I hated Muhammad Ali. I first remember seeing him on ABC’s Wide World of Sports when I was a little kid. He was mocking his opponent at a pre-fight press conference. When they rolled clips of Ali punishing a series of bloody-faced boxers in the ring, he appeared to be enjoying their suffering. I had a nightmare that Ali was beating up my father in my family’s kitchen. My mother and brother looked on helplessly as I grabbed paper napkins from their rattan holder on the table and tried to mop up the blood that was dripping down my father’s face. The bleeding couldn’t be stopped. My Uncle David was a big Ali fan. He was very fond of me, too. He would listen for hours as I told him partly true, partly made-up stories about my adventures at school. As much as he was a great audience, David could be very aloof at times. I craved his attention and approval, so I started watching Ali’s interviews and fights with him. I discovered that Ali was far more than a phenomenal athlete. His cruelty was often an act -- a game to sell tickets to fights. More importantly, it was a reaction to the racism and hatred that had been launched at him by his fellow Americans. Especially when he announced he was a Muslim, dropped his “slave name” of Cassius Clay and became Muhammad Ali. Refusing to fight in the Vietnam War on moral and religious grounds, he was stripped of his title at the peak of his career for his convictions. What really got me was Ali’s charisma. He was Elvis, Sidney Poitier, and Richard Pryor, all wrapped up into one dazzling, defiant and hilarious stick of dynamite. I’m not sure I believed I could ever “be like” Ali, but I was compelled to tap into whatever magical energy seemed to be mainlined right through the TV into my veins when he appeared onscreen. I was a shy kid, but I was determined to stand out from the crowd, too. I started writing poetry, like Ali did, and I read all the boxing books and magazines I could get my hands on. There was lots of hockey and soccer being played on the cushy West Side of Vancouver where we lived, but no one boxed, so a few nights a week, my father would drive me across town to train out by the PNE grounds at The Hastings Community Centre. My coach was an Irishman with a cleft lip named Pat O’Riley. Pat was a robust old-timer who shouted out phrases like, “on the ball or on the bus!” while he put me and the other kids through the drills. I learned the hard way that with my chunky stature and short arms, trying to fight in the Ali “stick and move” style was not an option. All my opponents were way taller than me with longer arms, so my only hope was to get in close and stay there, a style more akin to Ali’s archrival, Smokin’ Joe Frazier. One evening, a reporter and his camera guy from the local news showed up at the community centre and filmed some of us sparring. I was briefly interviewed, too. “Why do you box?” “I saw Muhammad Ali on TV and I wanted to try.” The next night there I was, in the ring throwing punches on the 6 o’clock news, just like Ali. Well, not just like Ali, but when I saw myself on TV it felt like I belonged there.
At 11 years of age, I was signed up for my first official bout. The fights were held at a dingy rec centre across the water in Victoria and I felt very grown up and important packing my boxing gear into my suitcase. Me and the other boys on our team laughed and goofed around on the ferry, but we were all feeling the nerves. In Victoria, we checked into a little hotel, 4 to a room, and that night I stood in the blue corner, heart pounding, looking across the ring at my first official opponent. When the bell rang, we flew across the canvas like a couple of 76-pound hummingbirds and collided in the air, arms flailing. We both went down at the same time, and the crowd laughed. We got up gamely and the fight went back and forth for 3 rounds. What I’ll never forget is the BOOM BOOM BOOM sound beneath the ring. Where I trained, the ring was set up on a concrete floor, but here, we were fighting in a “real” ring, several feet above the ground. Even with a couple of pups like us in there, every step seemed to reverberate like echoing drums in some far away, dangerous jungle. The next day after a long, quiet journey back, I was dropped off at my parents’ house. I marched up the stairs with my little orange suitcase and knocked on the door. My father opened the door with an expectant look on his face. “I lost,” I said, and burst into tears. There would be many more fights over the next couple of years, for both me and Ali. After winning back his title by knocking out