By Ken Hissner: Recently, someone told this writer at a supermarket in Lancaster County in PA after noticing I had a Muhammad Ali t-shirt on of a partnership Muhammad Ali had with comedian Billy Crystal in Israel. I looked into it and found some interesting facts.
“Thanks to Ali’s involvement, enough money was raised to endow, at the university in Israel, a theater group called “Peace through the Performing Arts,” in which Israel and Palestinian actors, writers, and directors all work together in peace-creating original works of art,” said Crystal.
“I met him in 1974, and I was a comedian and struggling. Ali had just defeated George Foreman. My agent talked to contacts with Ali, and it was my first time on television. It was the first time I saw him in person. I thought I could do him and Howard Cosell. When I first met him, he just looked at me like I was Joel Grey,” said Crystal.
“After I did his first impression, he hugged me and called me his little brother,” said Crystal. “I sat next to him at Howard Cosell’s funeral, and he whispered to me, little brother do you think he’s wearing his hairpiece? I told him I didn’t know. He said then how will God know him? I said champ when he opens his mouth, God will know,” said Crystal.
At Ali’s funeral in Louisville, KY, before some 20,000 people, Crystal spoke on June 10, 2016. Crystal said Ali was always there for him, most memorably when Crystal “was being honored by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem,” and Ali “did all of this all promotion” for the event, came to dinner, sat with Crystal’s family, and took numerous photographs – the most famous Muslim man in the world honoring his Jewish friend.”
“After he was stripped to the title and not able to fight anywhere in the world, so he spoke at colleges and convention,” said Crystal.
I first met Ali in center city Philadelphia in 1973 after his defeat in the first Ken Norton fight. Two weeks later, I knocked on his Cherry Hill, NJ, door and asked his wife Belinda, “can I talk to the champ?” He was entertaining and one of a kind.
Four years later, I had my picture taken with him at his Deer Lake, PA, camp. I last saw him in September of 1980 there when he was training for his fight with Larry “The Easton Assassin” Holmes. I asked him, “why are you taking the fight? You and Max Baer had the best physics but look at you (big belly).” He said after patting his stomach, “I like my ice cream!” It would be the only time in his professional career he didn’t finish a fight.
It had been two years since he defeated Leon Spinks in a rematch in September of 1978 to win the WBA World heavyweight title before some 63,350 at the Superdome in New Orleans, LA. This should have been his final bout. Unfortunately, Holmes and in December of 1991, he lost to Trevor Berbick in Nassau in his final bout.