The Russian said Pravda was calling.
Sure it was. Why would the Russian news agency call a sports department in Atlanta, Ga.?
I hung up on him.
Moments later. Same person. Same story.
“I’m calling about Ali,” he explained.
Muhammad Ali was fighting Jerry Quarry that night at the City Auditorium — the dreary building where I graduated from high school. Ali was returning to boxing after years in exile, and Pravda wanted details.
He spoke Russian. I spoke Southern. Our conversation was awkward. The breaking point came when I said State Sen. Leroy Johnson was behind the fight.
Johnson did not translate. We bantered back and forth. Finally there was a breakthrough.
“Oh, Johnson … like in Lyndon,” he said.
This was 1970, my first brush with the wackiness of boxing. I wrote about Quarry’s training camp and attended an Ali press conference for entertainment purposes.
Now Pravda reminded me that Ali was a worldwide spectacle and we were blocks away from history.
Ali returned to the speaking circuit. Later he spoke to students at Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum, putting on a show with patter, poetry and politics.
Afterwards, he started up the steep ramp from the coliseum floor and I was with him. I walked backwards up the incline. I wore a narrow tie and a 1970s suit, and an agitated Ali excused himself from the crowd.
“You a cop?” he asked.
“No, I’m a sports writer.”
He relaxed, and the showman returned. He plopped a huge hand on my shoulder and we walked together.
Twenty years passed. I was at a football game at Fort Valley State College. Ali was grand marshal of the homecoming parade, and we waited on him in a dining hall.
Pravda wouldn’t have recognized him. The bounce had left his step. His dancing eyes were dim. Interviews were out of the question, for his speech had lost its jab.
Locked in that fleshy shell was the old Ali. When children approached, he did magic tricks or a sad pantomime of a one-two punch.
Ali was buried Friday in Cassius Clay’s hometown. I thought of these moments and remembered that writing about sports isn’t always about winning and losing.
Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org