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Watching Rocky II with Muhammad Ali

Right here in the middle of Muhammad Ali's mansion, right here in the middle of the mahogany and the stained glass and the rare Turkish rug, there was this large insect buzzing near my ear. I gave it a slap and missed. Then it made a swipe at my other ear. I batted at the air but nothing seemed to be there, and Muhammad Ali was smiling to himself and studying the curve of his staircase.

I turned toward the door and the insect attacked again, a close pass this time, almost in my hair, and I whirled and Ali was grinning wickedly.

He explained how it was done. "You gotta make sure your hand is good and dry and then you rub your thumb hard across the side of your index finger, like this, see, making a vibrating noise, and hold it behind somebody's ear, sneak up on 'em, and they think it's killer bees."

He grinned like a kid "I catch people all the time," he said. "It never fails."

A long black limousine from NBC was gliding up the driveway, and Ali was ready to go to work. This was going to be Diana Ross' first night as guest host of the "Tonight" show, and Ali was going to be her first guest. And then, after the taping, Ali had a treat for his wife, Veronica, and their little girl, Hana. They were going to the movies. What movie were they going to see? Rocky II, of course. A special screening had been arranged, and Ali was going to play movie critic.

"Rocky Part Two," Ali intoned, "starring Apollo Creed as Muhammad Ali."

The taping went smoothly, with Ali working Diana Ross like a good fight. He kidded her about her age, leaned over to read her notes, got in a plug for his official retirement benefit, and made her promise to sing at the party.

And then the heavyweight champion of the world was back in another limousine, a blue and beige Rolls-Royce this time, heading back home to a private enclave off Wilshire Boulevard. It was a strange and wonderful trip, because during the entire length of the seven-mile journey, not one person who saw Ali in the car failed to recognize him, to wave at him, to shout something. Ali says he is the most famous person in the world. He may be right.

He gave his fame, to be sure, a certain assistance. He sat in the front seat, next to the driver, and watched as drivers in the next lane or pedestrians on the sidewalk did their double takes. First, they'd see the Rolls, a massive, classic model. Then they'd look in the back seat. no famous faces there. Idly, they'd glance in the front seat, and Ali would already be regarding them, and then their faces would break into grins of astonishment, and Ali would clench his fist and give them a victory sign. This was not a drive from Burbank to Wilshire Boulevard - it was a hero's parade.

Back home, waiting for Veronica to come downstairs so they could go to the movies, Ali sat close to a television set in his study. His longtime administrative assistant, Jeremiah Shabazz, talked about crowds and recognition. "The biggest single crowd was in South Korea. I think the whole country turned out. Manila was almost a riot; they almost tore the airport down. All over Russia, they knew him But Korea was amazing."

Ali ignored the conversation. He is a man who chooses the times when he will acknowledge the presence of others, and the times when he will not. There are moments when he seems so intensely self-absorbed, even in a roomful of people, that he seems lonely and withdrawn. He was like that now, until his daughter, Hana, walked in and demanded to be taken into his lap, and then he spoke to her softly.

"What's Veronica say?" he asked Cleve Walker, an old Chicago friend who was visiting.

"She's coming right down," Walker said.

"Then let's go."

The five cars pulled out of the mansion's driveway like a presidential procession. Ali drove his own Mercedes, second in line, following an aide who was leading the way to United Artists' headquarters out on the old MGM lot. All five cars had their emergency flashers blinking the whole way: It was the day's second parade.

Rumors of Ali's visit had preceded him to the studio and a crowd of young kids was waiting for him in the parking lot. He shook their hands, told them to hang in there, touched them on the shoulders, and left them standing as if blessed by royalty.

And then he was inside a private screening room and settling down to watch the most popular movie of the summer - the sequel to the movie that won the Academy Award as Best Picture two years ago, and made Sylvester Stallone into a star as Rocky Balboa, the Philadelphia club fighter who took on the black heavyweight champion of the world. Ali, who said he'd really liked the original "Rocky," settled down in the back row, Veronica and Hana next to him, and if he was reflecting that Rocky itself might very likely not have been made if he had not restored the fading glamour of boxing, he did not say so.

