The CBZ Newswire

Unlike Many Celebs, Ali Takes Time for Common Folk

by on Apr.17, 2015, under Boxing News

By Connecticut boxing judge Joe Cusano, as told to “Iceman” John Scully

Muhammad Ali with John "Ice" Scully, at right.

Muhammad Ali with John “Ice” Scully, at right.

Anyone who is around celebrities on a regular basis, wether it is as a fan, paparazzi or being in their inner circle in some capacity, will get to see how each one is in regards to how they treat their fans. You have many different personalities involved and each one seems to handle fame, adulation and attention just a bit differently. I’ve seen instances when an extremely well known former champion turned trainer very ignorantly not only refused to sign an autograph on a boxing glove for a fan but he also used extremely vulgar language to express how much he didn’t want to do it. I was there when a well known Hollywood figure refused to sign an autograph for one of my pre-teen amateur boxers at Madison Square Garden. I’ve seen famous actors and national championship college basketball players quickly sign their names so illegibly for another of my young boxers that it resembled what it would look like if a four year child scribbled on a piece of paper so they could see if the pen had any ink in it.

It always amazes me when a superstar celebrity acts as though they are too busy or important to even crack half a smile at fans who ask for their autograph. I understand that people -celebs included- get busy and want and need their time alone. If they are at a restaurant with their family getting ready to eat dinner then I can see their point but if you are a boxer attending a big championship fight and you are sitting in the front row to be seen by all then you’d better man up and sign your name and do so in a way that the person with enough respect for you to ask for it can actually read it later on, you know what I mean?

Now, another aspect of it is that some celebrities are so big that they literally have almost everyone who comes into contact with them wanting a photo or an autograph from them and I could certainly see how that could be an issue. Celebrities are just like regular every day people in that they have their own lives to lead, they have places to be and things to do.

Sometimes, though, it’s kind of funny when a halfway celebrity tries to look irritated and exasperated when he or she is out at an event where they obviously know the people in attendance are going to want to interact with them (like an actor at a premier, a boxer at a fight show, etc) and fans are asking for their signature on a piece of paper. Sometimes it actually seems like they want us to believe that not only are they so important that they shouldn’t be bothered with such trivialities but that they can’t believe the fans in attendance don’t know this.

It’s funny, though. These same people, if fans didn’t ask them for their photos and autographs, would probably wonder if their visibility has diminished so that they are no longer important enough to ask.

In any event, in times like that I always think of maybe the most famous man on earth and what would he do in the same situation? I think of Muhammad Ali’s wife telling of times when they actually missed flights because before boarding the plane Ali would stop and sign autographs for every person who asked for one. One time, after missing a flight, someone asked the Champ why he does that and he replied “Because for most of these people it will probably be their only chance to see me and I don’t want them to be disappointed.”

I also think back to the night in 1990 when I maybe a little bit rudely interrupted him and his friends and family as they ate dinner in a private dining room (I walked right in unannounced) at a restaurant in downtown Hartford and he instantly got up from his seat and came around to my side of the room and started shadowboxing with me (I heard someone at his table who was a Hartford resident tell him that I was a boxer). Then he took the scrapbook I had in my hand and started looking through it, stopping here and there to make comments on some of the photos that caught his eye. The man took several minutes out of his life to make a dream of mine come true.

The greatest and most famous sportsman in the history of our planet took much more time than the other heavyweight champ I ran into once in Las Vegas who literally brushed past me in full superstar mode as he ignored my attempt to say hello at a boxing event at an extremely small venue with less than 100 people in attendance.

In any event, here is a story told to me by an old friend from Connecticut by the name of Joe Cusano. Joe is a huge boxing fan, great guy and a professional boxing referee.

His story illustrates what a true champion Muhammad Ali really is.

“I had attended many International Boxing Hall Of Fame induction weekends before but I knew I must attend the one in 1997 in Canastota N.Y. because my second favorite fighter of all time, Sugar Ray Leonard, was being inducted.

I had attended his fight in Madison Square Garden when he fought and lost to Terry Norris. I felt almost as bad as the night Muhammad Ali lost for the first time (in the same building), to Joe Frazier, but that night (in 1971) I actually cried. I was 21 then and saw that fight at the New Haven (Connecticut) Coliseum on closed circuit viewing and felt so bad for the man that stirred up so many emotions in me. I was huge Ali fan. I imitated his style of speech, knew many of his famous quotes and could even do a pretty fair Ali shuffle back then. My dad turned me onto boxing as nine year old when he brought me to the old New Haven Arena to see the closed circuit showing of Patterson-Johansson.

