prime of his storied career by refusing to be drafted into the Army and by protesting the Vietnam War only to eventually be vindicated by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that supported his actions as a conscientious objector.
Boxing promoter and longtime Las Vegas resident Bob Arum, who promoted more than two dozen Ali fights, said Ali had strong ties to Las Vegas because “he was a true showman who loved show business people. And no city was more in tune to show business than Las Vegas.”
“Ali was particularly intrigued with Elvis Presley,” said Arum, the 84-year-old founder and chief executive officer of Las Vegas-based Top Rank Inc., who in late March celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first fight promotion — Ali vs. George Chuvalo.
“Elvis and Muhammad met backstage (in Presley’s dressing room at the Las Vegas Hilton) and exchanged gifts,” Arum said. “Ali got a (custom-made sequined) robe from Elvis and Elvis I think got either boxing gloves or a championship belt from Ali.”
Arum, who was introduced to Ali by Hall of Fame football star Jim Brown in 1965, said Ali played an important but unheralded role in helping to desegregate the Strip at the time of his November 1965 world title match against Floyd Patterson at the Convention Center.
Although Las Vegas technically was desegregated on paper in March 1960 with an agreement reached by several hotel operators, black community leaders and major government and police officials, people of color still had difficulty getting some Strip hotel rooms as late as the mid-1960s.
“Ali stayed at the Stardust for the Patterson fight at a time when black people still were not welcomed in many major Las Vegas hotels,” said Arum, who promoted the 1978 fight at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel where Ali lost his world title to Leon Spinks.
“I would compare Ali’s role to bring about significant desegregation in Las Vegas to what Jackie Robinson did to integrate baseball.”
Arum said Ali also was a philanthropist who “was generous to a fault. He’d give away anything and everything to raise money for good causes.”
Boxer Manny Pacquiao, calling Ali “a giant,” said, "Boxing benefited from Muhammad Ali's talents but not nearly as much as mankind benefited from his humanity. Our hearts and prayers go out to the Ali family. May God bless them."
And U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Ali “was everything the world had come to know and love —funny, charming and one hell of an athlete … The world has lost a monumental, unforgettable figure. Ali was a legend and a fighter in every sense of the word. He fought and won inside the ring and fought for equality and justice outside the ring. Ali taught us all about the value of hard work, tenacity and never giving up."
During his visits to Las Vegas, huge crowds followed Ali through any resort he visited, shouting things like “We love you Ali!” and “You’ll always be the champ to me, Muhammad” — even when his illustrious pugilistic career was decades in the past.
And, although it was Las Vegas where Muhammad Ali was forced to give up his boxing license after taking a horrible beating at the hands of then-World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Larry Holmes in October 1980, Ali found a nugget of humor in that sad moment.
“Ain’t this something — one bad day on the job and they want to fire me,” Ali said before the start of that Dec. 29, 1980, commission hearing to consider revoking Ali’s license because of his poor Oct. 2 performance against Holmes at Caesars Palace.
Ali was so overmatched that the state’s boxing regulators felt that, for his own health, he shouldn’t be allowed to fight again. But before they took the vote to take away his license at the Dec. 29 hearing, the proceedings were halted and Ali’s attorneys cut a deal with the NSAC.
Ali surrendered his Nevada license, and the commission, in turn, agreed not to oppose Ali getting a license to fight elsewhere. The deal paved the way for Ali to end his career on his own terms, fighting Trevor Berbick on Dec. 11, 1981, in the Bahamas. Ali went the distance and when the final bell sounded was still standing.
Berbick, however, got the decision victory and went on to become world champion. Interestingly enough, every man Ali lost to either was or would be world heavyweight champion.
That included Leon Spinks, who won a 15-round split decision on Feb. 15, 1978, at the old Las Vegas Hilton, capturing both the WBC and WBA titles and seemingly ending the career of the man who so often called himself — and also was called by many others — “The Greatest.”
And though by career’s end, few Las Vegas residents or visitors wanted to see Ali step into the ring again, it was a far different scenario in 1961 when then-Cassius Clay came to town for the first time to take on unheralded Duke Sabadong.
Although Ali was just an undercard performer, the handsome Kentucky fighter who had won an Olympic Gold medal a year earlier drew his fair share of media attention. It was at one Las Vegas radio interview that the foundation for Ali’s trademark brash, trash-talking ritual was developed.
Ali was waiting in the wings to do his interview when he watched flamboyant professional wrestler Gorgeous George fanatically hype his main event at the Convention Center that would take place a day before Ali’s June 26, 1961, Vegas debut.
Ali commented to a friend after his rather bland interview that George had a real good gimmick going — one that Ali could make his own because no other boxer had ever behaved such a way in marketing himself.
