Watching Rocky II with Muhammad Ali

by longformphilly

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Roger Ebert | Chicago Sun-Times | July 1979

Right here in the middle of Muhammad Ali’s mansion, right here in the middle of the mahogany and the stained glass and the rare Turkish rug, there was this large insect buzzing near my ear. I gave it a slap and missed. Then it made a swipe at my other ear. I batted at the air but nothing seemed to be there, and Muhammad Ali was smiling to himself and studying the curve of his staircase.

I turned toward the door and the insect attacked again, a close pass this time, almost in my hair, and I whirled and Ali was grinning wickedly.

He explained how it was done. “You gotta make sure your hand is good and dry and then you rub your thumb hard across the side of your index finger, like this, see, making a vibrating noise, and hold it behind somebody’s ear, sneak up on ’em, and they think it’s killer bees.”

He grinned like a kid “I catch people all the time,” he said. “It never fails.”

A long black limousine from NBC was gliding up the driveway, and Ali was ready to go to work. This was going to be Diana Ross’ first night as guest host of the “Tonight” show, and Ali was going to be her first guest. And then, after the taping, Ali had a treat for his wife, Veronica, and their little girl, Hana. They were going to the movies. What movie were they going to see? Rocky II, of course. A special screening had been arranged, and Ali was going to play movie critic.

“Rocky Part Two,” Ali intoned, “starring Apollo Creed as Muhammad Ali.”

The taping went smoothly, with Ali working Diana Ross like a good fight. He kidded her about her age, leaned over to read her notes, got in a plug for his official retirement benefit, and made her promise to sing at the party.

And then the heavyweight champion of the world was back in another limousine, a blue and beige Rolls-Royce this time, heading back home to a private enclave off Wilshire Boulevard. It was a strange and wonderful trip, because during the entire length of the seven-mile journey, not one person who saw Ali in the car failed to recognize him, to wave at him, to shout something. Ali says he is the most famous person in the world. He may be right.

He gave his fame, to be sure, a certain assistance. He sat in the front seat, next to the driver, and watched as drivers in the next lane or pedestrians on the sidewalk did their double takes. First, they’d see the Rolls, a massive, classic model. Then they’d look in the back seat. no famous faces there. Idly, they’d glance in the front seat, and Ali would already be regarding them, and then their faces would break into grins of astonishment, and Ali would clench his fist and give them a victory sign. This was not a drive from Burbank to Wilshire Boulevard – it was a hero’s parade.

Back home, waiting for Veronica to come downstairs so they could go to the movies, Ali sat close to a television set in his study. His longtime administrative assistant, Jeremiah Shabazz, talked about crowds and recognition. “The biggest single crowd was in South Korea. I think the whole country turned out. Manila was almost a riot; they almost tore the airport down. All over Russia, they knew him But Korea was amazing.”

Ali ignored the conversation. He is a man who chooses the times when he will acknowledge the presence of others, and the times when he will not. There are moments when he seems so intensely self-absorbed, even in a roomful of people, that he seems lonely and withdrawn. He was like that now, until his daughter, Hana, walked in and demanded to be taken into his lap, and then he spoke to her softly.

“What’s Veronica say?” he asked Cleve Walker, an old Chicago friend who was visiting.

“She’s coming right down,” Walker said.

“Then let’s go.”

Writer bio: Roger Ebert is, well, you know Roger Ebert. Not only is he the most influential movie critic of all time, Ebert is one of the most influential critics of all time. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, who not only excelled as a newspaper writer but also as a television personality, public speaker, author and businessman, went to a private screening of Rocky II with Muhammad Ali and wrote about the experience. It’s a Philly movie, so it counts.

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