Ali and Me

Going back to my Movietone News days, I've always been an Ali fan. In those early TV days, boxing matches were rarely shown live, except in theaters where the tickets cost a lot of money. Usually, a TV network would buy next day rights and show the battle on film over the weekend.

We sent crews and reporters to interview the combatants along the way to the fight and were among the first to get Ali's "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" on film. We could preinterview, we could post interview, but unless we spent a fortune, we could not get the fight itself.

Ali was a different figure -- he was worth as much as a personality as a boxer and we were all dogging him constantly. The shift in names bothered a lot of us. The group that Cassius Clay joined (the Black Muslims) was notoriously anti-Semitic and we were concerned that he would adopt their cause. He did not so we kind of relaxed, but we didn't trust him fully until years later. (I still remember 60 years ago when I was walking through the northern end of Central Park, that there, on a platform, was Elijah, preaching to a Harlem population about the eviltry of Jews. I told Mike Wallace about it and he did a major documentary which played on the then independent station Channel 13.)

We continued to cover Ali through my days at Movietone, ITNA (Independent Television News Association) and CNN. It was at CNN that I had my only conversation with him, sometime in early eighties. I had built the CNN studio in the basement of the building but with one side above ground and floor to ceiling glass windows looking out at our seven dishes feeding news all over the world. It was about 5 p.m. on a weekend afternoon when Ali turned up and asked for me. He had been scheduled to talk with Ted Turner, but Ted was tied up at the time and so Ali and I sat facing each other against the windows as the sun set in the west.

I can't remember what we talked about and why we enjoyed the moment so much. He was very easy to talk with and we spent much less time talking about his fights than we did what went on in our lives -- how he had become a champion and how I had become CEO of CNN. We were just two middle-aged guys contemplating our mutual accomplishments. After about an hour a Turner guy showed up and I think escorted Ali to Ted's office. My sole memory of the event was that we got on very well together and that Ali was a remarkably gentle man.