Ali won the Sabadong fight, though not impressively, by a 10-round unanimous decision.
Ali would have far more success in future Las Vegas fights, and he did indeed develop the “float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee” banter — routinely reciting poetry boasting in rhyme the round he planned to knock out an opponent. It made him a fan favorite to many and a ring villain to others.
Ali returned to Las Vegas on Nov. 22, 1965, for a scheduled 15-rounder against former world champion Floyd Patterson. It was Ali’s second defense of the crown he had won by seventh-round KO of Sonny Liston in Miami in February 1964 and successfully defended against Liston in the so-called phantom-punch, first-round knockout of Liston in Lewiston, Maine, in May 1965.
Ali dominated the Patterson fight from start to finish, which mercifully came at 2:18 of the 12th round.
After losing his world title to Joe Frazier in 1971, Ali embarked on a series of comeback fights that took him once again to Las Vegas for a June 27 defense of his North American Boxing Federation heavyweight title against Jerry Quarry.
Ali scored a seventh-round TKO over Quarry in a scheduled 12-rounder. Nearly five months later, Ali again successfully defended his NABF crown, defeating former world light heavyweight champ Bob Foster in his only Northern Nevada ring appearance at the Sahara Tahoe Hotel.
Ali fought twice more in Las Vegas, defeating Joe Bugner by unanimous decision in February 1973 and Ron Lyle by eleventh-round TKO in May 1975 — both leading up to the Oct. 1, 1975, “Thrilla in Manilla,” in which Ali defeated Frazier in one of the most dramatic and heralded bouts in boxing history.
After losing to Spinks in Las Vegas, Ali came back seven months later in New Orleans and took the title back from Spinks then, a short time later, announced his retirement from the fight game.
But by the late summer of 1980, rumors were floating around that Ali was going to make a comeback and fight either WBC champ Holmes or Las Vegas resident Mike Weaver for Weaver’s WBA crown.
Promoter Don King got the inside track on securing the Holmes-vs.-Ali promotion, but word also surfaced around that time that the Nevada Athletic Commission, led by its new chairman, Sig Rogich, would halt those plans unless the long-idle Ali passed an extensive physical in Las Vegas.
Despite statements from former Ali ring physician Ferdie Pacheco that Ali had kidney damage and equally damning statements from a London doctor that Ali had brain damage, Rogich, a longtime ad executive and political operative, said he believed Ali could pass a physical.
“I’m of the opinion he is in good physical shape,” Rogich said in a 1980 interview. “You can’t be an athlete like that all your life and not maintain some physical adeptness. I think he’ll have it.”
But, Rogich also said that because Ali had not fought in 22 months he should be checked out thoroughly. The bottom line was that if Ali were to be seriously injured or killed in the Holmes fight, the commission seemingly would be protected from blame.
But instead of leaving his future in the hands of commission-selected Nevada doctor, Ali checked into the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for a battery of tests to prove he was fit for a return to the ring.
The idea was that if seven doctors from such a prestigious medical facility were to do tests that included a brain scan and still reach the conclusion that Ali was ring-worthy, the commission would have no choice but to accept the Mayo’s findings and approve the Holmes-Ali battle.
On July 31, the athletic commission accepted the Mayo’s findings and Ali was soon on his way back to Las Vegas.
At 10:23 a.m. on Sept. 9, 1980, Ali stepped off a flight at McCarran International Airport. He had trimmed down to 229 pounds and appeared to be healthy.
Ali checked into Caesars Palace just before noon and by 1 p.m. was in his familiar white trunks with the black stripe, dancing in the ring before several hundred spectators who had each paid $3 to watch him work out.
Midway through what had been an uncharacteristically quiet Ali workout, the old Ali charm kicked in. Ali suddenly blurted out a warning to spectators not to waste their money betting on Holmes.
“Holmes will run out of gas, and I’ll kick his ass! Get your tickets now!” he said with such a high level of confidence that left many with the opinion that Ali truly believed he was going to overcome Father Time and actually win the world title for the fourth time.
But, for whatever reason, Ali overtrained, lost too much weight and, during the Holmes fight, could not break a sweat to cool himself off during the heat of battle.
But, although Ali probably should have come in a little heavier with some fat to burn, in the end it was Holmes’ continual fist-pounding of Ali’s head that spelled doom for the legend.
And Holmes was more than willing to let out the pent-up aggression that had been brewing from playing second fiddle to Ali in the months leading up to the fight. Holmes beat Ali so badly the former champ refused to get off his stool to come out for the 11th round.
Days after the fight, Ali said he was “physically unfit” to fight Holmes because he had accidentally taken an overdose of thyroid medicine that made him too weak.