He watched the opening scenes of Rocky II in silence, not speaking until the scene in which Apollo Creed, the heavyweight champ, delivers a televised challenge designed to taunt Rocky back into the ring.

"That's me, all right," Ali said "Apollo sounds like me. Insulting the opponent in the press, to get him psyched out. That's me exactly."

Back home at Rocky's new house, the doorbell rang.

"You know who that's gotta be," Ali said. "That's gotta be his trainer." And, yes, Rocky opened the door and his old trainer, Mickey, was standing there on the doorstep.

"That's how Angelo Dundee used to get me," Ali remembered. "A good trainer knows a good fighter can't stand to have people talk about him bad on television."

Mickey was giving Rocky advice: "We got to get you fighting with your other hand. Use your right, save your left, protect that bad eye..."

"It just maybe could be," Ali said, "that if you started on a kid at seventeen or eighteen, by the time he was twenty-two you could change the hand he leads with. But not overnight it can't be done."

Now Mickey was drawing on his ancient store of boxing lore, making Rocky chase chickens to improve his footwork. "That's one that goes back to the days of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, chasing chickens," Ali said. "you don't see chickens at a training camp anymore except on the table."

Mickey was leaning fiercely at Rocky, who was pounding a bag "Jab! Jab! Jab!" he was shouting.

"With a great fighter," said Ali, "you don't have to tell him that. He goes at the bag like a robot. I never had anybody tell me to jab. If you don't want to jab, what are you doing being a fighter?"

Now there was a wider shot showing Mickey's gym, with Rocky in the foreground and the background occupied by a dozen fighters working out, jumping rope, sparring.

"What you see here, if you know how to look for it" Ali explained, "is the difference between real fighters and actors. A real boxer can see Stallone's not a boxer. He's not professional, doesn't have the moves. It's good acting, but it's not boxing. Look in the background. Look at that guy in the red trunks back there. You can see he's a real fighter."

Now Rocky was in the ring with a sparring partner. "The other guy's a real fighter," Ali said. "Stallone doesn't have the moves It's perfect acting, though. The regular average layman couldn't see what I see. And the way they're painting the trainer is all wrong. Look at him there, screaming, Do this! and Do that! I never had anyone telling me what to do. I did it. Shouting at the fighter like that makes him look like an animal, like a horse to be trained."

Is there any way, I asked, that the character of Rocky is inspired by you?

"No way. Rocky doesn't act nothing like me. Apollo Creed, the way he dances, the way he jabs, the way he talks...That's me." On the screen, a moment of crisis had appeared in Rocky Balboa's life. After giving birth to Rocky Jr., his wife had slipped into a coma. Rocky had just left the bedside and was praying in the hospital chapel.

"Now he don't feel like fighting because his wife is sick," Ali said. "That's absolutely the truth. The same thing happened to me when I was in training camp during one of my divorces. You can't keep your mind on fighting when you're thinking about a woman. You can't keep your concentration. You feel like sleeping all the time. But now at this point, I'm gonna make a prediction. I haven't seen the movie, but I predict she's gonna get well, and then Rocky's gonna beat the hell out of Apollo Creed."

Back in the hospital room, Rocky's wife opened her eyes. Ali nodded. "My first prediction is proven right," he said.

Rocky's wife turned to him and said, "There's one thing I want you to do for me. Win."

"Yeah!" said Ali. "Beat that nigger's ass!"

Little Rocky Jr. was brought into the room by a nurse. The baby had a head of black hair that would have qualified him for the Beatles. Ali laughed with delight. "They got a baby to win the Academy Award. Look at that Italian hair! Rocky couldn't deny the baby in court in real life!"

