From: Norm Johnson

For: June 6, 2016

I first met a very young Muhammad Ali in March, 1962 when he arrived in Los Angeles. All I knew about him was that he had won the 1960 Olympics Light-Heavyweight boxing gold medal and was going to be our headlining boxer at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in April. I was working for Joe Louis (the former heavyweight champion of the world) at the time, and had been hired by Louis in 1960 to be the assistant publicist for United World Enterprises, the corporation backing Joe in promoting fights in Los Angeles.

My boss and mentor was an old newspaper sport writer, Sammy Schnitzer, who had been one of the top sports writers in Los Angeles. But, by the end of 1961, Sammy was too ill to work and retired, thus I was promoted to the top spot. We were and would be in direct competition with the “First Lady of Boxing,” Eileen Eaton—a fierce promoter who “loved Louis,” but disliked him for going up against her Olympic Auditorium.

Cassius Clay fighting Archie Moore in 1962. Clay won by KO

Of course when I met Ali at the Biltmore Hotel, in downtown Los Angeles, he was Cassius Clay. My job was to make the rounds of the newspapers, television and radio stations, and to make sure he was a happy camper at the Main Street Gym, where he was training for his fight with George Logan.

Angelo Dundee, had been hired by the group of 10 Louisville, Kentucky business men who were managing Clay at the time, to be his trainer, after Clay walked away from Archie Moore’s training camp because of certain rules at the San Diego camp. Clay had contacted Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, asking them if they would like to be his trainer. Both champions declined the offer, thus enter Dundee.

Archie Moore and Me at Venice Beach for promoting fight with Cassius Clay, 1962

From that first meeting we became great friends. He loved the fact that I had a 1960 Ford Thunderbird convertible that we would use to travel throughout Los Angeles. His brother, Rahaman Clay, was always by his side, and trained with him at the Gym. There was no entourage, and no one to put words in his mouth. He was actually quite quiet and had not yet begun to predict his fights. One afternoon at the Gym, I was watching him in the ring and he looked like he was floating around the ring. I commented to him that he appeared to be floating, and he smiled and said, “That sounds nice, maybe one day I might use it…”

He never showed the brashness that would become his theme for most of his fighting career. When I was with him, he was actually quite calm, sorta bashful, and definitely was a sweet person, and always a gentleman. He and his brother were like brothers—they would have an argument, and the silent treatment would begin. Eventually, either Cassius or Ramon would apologize.

Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali exchanging words prior to their fight in Las Vegas

Prior to the fight we had a huge dinner at Joe and Martha Louis home in the exclusive district of Los Angeles called Hancock Park. Martha cooked the entire dinner herself, and I remember the Clay brothers couldn’t get enough of the “greens,” and the other old style southern food she had specially prepared for that evening. One of the special guests was Joe’s neighbor, Nat King Cole.  

Another thing I took away from meeting Cassius that first fight was how humble he actually was. He truly loved Joe Louis too! His eyes, which were so expressive, bright and alive, would get real bright whenever Joe would show up at the gym, or when we would be together at some promotional event. He was also a big tease: he loved to come up behind me and put his hands over my eyes, and trying to disguise his voice, he would ask, “Guess who?” And I would say a few names and he’d begin to laugh. At one point during the month he was in L.A., for his first west coast fight, I was asked to meet with Ali and Dundee, where I was asked if I would consider becoming his PR guy. I turned the offer down to stay with Louis. Another big mistake?  But, hey, I was working for Joe Louis—one of the most beloved champions in the world.

Archie Moore, Walter Winchell, and Morrie Ratner (financial partner with Joe Louis)at pre fight party.

Of course Clay (he did not become Mahammad Ali until 1964) won with a 6th round TKO over Logan. We brought Cassius back to Los Angeles, and the Sport Arena, to fight the Argentine heavyweight, Alejandro Lavorante, on July 20th, 1962 (another TKO victory in the 4th round).

Next up was his former trainer and a personal friend of Louis, the long-time reigning World Light Heavyweight Champion Archie Moore. The fight was heavily promoted and even Walter Winchell (a very famous gossip columnist from New York) was in town to cover the fight. The odds were leaning heavily towards Clay. Archie, at the time, was 46 and had held the title for 10 years, until he was stripped of the title by the various ruling sanctioning groups controlling boxing in those days.  Archie was knocked down three times and the fight ended in the 4th round with Clay receiving a victory by KO.

Cassius Clay, his brother, and me sitting on fender of my Thunderbird outside the Main Street Gym, 1962.

That was the last time I would see him until we met up again in Las Vegas. After my award winning story of the Watts Riot in August 1965, I moved to Las Vegas with my family to be a featured sports writer and columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Clay had just won the Heavy Weight Title from Sonny Liston, and was in town to take on former champion Floyd Patterson at the Las Vegas Convention Center in November, 1965. Caesars Palace was still under construction at that time, but eventually it would become the arena of choice for 90 percent of the major fights in the village. We continued to see each other through the years. In his later years when we met Ali would get that brief glint in his eyes, as if he remembered me from the past.

It’s very hard to wrap up a lifetime of “Hello’s and See ya’s” in one column. But, I tried. I can honestly say that I met a true champion of the people. Muhammad Ali was so loved by the men, women and children of the world, and he loved them back. Ali was honest with his heart much to his detriment a couple of times, when he could’ve turned his cheek and walked away (or stepped forward).  But that was not the young man I first met in 1962, nor the last time I saw him at Caesars Palace. He autographed a famous photo for me. We said “goodbye,” and I walked away from his suite.

Here are a few photographs I was able to recover from over 55 years of moving from house to house, and from state to state. I’m outa here!