Bill Apter remembers Muhammad Ali, and shares an exclusive audio interview
I first met Muhammad Ali face-to-face while covering a pre-fight press conference a few weeks before his bout against his former training partner, Jimmy Ellis, in July 1971.
Many people don't know that besides being a sports-entertainment journalist, reporter and photographer for 50 years, I had a deep footing in the sport of boxing. While working for the family of magazines under the Pro Wrestling Illustrated banner, I was also the photographer for several of the in-house boxing publications that included The Ring, KO and World Boxing.
Photographing Ali’s fights at ringside was a one-of-a-kind experience. Ali's presence was electrifying from his entrance to the ring to the aftermath press conferences. It amazed me how the biggest celebrities like Frank Sinatra would become fans in the audience of Ali, and craved being in his spotlight.
When I finally connected with him in 1971, I was standing in the photographer section at the press conference, and he somehow keyed in on me and played to my camera. I was able to work my way over to him as the crowd dispersed, and gave him a copy of the Boxing magazine.
"I read these and I see the rasslin' magazines,” he said. “I should be on the cover of both of them!"
He winked at me, took the magazine and left.
Throughout dozens of press conferences over the next few years, Ali always looked for me to give him a magazine and even held them up to heat up part of the conference showing his image of greatness on the cover.
When Ali opened his own training camp in Deer Lake, Penn., I went on a few press junkets on a chartered bus the fight publicist had rented. On one occasion, when the bus left us at the foot of the camp’s huge hill, Ali drove down in a car. He pointed to me and another photographer and told us to sit in the backseat and he would drive us up.
I wondered why I was included as I was much younger and walking a hill was not an issue. The answer came quickly as Ali began to ask me about Fred Blassie and some other wrestling heroes from his days as a fan. The other passenger had nothing to say as Ali and I chatted about wrestling.
Ali's entourage of Angelo Dundee, Drew Bundini Brown, Gene Kilroy, Mr. Youngblood and others showered me with Ali T-shirts, some signed boxing gloves and other collectibles. They knew the value of publicity, and my camera and I were the route to the magazines. They also knew that he liked talking to me about wrestling.
Up at the camp, Ali was mostly business, but he did a few magic tricks, and even posed for me. He wanted to be in the magazines, which you could see along the walls of his training camp. Many of the shots I took were displayed there. I was so proud of that.
My favorite Ali photo was a candid shot I took as he was coming at me yelling, “I am the greatest of all time!” I just clicked the photo, which perfectly illustrated his verbal aptitude in a still image.
Although I was not around when Ali did some Boxer vs. Wrestler exhibitions with Buddy Wolff, or when he got into an altercation with the legendary Gorilla Monsoon, I was there when he agreed to fight Antonio Inoki. It was at that press conference where Ali permitted me to stick close to him and get exclusive audio of his comments, as well as some with legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell.
I was caught up in the Ali whirlwind for years and I cherish those days. There was nothing quite like being in a room with him. Muhammad Ali was not "The Greatest of All Time." Muhammad Ali is “The Greatest of All Time."