This month on PBS, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns takes viewers on a trip inside the heart and soul of Muhammed Ali. The four-part series is available for streaming at PBS.org through Oct. 11.
Ali was a stunning, larger-than-life figure. He lived up to his own hype when he arrived on the national scene after winning a Gold Medal in the 196O Olympics. He would win his first world heavyweight championship on Feb. 25, 1964, against Sonny Liston — a date I won’t forget since it was my 16th birthday.
Two Lansing men, Gregory Eaton, owner of Gregory’s Soul Food, and Bob Every, a former boxer and LCC softball coach who heads the Lansing Sports Hall of Fame, have close connections with Ali that they will never forget.
Just inside Gregory’s on Lansing’s north side is a photo of Eaton as a 24-year-old. Posed with Eaton are Ali — then known as Cassius Clay — Malcolm X and Eaton’s uncle Charlie Brown. The photo was taken in Miami at the Hampton House Hotel in 1964, just before Ali won the heavyweight championship in a fight against Liston. Eaton had accompanied Brown, an avid fight fan, to Miami and they stayed at the Hampton House Hotel, which was one of the few hotels to accept people of color during the Jim Crow era.
As a young Golden Gloves boxer, Bob Every would watch Friday night fights and read books and magazines on boxing to improve his skills. Naturally, Every said he was attracted to the brash boxer who “had more than mouth.” In 1970, while banned from boxing due to his refusal to be inducted into the United States Army, Ali went on a speaking tour, which included Michigan State University. Every, who had just taken up photography, snuck back stage at the MSU Auditorium.
“I was standing stage left and Ali just happened to walk off that way. I told him I was a boxer and knew William Beeler, who trained with Ali in Louisville. I realized he could have ignored me and not stopped. After the event, he went backstage where there was a private reception. I followed him and was stopped at the door. Ali told the doorman to let me in,” he said.
The serendipitous meeting led to a lifetime friendship. The two began writing letters back and forth, which continued for decades. Every cherishes the mementos given to him by Ali but cherishes the private times he spent alone with Ali the most.
Like many, I followed Ali’s long boxing career and his developing social activism, such as his refusal to be drafted in 1966. I deeply admired his courage and bravado. I admired him from afar, until 1990, when I was in Houston for a friend’s wedding, and I ran back to the room for a camera battery.
As I waited for an elevator, the door opened and out stepped Ali with a wide smile on his face. Looking quite confused, he told me had lost track of his wife and was searching for her. I said the best thing we could do was sit and wait for her to find him, otherwise they would repeatedly pass each other in the elevators. We sat down and chatted for about 15 minutes, until his wife exited the elevator, relieved to have finally found him.
It’s not often you get to thank a major celebrity for their contributions, but there I was. I told Ali that without his refusal to be drafted and the 1971 Supreme Court decision, which allowed conscientious objector status for philosophical reasons, I probably would have moved to Canada. I said, “Thank you” and just like that, he said, “You’re welcome.”
Ali died in 2016 from complications due to Parkinsons Disease, but he will always be “The Greatest.”