Steve Eighinger

Memories of Ali, Robinson remain strong

By Herald-Whig
Posted: May. 9, 2019 7:20 am

It's interesting how specific meetings, conversations or events can find a permanent niche in your brain. Years later, they remain as fresh and vibrant as the day they unfolded.

Such is the case for me with two interviews that occurred within months of one another. The subjects were Muhammad Ali and Frank Robinson.

As fate would have it -- or sheer luck -- I found my conversations with Ali and Robinson separated by less than two months. At the time, in early 1975, Ali and Robinson were already iconic figures, both athletically and socially.

The difference in the two, however, at least to a young reporter, was like night and day.

I was interviewing Ali shortly before his heavyweight title bout with Chuck Wepner at the Richfield Coliseum, which at the time was the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Ali was at his bombastic best, entertaining yet almost impenetrable when it came to questioning. Like most of his opponents in his prime, the Greatest enjoyed toying with reporters. I don't think Ali answered one question directly, but I'll never forget the 15 or so minutes that interview covered.

The ensuing fight was billed as "Give the White Guy a Break." Ali won a tougher-than-expected confrontation when he knocked out Wepner in the 15th round. The Ali-Wepner bout was notable for being one of just four fights that saw Ali officially knocked down in the ring. The Ali-Wepner fight also inspired the 1976 film "Rocky."

Interestingly, Wepner, was known as the "Bayonne Bleeder" because of his Bayonne, N.J., background and penchant for blood loss. Wepner's face was normally a disaster area at the end of most of his 40-plus professional fights, including one with former champ Sonny Liston. After the fight, Wepner required 120 stitches in his face.

Wepner was paid $100,000 for the fight with Ali, who earned $1.3 million.

The interview with Robinson was a complete opposite of the circus that engulfed Ali. There were no histrionics, no carrying on, no craziness whatsoever.

Robinson was weeks away from embarking upon his own sense of history as manager of the Cleveland Indians. He would be the first black manager in Major League Baseball history.

Robinson embraced the importance of that title, and came across as a caring, sincere man who knew he was on the doorstep of something incredibly important.

Before talking with Robinson, only numbers and on-field accomplishments accompanied his name in my head -- 586 home runs, most valuable player in both the National and American leagues and a hall of famer.

Afterward, I always carried a new and higher level of respect toward him. When Robinson died earlier this year at age 83, I was genuinely sad, yet felt so rewarded for being able to say I had been fortunate enough to meet such a great man.

I'll forever carry the memories of those two celebrated figures with me, and I'm grateful for that.