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Muhammad Ali

#RememberWhensdays: Ali on ‘Arsenio’ (with surprise guests)

In 1989, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali share a segment on ‘The Arsenio Hall Show’

His steps were slow and his movement stiff. But as soon as Muhammad Ali opened his mouth during his appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show in August 1989, it was clear that his mind was still razor-sharp.

As an icebreaker to start the segment, Hall pulled out a bottle of Ali’s signature cologne and asked the champ if he wore it.

Feigning disgust, Ali leaned his head back slightly and asked, “Why you ask me such a dumb question?”

It was vintage Ali: He delivered a blow and his opponent, in this case Hall, took it. But later in the program, Hall, at the time eight months into his successful run hosting a show celebrated for bringing diversity to late-night TV, would include a wrinkle that seemingly had the champ startled.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iydWKlmScj8

Hall introduced two surprise guests — younger boxers Sugar Ray Leonard and “Iron” Mike Tyson — leaving Ali genuinely shocked to see two of the biggest stars of what was still a prominent era for boxing.

Leonard, nearing the end of an illustrious career, was four months away from his second fight with Roberto Duran. Tyson, the undisputed champ, was terrorizing the heavyweight division with a 37-0 record.

Having three great boxers on that show, a burgeoning show disrupting the late-night status quo and tapping into new cultural forces, made that night memorable. What made it special was watching three of the world’s most prominent African-American athletes showing genuine love for each other.

Leonard hugged Ali tightly as he greeted him, and at one point in the show Leonard called the champ “daddy,” leaning over to deliver a mock kiss to the champ. Leonard shared how Ali influenced his style. “I emulated Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson,” Leonard said. “They brought entertainment to a sport that was heavily criticized because of the nature of the sport.”

Tyson demonstrated how much of a boxing historian he was, telling the audience that he studied Ali fights that were held before the then-23-year-old champ was born.

Hall asked Ali and Tyson who would win a fight if both were in their primes. Pointing at Tyson, Ali said, “If he hit me?” Then he let his head droop down to the side, faking like had been punked.

Tyson deflected the praise.

“The champ is modest,” Tyson said. “I’ve seen him in the ring with killers like [George] Foreman and [Ernie] Shavers, guys who hit much greater than me. And he took all their punches.”

(At the time, Tyson was biggest draw in boxing. Six months after this appearance on Hall’s show, the aura surrounding him would be destroyed at the hands of Buster Douglas.)


For anyone who hadn’t seen Ali since the end of his career in 1981, his appearance on Hall’s show was startling. Ali was five years into his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and his slurred speech and stiff movements were indicators just how much of a toll the illness had taken.

But The Greatest still had a lot of fight, leading up to his death. In the end, his family said, his mind was still sharp. And his daughter, Hana Ali, claimed that in his final hour, Ali’s heart remained beating even after his vital organs had failed.

The three men who shared the stage with Ali that night in 1989 each expressed their condolences via social media.

 

Leonard, perhaps, said it best.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.