Now there was a montage, as Rocky Balboa threw himself into his training regime with renewed fury. "That's right," said Ali. "He's happy now. He's got his woman back I'm gonna further predict that in the big fight, they're gonna make it look at first like Rocky's losing, and his eye will be cut and it will look the worst before he wins, and that after the movie the men will be crying louder than the women."

Rocky was weight-lifting: "The worst thing a boxer can do. It tightens the muscles. A fighter never lifts weights. But it looks good in the movie."

In an inspirational scene, Rocky was running through the streets of his native Philadelphia, trailed by a crowd of cheering children who followed him all the way up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rocky gave his trademark victory salute, repeated from the most famous moment in the original Rocky.

"Now that's one thing that some people will say is artificial, all the crowds running after him, but that's real," Ali said. "I had the same kinda crowds follow me in New York."

And now it was time for Rocky II's climactic fight scene - longer, more violent and more grueling than the bravado ending of the original Rocky. In his dressing room, Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, was jabbing at his image in a mirror.

"Weathers told me he got the dancing and the jabbing, the whole style of Apollo Creed, from watching my movies," Ali said. "The way he's fighting in the mirror, those aren't real fighting moves, but for the movie they look good. And the motivation here is right. Apollo, he won the first fight, but some people said Rocky should have won. If you lose a big fight, it will worry you all of your life. It will plague you, until you get your revenge. As the champion, almost beat by a club fighter, he has to have his revenge."

Could a club fighter in real life stay in the ring with the heavyweight champion?

"No. What he might be able to do, he might be able to come in and absorb an amount of punishment and wait and get a lucky shot and knock him out...with the odds being very high against that. But to stay in the ring, to stay with the champion, he couldn't do that."

And now, on the screen, Rocky Balboa had fallen to his knees and was praying in the locker room, and Muhammad Ali, his daughter Hana asleep in his arms, was completely absorbed in the scene.

As Rocky got back to his feet, Ali broke the spell. "The most scary moment in a fighter's life is right now. The moment before the fight, in your dressing room, all the training is behind you, all the advice in the world don't mean a thing, in a moment you'll be in the ring, everyone is on the line, and you...are...scared."

Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa came dancing down the aisles of the Philadelphia Spectrum, and shots showed Rocky's wife at home, nervously watching television, and Apollo's wife at ringside, nervously watching her husband.

"Even Apollo's wife favors my wife Veronica," Ali observed "They're both light-skinned, real pretty girls...."

Apollo was taunting Rocky. "You're going down! I'll destroy you! I am the master of disaster."

"Those first two lines, those are my lines," Ali mused. "That 'master of disaster'...I like that I wish I'd thought of that."

And now the fight was under way, Rocky and Apollo trading punishment, Apollo keeping up a barrage of taunts, and dancing out of Rocky's way. Between rounds, in the fighters' corners, their trainers were desperately pumping out instructions.

"My trainer don't tell me nothing between rounds," Ali said. "I don't allow him to. I fight the fight. All I want to know is did I win the round. It's too late for advice."

How long do you predict the fight will last?

"Hard to say. Foreman they stopped in eight, Liston they stopped in eight...the movie might take something from that I can't predict. But look at that. There's Apollo using my rope-a-dope defense."

In the tenth round, Ali nodded: "Here's where the great fighters get their second wind, where determination steps in." On the  screen, Rocky was taking a terrible beating, and his eyes, as Ali had predicted, were badly swollen.

"In a real fight," Ali said, "they would never allow the eyes to be closed that much and let the fight keep going. They would stop it."

But in Rocky II they didn't stop it, and the fight went the full distance, Ali observing that in real life no fighter could absorb as much punishment as both Apollo and Rocky had, and then the theater was filled with the Rocky theme and the lights were on and Ali's entourage was applauding the movie.

Muhammad Ali got up carefully, so as not to wake Hana, and handed his daughter to Veronica.

"A great movie," he said. "A big hit. It has all the ingredients. Love, violence, emotion. The excitement never dulled."

What do you think about the way the fight turned out?

"For the black man to come out superior," Ali said, "would be against America's teachings. I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan and Rocky."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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