I eventually started to learn boxing at the New Haven Boys Club but after a couple of whuppings I knew I couldn’t do that anymore. I didn’t have the heart. But perhaps because I didn’t (have the heart) I always admired boxers. Knowing what discipline they had and the types of sacrifices they made, it became my sport.

I grew up in a very Italian neighborhood where Rocky Marciano was regarded as the best heavyweight of all time. I believed that when I was younger but Ali changed all that. In the 60′s in New Haven, it wasn’t a popular thing to be an Ali fan but I couldn’t help myself. This man lit me up. I watched and read everything I could about him. I didn’t know it then but I had morphed into an Aliologist. I’m embarrassed to say this but it’s true, when Ali fought Leon Spinks the second time I was so nervous and wanted him to win so bad that I planned to be alone at my home and pray during the whole fight and cry if I had to.

I was 28 yrs old.

In the very first round my mom called and told me that my dad had a heart attack and had been rushed to the hospital. My dad was a huge boxing fan but hated Ali. “Old school” is what I guess you would call him. He still thought Rocky Marciano was the best ever and blamed Ali for just about everything that was wrong in the world. I was actually torn between leaving that fight and going to the hospital or waiting to watch it to the end and then go. I chose the latter. There would’ve been nothing I could do to help my dad so I figured another 45 minutes wouldn’t hurt. I watched that fight and was so happy with the ending that I almost forgot about Dad!

Well, dad survived and lived 20 more years so that’s the good news.

Okay, back to the induction weekend. Sugar Rays’ style and charisma reminded me of Ali and he did seem to be a torchbearer for the sport in the 80′s so naturally I became a big fan. That weekend I attended all the ceremonies at the hall including Ray’s fist casting. I bought some memorabilia to add to my already extensive collection. I bought a beautiful photo of Ali fighting Frazier. I knew I would see Frazier that night at the dinner so I wanted him to autograph it. Joe doesn’t mind autographing such pictures as long as Ali hadn’t already signed it. He graciously did and I even took a picture with him. I had met him before and he knew I was an amateur boxing ref, because I had told him on a previous occasion, so he would always ask how I was doing and when I was going pro. I liked Joe and admired his fighting heart. The perfect opponent to showcase Ali’s greatness.

The Boxing Hall Of Fame is in a very remote area of upstate New York and in order to find accommodations I had to stay at the Marriott in Syracuse. That was about 30 miles past the HOF for me but it turned out to be great to stay there. Don King was also being inducted and he was all over that hotel but he wasn’t available to talk with or get an autograph or photo from. He always had bodyguards and they wouldn’t let you near him. Many other celebrity boxers were there, though, so I had a great time. Too many to list but I have photos with so many that my billiard room looks like the Hall Of Fame.

On the last day I was having breakfast at the hotel lobby restaurant. My bags were packed in my room and when I would check out I would make my way back to the town where the parade and actual induction ceremonies would take place. I had continuously heard a rumor that Ali would be the Grand Marshall of the parade but nobody knew that for sure.

As I left the restaurant a miracle occurred. I saw Muhammad Ali!!! I couldn’t believe my eyes! The lobby was practically empty, it was basically his small group and I. As I approached him a couple of the bodyguards immediately closed ranks to shield him from me.

I said, “Champ, I’m a huge fan. I’m a boxing referee and I just want to say I’ve idolized you since I was a kid.”

He nodded and motioned slightly to his bodyguards with his hands for them to let me through. The guards parted like the red sea as I approached and shook his hand. Nobody had cell phone cameras in those days so that was not an option but I suddenly remembered my beautiful black and white photo that Smokin’ Joe signed the night before. I quickly told him about it and asked if he could give me just five minutes to get it from my room so he could autograph it for me. He nodded “Yes” and I bolted towards my room!

Now, mind you, his limo was right outside already waiting to take him to the grounds. I was very excited and made haste. I tore apart the suitcase, got the photo out of its tube and went crazy for a minute to find the same gold foil pen that Joe had used. I rushed back down to the lobby, not knowing what to expect (I assumed he had been persuaded to leave to be honest) but the man had waited for me!!!

He was now seated, patiently waiting for me to return. I excitedly handed him the pen which he took with a very trembling hand and gave me the most beautiful signature.

That piece is still my prized possession. I thanked him continuously and literally cried right there in the lobby as I thought of what had just happened. I felt like I was in the presence of a higher being. I was not a kid, mind you, I was 47 years old when this happened, but I just couldn’t believe it. It was as if I was a kid again and I had unexpectedly gotten the chance to meet my hero.

I’m telling you now, though, I would’ve rather had that happen than to have had gotten to fly on Superman’s back.

Joe Cusano



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