George Foreman in Zaire, he would stop Joe Frazier in the Philippines and avenge his loss to Ken Norton in Yankee stadium. I would beat Rob LaBocaine in Cloverdale but lose to Randy Galler in Langley. It was a hard, close fight and even though I lost, me and Randy were awarded a special trophy for “Best Bout” of the card. Better yet, my Uncle David was in the crowd that night. After the fight, he quoted something the announcer had said over the PA system. “Close contest between these two brave boys -- hard to pick a winner!” Everyone in the fight game agreed that Ali was well past his prime when he fought Earnie Shavers in the fall of ’77. “The Acorn,” as Ali dubbed him for his bald head, was known as one of, if not the, hardest puncher to ever put the gloves on. Howard Cosell and the rest of the pundits had counted out Ali many times, but somehow, he always rose to the occasion, avenging his 2 losses and beating all the top contenders. I watched the Shavers fight with my father at home in the “den,” him sitting on the worn leather couch, me kneeling on the floor, feeling every punch. By the late rounds, Ali was being repeatedly smashed around the ring by Shavers’ thunderous overhand rights. Years later, many, including Ali’s personal physician, would say that this was the fight that Ali unquestionably received the brain damage that led to his Parkinson’s Syndrome diagnosis. Ali had absorbed thousands of punches, but he was older now, slowing down every fight, and Shavers was throwing sledgehammers. It was scary, like the nightmare when my father got beat up by Ali, but this time it was Ali getting brutalized for real. When I began to cry, my father told me to get a hold of myself and stop being ridiculous. Tears streaming, I ran down to the basement to watch the rest of the fight on the dusty little black and white set. In the 15th round, Ali came out dancing and began firing fast, sharp flurries that had Shavers reeling. He looked like the Ali of the ‘60s, when no one laid a glove on him and he pretty much knocked out his opponents whenever he chose to. With Ali floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, Shavers barely managed to remain upright as the final bell rang. The judges gave Ali a unanimous decision and his legend lived on. Elated, I rushed up stairs to the den, where I found my father on the couch with tears in his eyes and a little smile on his face. “He did it,” he said, shaking his head in wonder, “He did it again.” Over the next few years, Ali and me both continued fighting far longer than we should have. He would lose his title to Leon Spinks, then later beat Spinks to regain it, becoming heavyweight champ for an unprecedented third time. I went on to win a gold medal in the BC Winter Games, then got the shit kicked out of me in the Canadian Jr. Nationals by future Olympian and Canadian professional champ Howard Grant. I’m not sure if I even managed to land a clean punch on Grant, but I did go the 3-round distance with him, something no one else managed to do in that tournament. I emerged with a concussion that had me throwing up all night and slurred my speech for a day or two, requiring me to get a CAT scan. By then, Ali, obviously suffering from the accumulative effects of all the punches he had taken over the years, had lost 2 more fights and mercifully retired for good. As the fighter Boom Boom Mancini once said, “There’s only one reason to be a boxer – to be champion of the world.” Ali’s work, at least in the ring, was done. For a middle-class Jewish kid from a nice neighbourhood, I was gutsy with a decent left hook, but I was never going to beat the best. I turned my attention to finding other ways of making my presence known. Over 2 decades later, Ali was silenced by Parkinson’s syndrome, still adored across the globe but out of the limelight. I watched and re-watched his fights often, my heart pounding every time. While directing my first feature film, Moving Malcolm, which I had also written and was playing the lead role in and co-producing, I found myself overwhelmed and exhausted in ways I had never faced before. My girlfriend at the time was on set one particularly high-pressure day, and offered me a tall glass of water, spiked with orange juice and honey. Months before, we had watched a DVD of the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali’s third and final fight against Joe Frazier, and I had told her that this was the concoction Ali secretly sipped in his corner to keep going. Ali had called that fight “the closest thing to death” he had ever known, but he stopped Joe in the 14th round. After I chugged down the secret potion, my confidence rose, and I finished the day with vigor. I “went the distance” and the film went on to be released theatrically and win some awards, taking me to film festivals as far away as Kolkata, India. 