Sunday, August 12, 2012

Muhammad Ali: A Kiss for 'the Greatest'

Muhammad Ali pop painting
by John Stango
A kiss for 'the greatest'

by Mike Marcellino

When I returned to Singapore in 1979, I was stunned by my Indian-Chinese sister-in-law's story of the kiss she gave Muhammad Ali.  

Dindi Devi, then with the Singapore government, was working at the United Nations in New York City that day. 

As she walked in a hallway, Ali walked toward her.  She quick stepped up to him and planted her kiss on the check of her hero - "The Greatest, and a hero of the world. Listening, I felt like I was there.  To me Ali is more than an icon.  While he is the greatest boxer of all time, he is also a wonderful and courageous human being.  

Ali reminds me of my Sicilian, Italian-American Dad, Tony Marcellino, who my boyfriends called, with great respect,"Big Tone"  Both have fists of iron and hearts of gold.  

Tony's was my "father" since I was a 3-year-old when my mother, Katherine, me and my freckled-faced older brother lived in the Fleetwood hotel on Miami Beach.  It was at The Fleetwood where Katherine and Tony fell in love.

Our mother, Katherine Ricker, and father, Emory Ensor, split up.  I wrote a poem about those days, "Flying Over the Fleetwood" but haven't yet recorded it as a lyrical poetry song.  I have performed it a couple of times on stage in Cleveland and Baltimore. 

Beautiful Katherine, with long flowing light brown hair, was Presbyterian Protestant from Alsace Lorraine on the French-German border.  There was some English and Scotch in there too, but I'm all mixed up.  All I do know is something my dear Aunt Dot wrote in pencil on a  piece of white paper.  I still have it.  

Emory Ensor, with dashing black hair, a sometimes assistant starter at Pimlico and horse racing tracks up and down the East Coast, was a wild Englishman, and Scotch-Irish Catholic. Katherine was a strong-willed woman, and stern, but she had a giving heart.  She was raised like Cinderella by a cruel aunt and uncle.  They made her scrub the floors on her hands and knees all the time while everyone else her age was out having fun in Baltimore City in the Roaring Twenties. 

Katherine was the kind of mother, I never called her "mom," that cooks and cooks great stuff like English meatloaf with mashed potatoes and string beans; the kind that never sits down until everyone else is up from the table.  One thing I know - my father's side is a family of horse people, thoroughbreds.  The proof is my great uncle, Buddy Ensor, the greatest hand rider ever, is a hall of fame jockey. She had never been further than The Maryland Shore in her working class life, but she somehow took us down to south Florida.   Perhaps she'd been down to Hialeah race track and had connections.  That I'll never know, but it would make a good story.

Tony, I always called him with the greatest respect, fought in the ring as a teenager all over the Midwest and East Coast during the years of The Depression.  

Tony Marcellino - he fought light and middleweight for thirty-five dollars if he was lucky.  He told me he often fought under made up names, like an actor.  He had a lot of fights, hundreds, but not too many and turned professional.  Said he was never knocked out.  Not even knocked down.  Once he said  a referee called a knockdown.  He said it was a slip.  I believe him. Tony was as honest as an arrow.  I believed and listened to every word he said.  He was quit a philosopher too.

In Los Angeles I almost seriously took up boxing.  After school I would spar with a friend named Mike Palooka, I swear that was his name, but the comic book character was "Joe."  One day I realized he was a bit quicker with his hands than me.  I kept getting hit in the head. I quit boxing.

My boyfriends in Cleveland always asked me if he was in the Mafia.  We never used the word.  I never asked Tony about it.  I did know where he kept his stubbed-nose thirty-eight revolver - in the top drawer of the dresser.  

I always felt safe with Tony; I never called him Dad. There wasn't a need for that; he was a great father.    He got me a BB gun before I turned four and a few years later a .22 rifle and a .410 shot gun.  He didn't have to teach me how to use them.  The longshoremen from the docks in San Pedro Harbor showed me. I was a natural.   

I'll never forget one New Year's Eve outside our one-room apartment (it was new).  Tony got his .38, loaded it with blanks and he let me shoot it off. Quite a celebration for a eight-year-old.   We made quite a racket that night in Wilmington, California.  But, I must stop here, I'm getting into a whole 'nother story. 

