Promoter Elbaum: Ali ‘was larger than life’

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — All the training and preparation appeared to be paying off for Don Elbaum’s fighter.

Detroit’s Sonny Banks had Cassius Clay (who later would become Muhammad Ali) on the canvas in the first round of a 1962 bout at Madison Square Garden.

“Just one thing,” Elbaum said. “Clay got up.”

Clay would gather himself and win in four rounds — “Clay predicted it would be the fourth round, and it was,” Elbaum said — and begin a lengthy relationship with Elbaum, one of boxing’s long-standing and successful promoters.

Ali died last week at 74.

And he left an indelible imprint.

“He was larger than life,” Elbaum said. “He was Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson all rolled into one. He was it.

“He was a superstar. I will argue he was one of the most famous Americans ever, more so than any president, or celebrity.”

Elbaum matched another Detroit boxer, Alvin “Blue” Lewis, against the now-Ali in Dublin in 1972.

Lewis was a tough boxer who gave Ali a battle, but eventually was knocked out in the 11th round.

“We thought Al had a shot to beat him,” Elbaum said. “Al was a heckuva fighter. But Ali wore him down.”

Boxing memories are one thing, but it was the time away from the ring with Ali that Elbaum appreciates.

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While preparing for a 1966 fight in Toronto against George Chuvalo, Ali’s management team hired Elbaum to handle training camp.

After each morning session, Ali would find a growing group of children at his hotel.

Ali would set up sprints across the hotel’s parking lot, awarding $100 for the winner and $50 for second place, $25 for third.

Rarely, though, did any child go away without any money.

And the parents of those children would visit, and Ali would spend time talking with them, sharing meals, and hosting several families at the fight.

Elbaum estimates Ali doled out $20,000 during the three-week training session.

“Not many people know that story, but it says what kind of man he was,” said Elbaum, who said he often baby-sat Ali’s twin daughters when they lived in New Jersey. “That’s who he was.”

Elbaum also recalled Ali’s passion for the old-style gangster movies of the 1930s-1950s, starring Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson.

“He would watch those movies all the time,” said Elbaum, adding Ali would give nicknames from those movies to friends and associates in his camp.

Inside the ring, Ali was one of the best. However, Elbaum, a boxing historian, doesn’t consider Ali the greatest in the heavyweight division.

“Fighters like Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, I’d say Rocky Marciano, they all would have beaten him,” Elbaum said. “But during his era, his time, he was the champ.”

Twitter: @tkulfan

Aid for Flint

•Don Elbaum is in Flint putting together a show scheduled for Aug. 20 to raise money for the Flint water crisis.

•He hopes legends George Foreman, Michael and Leon Spinks, and Larry Holmes will attend the event.

Krupa: A believer in Ali when he was Cassius Clay