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June 06, 2016

It's impossible to explain the magnitude of Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali knew he would be The Greatest long before he even was

Muhammad Ali was late for dinner, and I was getting nervous. Ali made most people nervous back in 1979, especially his opponents in the boxing ring. He was more than just a great fighter; he was the most charismatic man in the world, and one of the most important.

At the time, I was a 28-year-old boxing writer working in my hometown of Providence, R.I., and Ali was promoting an exhibition there against his old sparring partner, Jimmy Ellis. Ali was retired – temporarily – but he was still able to sell out arenas through the power of his personality.

When I stood to greet him, my knees were actually wobbling. Surrounded by an entourage of publicists and hangers-on, Ali extended one of his massive hands and then launched into a monologue that included a testimonial to his greatness as a boxer, his respect for Providence and his plan to end world hunger.

In fact, at one point, he actually grabbed my notebook and sketched out a chart that was supposed to show the best way to feed the world. One of my biggest regrets is that I lost that notebook because this moment was – and always would be – the highlight of my life in the media.

It is impossible today to explain to young people what Muhammad Ali meant to the world two generations ago. First of all, his sport was boxing, an afterthought in American culture now. Second, he was a shameless self-promoter, but far more artful at it than today’s divas. And third, his physical elegance of that time was stolen by disease.

But those fortunate enough to remember the greatest fighter ever understand the astonishing impact he had on the world then, and his importance even now. In modern terms, he had the finesse of Stephen Curry, the physical presence of J.J. Watt, the charisma of Shaquille O’Neill and the social concern of, well, no athlete today.

I can remember listening through the static of an old Grundig Majestic radio his first conquest, when Cassius Clay shocked the world – his words, not mine – by breaking the spirit of Sonny Liston back in 1964. After Clay won the rematch a year later, he was the most important athlete the world had ever encountered.

Soon after that, he would change his religion to Muslim and his name to Muhammad Ali, but never his captivating style. Even when he became a national pariah for refusing to join the Vietnam War – inspiring a three-year ban from boxing – he never left America’s consciousness.

There was nothing Muhammad Ali loved more than boxing, and during that dinner – actually, he ate nothing in our 30 minutes together – he even admitted that getting back into the ring, even for an exhibition, was “the worst thing” he could do because it would tempt him to fight again for real.

Unfortunately, he did, one year later, in a bout against Larry Holmes that was so punishing, it probably ruined the rest of his life. I got to know Holmes in the years after that fight, and the Easton, Pa. gentleman could not speak about that mismatch without tears forming in his eyes.

Ravaged by Parkinson’s, Ali’s slow decline turned him into a prop for major sports events, his once-powerful hands trembling uncontrollably and his gift for speech a victim of the insidious disease. Toward the end, I would turn away whenever he came on the TV screen. I refused to remember him that way.

Muhammad Ali died last weekend, but the Ali we all knew was gone long before his merciful demise. At the very beginning of his extraordinary career, in one of his many shocking rants, he branded himself The Greatest.

And he was. He truly was.


Howie Roseman 2.0 has been an unqualified success so far, with his impressive free-agent signings and his stunning trade for rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. But none of those moves will matter if the reborn Eagles GM cannot resolve his contract differences with the best player on the team, Fletcher Cox.

Although Cox decided to report to the mandatory minicamp today, the two main questions really haven’t changed: Why hasn’t the defensive tackle reached agreement on a new deal? And who’s being unreasonable here, the GM or the player?

Cox’s agent, Todd France, said in April that he absolutely did not turn down a $60-million offer that had been reported, and Roseman reiterated his desire to resolve the contract snafu as soon as possible. Then both sides, understandably, retreated from further rhetoric.

The Eagles continue to say they are a contender to win the NFC East this season, despite an entirely new coaching staff and at least a dozen new players. But how committed are they if they can’t sign Cox as he enters his final year before free agency?

Yes, the Birds can keep Cox for another season if they place the franchise tag on him after 2016, but that ploy has never worked for the team in the past. Most clubs believe a player who is on the roster against his will is not likely to prosper. Bad feelings usually lead to subpar play.

The best solution is to finally agree to a fair contract with a 25-year-old star who will be joining a new defensive system that should make ideal use of his talents. And if there’s a good reason why that isn’t happening this week, then someone – either Cox or Roseman – owes it to the fans to explain why not.

Fletcher Cox is the closest thing to a superstar the Eagles have, and fans have a right to know exactly why he would prefer to be playing somewhere else.


Matt Klentak is the general manager of the Phillies. I provide this information as a public service because – eight months into his tenure – most of the team’s fans still have no idea who he is.

In a poll taken outside the WIP radio studios at 4th and Market in Center City last week, only one of 50 passersby was able to identify a photo of him. All six people wearing Phillies caps or t-shirts didn’t know who he was. This is extraordinary in a city where our passion for sports is so fervent.

What had made Klentak’s invisibility even more worrisome is that his organization is immersed in the first major controversy of the young GM’s time here, the endless debate over why the Phillies are keeping Ryan Howard on the roster. The over-the-hill slugger is batting .151 and has been on the bench for the last five games.

Much like the Jahlil Okaor controversy last fall, when coach Brett Brown had to deal daily with the rookie’s transgressions because GM Sam Hinkie refused to speak about them in public, manager Pete Mackanin is performing all of the heavy lifting right now – as if he doesn’t have enough to do with his slumping team.

In fact, Mackanin had to do some more of Klentak’s dirty work over the weekend after Howard was the target of a bottle-throwing moron at the end of Saturday night’s loss. The manager said that “just can’t happen” and that the organization would investigate. Klentak said nothing.

The young GM’s excuse has been that he is too busy planning for the draft – which begins on Thursday – to deal with anything else right now. At 35, Klentak may not realize yet that the GM job requires multi-tasking, especially in Philadelphia. But even if the perception is wrong, Klentak’s disappearing act right now appears gutless.

So here’s a piece of unsolicited advice to Klentak from someone who has been in the Philadelphia media for over three decades: Get your face in front of the cameras and explain how the organization feels about one of the most popular players in the city’s history. Right now. Today. It’s your job.

I don’t have to remind Klentak what happened to Sam Hinkie, do I?

And finally …

     • Given the recent downturn in Nick Foles’ career, the biggest mystery in the past decade of Philadelphia sports is his amazing 2013, when he had 27 touchdown passes and two interceptions. Things have gotten so bad with the Rams, Foles didn’t even bother to show up for OTAs. OK, I give up. How did such a lousy quarterback have such an amazing season?

     • It appears all but certain now that the Sixers are going to draft Ben Simmons of LSU with the top pick later this month, even though he can’t shoot. If his supporters are so confident he can learn how to put the ball in the net, would they please offer some examples of other top picks who learned this skill? Anybody?

     • The Penn State story just keeps getting worse. Now the school is trying to suppress the court records in the Jerry Sandusky case, arguing the need for confidentiality of the victims. Is that the real reason, or are they still trying to protect the battered legacy of Joe Paterno? We all know the answer, don’t we?

     • Doug Pederson has already mastered the art of saying nothing, a skill he learned from his mentor, ex-Eagles coach Andy Reid. Last week, he declared that Sam Bradford was ahead in the quarterback competition, Chase Daniel was doing fine, and Carson Wentz was ahead of schedule. How long before Pederson starts his news conferences with an injury report?

     • After President Obama compared Jay Wright to George Clooney last week, I asked the Villanova coach whom his wife, Patricia, would prefer to have dinner with, the NCAA basketball champion or the movie heartthrob. “Oh, that’s easy,” Wright said. “George Clooney. By now, she’s sick of hearing me talk.”