Muhammad Ali was the ‘most beautiful creature on the planet’

There’s a story about Muhammad Ali that might have been lost to history, disappearing among all the other Ali esoterica, but for the Los Angeles Times photographer Boris Yaro.
Muhammad Ali was the ‘most beautiful creature on the planet’

On Monday, Jan. 19, 1981, Yaro heard reports of a suicidal jumper on the radio. His editor wasn’t interested, but Yaro drove over to Los Angeles’s Miracle Mile regardless, where he found a young black man in flared jeans and a hoodie, perched on an office-building fire escape nine floors above.

‘‘Joe,’’ as he was named in reports, had been up there for hours. According to a police spokesman, ‘‘he seemed to think he was in Vietnam — with the Viet Cong coming at him.’’

A crowd gathered on the street, goading Joe to jump. Police officers, a psychologist and a chaplain leaned out of a nearby window, imploring him to come inside. ‘‘I’m no good,’’ he shouted, dangling his feet over the side whenever someone got too close. ‘‘I’m going to jump!’’

Ali’s best friend, Howard Bingham, was at the scene. He called Ali, who lived nearby.

‘‘About four minutes later,’’ Bingham would tell reporters after, ‘‘Ali comes driving up the wrong side of the street in his Rolls Royce with his lights blinking.’’ Yaro watched Ali run into the building and took photographs of what happened next. One captures the fighter, in a dark suit and tie, his smooth face expressionless, leaning out a window, peering almost casually around a pillar to get a look at Joe.

Yards away, Joe is balanced on a ledge, one foot in front of the other, gripping a pillar as he leans out over empty space. The effect is nauseating: In trying to get a better look at Ali, Joe’s at risk of falling to his death. By the Los Angeles Times’ account, Ali leaned out and shouted to Joe: ‘‘You’re my brother! I love you, and I couldn’t lie to you.’’

Soon, he made his way to the fire escape, put an arm around Joe and guided him inside. The two walked out of the building together, got in Ali’s car and drove, after a stop at a police station, to a nearby V.A. hospital.

The day Ali saved Joe’s life, he had already begun to crumble. He was five years removed from ‘‘The Thrilla in Manila,’’ the fight against Joe Frazier that many believe irrevocably destroyed something inside him. Back in October, he fought his friend and former sparring partner Larry Holmes, who gave him a beat down so vicious that Ali didn’t come out for the 11th round. Afterwards, Holmes was reduced to tears.

In three short years, Parkinson’s would be diagnosed. But as Robert Lipsyte — a former Times reporter who has spent much of his life chronicling Ali’s — remembers it, Ali was still ‘‘the most beautiful creature on the planet.’’

Ali spent three and a half years of his athletic prime stripped of his boxing licence for protesting the very war that haunted Joe. Perhaps he felt a kinship with the vet. Or perhaps it was something else. One of the main things Lipsyte remembers about Ali was ‘‘the narcissism, the wanting to be loved, the need for constant attention.”

What kind of guy gets in his car and drives toward a potential suicide, to save the life of a man he has never met?

The answer, of course, is a guy who thinks himself a hero. The one constant in Ali’s life — from the 12-year-old boxer passing out fliers for his own fights to the man who withdrew from public life as Parkinson’s took hold — was his unyielding, nigh-oblivious self-belief.

It was there in 1964, when a 22-year-old named Cassius Clay called himself ‘‘The Greatest’’ before his championship bout against Sonny Liston, and it was still there when he was ultimately dismantled by Holmes. It wasn’t just that his confidence informed his speed, skill, wit and beauty.

It was that his confidence made him a beacon. People in need of strength could affix to him whatever symbolism they needed: black pride, the strength of protest, the senselessness of war. In turn, Ali could energise them.

The ledge story wasn’t quite as simple as it appeared. The police reported that Joe was ‘‘badly disturbed,’’ and later in the week, the Los Angeles Times published a follow-up: Joe, it turned out, was only 21, too young to have served in Vietnam. That January Ali announced that he was going to buy Joe clothes and travel with him to his home state, Michigan, though it’s unclear if they ever made the trip.

Ali’s narcissism, as Lipsyte remembers it, was only one part of why he would try to talk a man off a ledge. ‘‘The other part was he was capable of acts of kindness; almost casual acts of kindness,’’ Lipsyte said.

In other words, Ali showed up to the building not only because he thought he could help Joe, but because he wanted to. ‘‘In some sort of ways, he talked a lot of people off the ledge,’’ Lipsyte says. ‘‘A guy who made people brave. That’s what he did.’’

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