An after-fight urine test showed opiates in Ali’s system. His physician, Dr. Charles Bennett, said he gave Ali a painkiller and sedative after the fight and before the commission doctors could get a urine sample from Ali.
The positive drug test combined with the overall poor ring performance led to the state athletic commission’s hearing to attempt to retire Ali.
Rogich affected Ali’s career in a significant way. And although Rogich and Ali approached the issue of whether Ali should have stayed retired in the early 1980s from different points of view, Rogich said he always had the highest respect for Ali.
“I never questioned it (the decision he and the other commissioners made to accept the Mayo Clinic’s findings that Ali was fit to fight Holmes),” longtime Las Vegan Rogich said. “We took the steps necessary to assure that at that point in time Ali was healthy.”
Nevertheless, Rogich maintained that the beatings Ali took in his last two fights had to have played a role in his long health decline.
“I wish Ali had decided not to fight in the Bahamas,” Rogich said. “He took too much punishment.”
Rogich said that as the years passed after he stepped down from the NSAC, he got to know Ali on a much more personal basis.
“We were on a trip to Hong Kong for Caesars Palace (a client of Rogich’s ad company) with Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Telly Savalas and other major stars, but there was no question from the crowd’s reaction who the real star of that trip was,” Rogich said. “People in the streets just gravitated to Ali.”
Rogich said he admired Ali for a number of reasons, perhaps the most significant of which was that after Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he talked about it publicly to bring the issue to the forefront.
“He hoped that, while there really was not much that could have been done for him, by opening a dialogue it could lead to help for future fighters,” Rogich said. “Muhammad Ali brought attention to the real dangers boxers face. I am glad to see that today the Cleveland Clinic is studying boxers’ brains.”
Rogich revealed that once he even accompanied Ali to Mexico for a series of experimental treatments for Parkinson’s disease, in which drugs that had not been approved in the United States were employed to hopefully improve Ali’s ever-failing health.
“Muhammad Ali was a special person, a caring man and a sweet soul,” Rogich said. “I consider it a privilege that I got to spend time with him and I am so sad he is gone.”
In the pursuing years, Ali would frequently visit Las Vegas. Among them was a 2000 visit to the Mirage, in which he revealed in an interview with a Las Vegas Sun reporter that a second biopic of his life was to be filmed, starring Will Smith as Ali. (In the original 1977 movie about his life, Ali portrayed himself.)
By that time, Ali, perhaps for vanity's sake, was giving few interviews to the media. His once-powerful and sleek athletic body had been devastated by Parkinson’s disease. His once-smooth and — as Ali often called it — pretty face was puffy and pasty. And Ali talked in a hushed, mumbled voice, often slurring his words.
When the film, simply titled “Ali,” came out in 2001, Ali, quickly nearing his 60th birthday, told the Sun that he hoped the message of this film would be that if you “work hard and believe … you will be vindicated.”
Married four times, Ali is the father of nine, including longtime Las Vegas resident Laila Ali, who fought professionally for several years in the 20-aughts. She compiled an impressive 24-0 record (21 wins by knockout) and won three versions of the women’s world super-middleweight title.
And although Ali, a devout Muslim, was not happy with his daughter’s decision to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a prizefighter, he nevertheless supported her, especially at her only two fights in Las Vegas rings.
“I had rather she did not (fight),” Ali said at the time she turned pro. “But when children make choices you have to support them.”
And so Ali was in the dressing room with his daughter, giving Laila words of encouragement before her Aug. 17, 2002, bout against Suzette Taylor for the IBA world title. And Ali was sitting ringside when his daughter knocked out Taylor in the second round at the old Aladdin.
Ali also witnessed Laila defeat Valerie Mahfood at the Stratosphere Tower on Nov. 8 to also add the WIBA and IWBF title belts to her waist.
Laila was not the only Southern Nevada-based sports figure/family member Ali rooted for.
Despite his failing health, Ali braved low late-autumn temperatures last year to attend games at nationally ranked Bishop Gorman High School to watch his grandson, Biaggio Ali-Walsh, help lead the Gaels to their sixth straight state championship.
Three years earlier, Ali came to Las Vegas yet again to be honored at the Keep Memory Alive Power of Love Gala at the MGM Grand, where longtime friends, fellow ex-boxers and celebrities gathered to celebrate Ali’s 70th birthday.
As a fitting tribute to Ali, who devoted time and made large contributions to several charities over the years, the event raised $11 million that was shared by the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the Muhammad Ali Center, an educational and cultural center in Ali’s birthplace of Louisville, Ky.
Ed Koch is a former longtime Las Vegas Sun reporter.