5 years later, I got a call while I was teaching an acting class at my studio. I saw my parents’ number on my call display but didn’t pick it up. Then my phone rang again. After the third call, I told my students to take a break and picked it up. “Hello?” “Where are you right now?” My father sounded strange. “I’m teaching class.” “Call me after you finish.” “What’s going on?” “Just call me when you finish your class.” “No. Tell me now. What happened?“ There was a brief, hollow pause. “Tim died.” At the memorial service for my older brother Tim, I felt light-headed, and my arms and legs began to tingle as I prepared to go up to the podium and speak. I didn’t have any orange juice and honey-spiked water to get me through, but I remembered the story of Ali in his dressing room before the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in Kinshasa in ‘74. George, the new champ, had been smashing all his opponents to pieces, and everyone, including Ali’s closest insiders, secretly feared that it would be no different for Ali. Maybe even Ali himself doubted he could stand up to the blows that Foreman so quickly and easily annihilated Joe Frazier with. But as the fight grew closer, “The Greatest” began dancing around his dressing room, throwing punches in front of his morose entourage. “What are we gonna do?” he called out to his corner man, Bundini Brown. “What are we gonna do?” “We’re gonna dance,” replied Bundini, spurned on by Ali’s endless reserve of courage and confidence. “We’re gonna dance all night long!” That night, Ali knocked out Foreman to reclaim the heavyweight title that he had been robbed of 5 years earlier for standing up for his personal beliefs. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he had declared, infuriating the American establishment. When it was my moment to take the stage, I turned to my Uncle David and said, “This is like the Rumble in the Jungle.” He nodded with understanding. Then in my best Ali impression I whispered, “What are we going to do? What are we gonna do, Bundini?” Without missing a beat, he replied, “We’re gonna dance. We’re gonna dance all night long.” I went up and spoke about my big brother, my heart open, but determined not to break down. Tim, not a “feelings guy” would have been glad I didn’t cry. And he would have liked what I said, especially the part about the time he scooped me up while I was being attacked by wasps, bounding into the ocean with me in his arms. In 2009, my friend Pete McCormack directed a documentary called Facing Ali. The film featured 10 of Ali’s opponents talking about how fighting “The Greatest of All Time” had changed their lives. When I heard that Ali was coming to Vancouver for a fundraising screening of the film, and that my former girlfriend, the one who had slipped me the orange juice and honey water a few years before, was working as one of the event organizers, I called her in a frenzy. I asked if there was anything I could do to help out at the event. She laughed, asked what took me so long to call, and said she’d think about it – she “might” have a job for me. When she called back, she told me she had a very special assignment for me and that I was going to owe her “big-time forever.” My tasks were to write the text for the official Muhammad Ali Day proclamation that would be presented to Ali by the mayor at the event, and to help host Ali and his entourage backstage. I was also instructed to make sure things were running smoothly in the photo-room, where ticket holders would have their photos taken with the Champ. Basically, I would be spending the whole event by Ali’s side. Another errand I was given was to pick up Ali’s favorite snacks: lots of movie-style popcorn, and bottles of Coca Cola and iced tea. I stayed up most of the night writing out all the reasons October 8, 2009, was going to be Muhammad Ali Day in the City of Vancouver, then sent it to the mayor’s office to be approved. After purchasing an excess of popcorn and drinks for the champ, I arrived at the Imperial Theatre on Main Street for the big night. My former girlfriend had also enlisted my pal and fellow actor Aleks Paunovic to work the event as “security” for Ali. A former top-notch heavyweight amateur fighter, “Big Al” was the perfect choice for that position. Not just for his intimidating