MEMPHIS — Muhammad Ali was talking to his friend Howard Bingham one day, when Elvis Presley came up.
The story appears in Thomas Hauser’s book Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. Bingham is telling the tale.
“‘We were in a car talking and (Ali) asked, ‘If I walked down one side of the street, and Larry Holmes, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Mike Tyson walked down the other, which side would get more attention?’ I told him his would. Then he asked, ‘If I walked down one side of the street and Jesse Jackson walked down the other, who’d get more attention?’ And I told him the same thing.
”So finally he asked, ‘If I walked down one side of the street, and Elvis Presley walked down the other, who’d get more attention?’ That one was harder, and I said, ‘
That’s perfect Ali, isn’t it?
Funny and brilliant and proud.
But now they’re both gone. The singer and the fighter. The King and The Greatest. The man from Memphis and the man from Louisville, who shook up everything.
“They were friends,” said George Klein, a longtime confidant of Elvis. “People may not realize that. They had real respect for each other.”
Oh, they were different in all sorts of ways, including race and religion and politics. When Elvis was drafted, he served two years in the Army. When Ali was drafted, he refused to go out of principle.
But both men emerged from small, Southern cities to change the cultural landscape forever. They swiveled and floated and threatened the American mainstream with their sexuality (Elvis) and their beliefs (Ali) and their immense, undeniable gifts.
Boxing great Muhammad Ali, center, takes a tour of
Boxing great Muhammad Ali, center, takes a tour of Elvis Presley’s grave Thursday, August 16, 1985, at Graceland, Presley’s Memphis home. (Photo: AP Photo)
They were outlandish and brilliant. They had parallel comeback stories. If anyone understood the celebrity of Ali, it was Elvis. If anyone understood the celebrity of Elvis, it was Ali.
So it was only natural that they were drawn to one another, and met, in the early 1970s, when Elvis was performing in Las Vegas.
“Ali said he really liked the way Elvis dressed,” said Klein. “He said they were both originals. So Elvis contacted his designer and ordered a robe made for Ali and presented it to him. It said ‘The People’s Choice.’ It was supposed to say ‘The People’s Champ.’ But Ali wore it anyway. Howard Cosell asked Ali, ‘Where did you get that beautiful robe? Ali told him, ‘Elvis gave it to me.’ ”
The two kept in loose touch after that, until Elvis’ death in 1977. Said Ali: “Elvis was my close personal friend. He came to my Deer Lake training camp about two years before he died. I don’t admire nobody, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you’d want to know.”
Maybe that’s why Ali later came to Memphis during Elvis Week. According to Klein, he agreed to speak at the memorial service.
“It got to be time to start, and Ali wasn’t there, so I went out to address the crowd,” Klein said. “Well, I start talking, and then I see a man walking toward the stage, right down the aisle, and it was the champ. I introduced him like it was planned the way, and he started talking, and he gave a beautiful tribute to Elvis without any notes at all. And then, at the end, he sang an a cappella rendition of Don’t Be Cruel. It was perfect. He didn’t miss a word or a note.”
After the service, Klein walked Ali out to his limo. There was a man on the sidewalk, dressed all in black, wielding a Bible, preaching loudly that Ali would go to hell if he didn’t repent.
“I don’t want to criticize anyone for their beliefs, but it was totally inappropriate,” said Klein. “He kept yelling horrible things. Well, Ali got in the limo, and it started to pull away, but then it stopped and backed up. Ali got out of the limo, and he walked up to the man — he was a smaller man — and did something I’ll never forget. He picked him up, kissed him on both cheeks, and put him back down. Then he got back in the limo and he was gone.”