Today, at 70, suffering with Parkinson's disease he was diagnosed with in 1984, Ali is a living legend.  He'll always be remembered for carrying the Olympic Flame at the 1996 in Atlanta, shaking but determined, he climbed those stairs. He won the Gold Medal as a light heavyweight in the Rome Olympics.  He's a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. At the London Olympics he was the titular bearer of the Olympic flag.

He'll be also be remembered for his refusal to be drafted into the U. S. Armed Forces in 1967 because he was against the Vietnam War.  He considered himself a conscious objector.  He said it was against his faith, by then Muslim.  

"War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur'an. I'm not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger," he told the world.  

At his trial on felony charges of draft evasion, on June 20, 1967, after only 21 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Ali guilty.  The New York State Athletic Commission stripped him of his World Heavyweight title and suspended him from boxing.  I was about to go to Vietnam as a U. S. Army correspondent. 

Ali had the courage of his convictions.

On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court reversed his conviction for refusing induction by unanimous decision in Clay v. United States. That's justice for you, better late then never.  

I had returned from the war in September of 1968, got out of the Army, turned around after two weeks at home and went back to Singapore to marry Lohmani Dev, daughter of Ram Paul Singh, a devote Hindu and engineer for the British, a gentle and pure Indian and became a newspaper reporter at the Painesville Telegraph in Ohio, east of Cleveland.  I often wrote about of the wounds and sufferings of that war and the courage of my brothers in arms - soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors.  I wrote many stories about war protests and covered the largest march on Washington in our nation's history in October of 1969.  I sometimes struggled myself, fighting my my own demons, nightmares and flashbacks. Along the way, after the war had finally ended, I managed to capture two national awards for my stories, but not for the ones I did on the struggles of our nation and its people trying to find their conscience.   

Now I find I'm still learning about myself and the heroes of our nation on both sides of the war.  

Ali will always be remembered for how he could "dance like a butterfly" in the ring, "sting like a bee and" rope-a-dope."  But, even more, the whole world knows and admires him for his work in human rights and philanthropy for the betterment of all people. 

In doing this story, I had a hard time nailing down the day of the now historic "kiss" of Devi and Ali at the United Nations.  Internet archives only go back to 1980.  So we're some writing history here.  

For the record - Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on January 17, 1942.  His father, a billboard and sign painter, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr. was named after the 19th century abolitionist and politician of the same name. 

Now, I know what happened when Muhammad Ali, a different champion of the nation, visited the United Nations.  I have proof of "the kiss."  

On that day Ali was still heavyweight champion of the world - three time champion, he reminded a room full of reporters at the UN.  He told them he'll retire soon and go out on top, which black prize fighters never had managed before.   

"It would be a sin. The worst thing I could do is go back into the ring," Ali told reporters.

It was 1972 on Ali's visit to the United Nations.  The whole story of the day Dindi kissed  Ali  in the halls of the United Nations.  Without hesitation she planted a kiss on the cheek of Muhammad.  I only wish I had been there.

"I'm painting for peace," he told reporters.  

Ali told reporters in the taped interview that he was having a show at The Roseland Ballroomon on West 52nd Street in New York.  It's known as "the greatest ballroom."

"It will be the greatest," he said.

The Roseland Ballroom, New York City

Hey, if I make this story into a poetry song with music, maybe I can perfom at The Roseland some day.

You can listen to the tape now.  This is how the United Nation's website describes the 34 minute interview - 

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali speaks about God, boxing and using his fame for a good cause in this press conference at UN Headquarters.  It's 34 minutes and here's the link to the website.  

Here also is a link to the official Muhammad Ali website.  On the cover he's dodging and weaving against the punching bag.  It's the greatest!

As stories often go, there's a postscript.  Ali was also a pretty good singer.  I was aware of his albums vaguely.  Here's Muhammad Ali doing a cover of Ben E. King's classic, "Stand By Me" he recorded in 1963.

"Stand By Me" by Muhammad Ali

Then "Cassius Clay" wins the World Heavyweight Championship after Sonny Liston fails to come out in the 7th Round.  The fight, February 25, 1964 in Miami, Florida was almost cancelled because Clay was seen with Malcom X in Miami and other cities.