size, but more so for his disarming smile and genuine gift to put anyone at ease and make fast friends. As Aleks and I met the photographer and checked out the green room and photo areas, I felt a sudden surge of energy in the air. A moment later, voices began to call out. “He’s here! Ali is here!” A limo pulled up outside, then a friendly-faced man, a rep from The Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, stepped out first. He was followed by The Greatest Athlete Who Ever Lived, assisted out of the car by his wife, Lonnie, and his nurse/sister-in-law Marilyn. As Ali entered the side door of the theatre, magnetism emanated around him that I swear I could see, like heat waves off a hot sidewalk. With Lonnie and Marilyn, each holding one of his arms, he lurched into the theatre, eyes shielded behind big black sunglasses, hands shaking. Aleks and I directed Ali and his people to the green room area and helped him into a chair. He sat down, but his feet didn’t seem to know what to do and remained suspended in the air. I located a wooden box and placed it under Ali’s shiny black shoes. His feet found the stool and that seemed to settle him down. When Lonnie said, “He’s all right. He’s just a bit nervous,” Aleks and I locked eyes. Aleks shook his head as in, “This can’t be happening right now.” I nodded, as in, “I know, but this is happening right now.” After Ali had caught his breath and sipped on a glass of coke, we helped to escort him out to the lobby to receive his Key to the City from the mayor. The mayor read the proclamation I had written, and Ali managed to steady himself in front of the adoring crowd. Then Aleks and I went into the theatre with just Ali, Lonnie and Marilyn, settling in before the crowd was let in. By then, Lonnie and Marilyn knew that Aleks and I could be trusted, and Ali himself seemed peaceful and content as he shovelled handfuls of popcorn into his mouth. By the time the crowd was let in and the lights went down, there was popcorn all over Ali’s lap and the floor around him. Aleks and I took seats directly behind Ali and Lonnie. She took off his sunglasses, and Aleks and I watched Ali watch himself on screen for 100 unforgettable minutes. Back in the photo room, Aleks and I stood by as ticket buyers sat with Ali to have their picture taken. Most were exceptionally respectful, but if someone had had too much to drink, if they stayed too long or spoke too much, I did not hesitate to politely ask them to move along. Ali was in good hands with me and Aleks, and Lonnie let us know she appreciated us. After everyone had been though the photo lineup, including Aleks, I found myself standing alone by Ali’s side for a moment. I took a step toward him and held out my hand. That big, gnarled hand, shaking only slightly now, rose from his lap and engulfed mine. The hand that knocked out Sonny Liston to win the World Heavyweight Championship the year I was born. The hand that knocked out George Foreman to reclaim that title when I was ten years old. The hand that avenged a loss to Leon Spinks to win the crown for an unprecedented third time in ’78, the same year that Randy Galler broke my nose in our second fight in the Silver Gloves finals. The hand that fought through Parkinson’s tremors to hold up the Olympic torch in Atlanta in ’96, the year when all my hard work as an actor was really starting to pay off and my dreams seemed within reach. With Ali’s smooth, cool hand gently wrapped around mine, it occurred to me that in the boxing ring of life, Muhammad Ali had been in my corner since I was a little boy. And now he appeared as vulnerable as a child himself, and I was in his corner. I wanted to thank him for the many ways he inspired me to be brave enough to fight for what I believed in, in and out of the ring. I wanted to tell him how he had taught me to never give up, no matter what other people might say. I wanted to share my memories with him about the tears in my father’s eyes at the end of the Shavers fight, being revived by the elixir of water with orange juice and honey on my film set, me and Uncle David comforting each other at my brother’s memorial by quoting Ali and Bundini. When I opened my mouth to speak, only 3 words came out. “I love you.” Nothing more needed to be said.
BONUS: The short film, GANJY, written and directed by Ben Immanuel, Executive Produced by Aleks Paunovic, and starring Ben, Aleks, and their friends and fellow boxers, Zak Santiago, and Donny Lucas, was inspired in part by the night Ben and Aleks met Ali. You can watch the film for free through the link below.