Bobby Russo was 9 years old when he sat ringside at the Central Maine Youth Center in Lewiston as Muhammad Ali defended the heavyweight boxing championship from Sonny Liston.
Russo’s uncle, the late George Russo, was Maine boxing commissioner on May 25, 1965, when the legendary fight came to Maine.
Bobby Russo, 61, a promoter, trainer and owner of Portland Boxing Club, said Saturday that he knew that night he’d seen something special.
“I was a fan even back then,” Russo said. “Before that, the young people liked Ali but the older folks didn’t. They really weren’t used to the type of brash person that he was.”
Before Ali, the heavyweight champions typically entered the ring quietly and sat on their stool, a towel draped over their head, Russo said.
“But Ali jumped in, doing the ‘Ali Shuffle’ and talking,” he said. “The older generation didn’t like that. But I think overall, even those people who didn’t particularly like him … at the end of the day, after a great many years, they had a lot of respect for him because of who he was as a person.”
Ali, a three-time heavyweight boxing champion and Olympic gold medalist, who in his later life was recognized as a humanitarian and “ambassador of peace,” died Friday in Phoenix at the age of 74.
The Portland Boxing Club was unusually quiet — “solemn,” Russo said — on Saturday as boxers filtered in and out to train. But those who spoke, like Russo, spoke only of Ali.
“I probably knew more about Muhammad Ali than he knew himself,” Russo said. “Fans, and especially boxing fans — I’ve said it a million times — it’s not a sport, it’s an obsession. When you’re involved, you’re really involved, and you know the history.”
But in 1967, during the Vietnam War, Ali refused to be drafted into the Army, and in so doing, gave up his heavyweight title. He was banned from the sport for years and was sentenced to more than five years in prison, although appeals kept him from serving the time, according to The Washington Post.
“He was willing for that to happen,” Russo said. “Even though he knew they would have given him a uniform and had him signing autographs and shaking hands. He knew he wasn’t going to see action, but that didn’t matter. He lost millions of dollars, he lost something he’d dreamed of. But he had such strong principles. It’s amazing, a 20-something-year-old guy. That shows a lot.”
While many scorned Ali’s decision at the time, Russo said Ali was remembered Saturday as a great man.
Thirty years after that first fight in Lewiston, when Ali returned to Lewiston, Russo shook his hand. And in 1996, Russo was watching as Ali lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta.
“That was unbelievable,” he said. “They just kept building it up and building it up, and no one knew who it was. It was awesome.”
That Ali grew sicker and sicker from Parkinson’s disease, Russo said, was “cruel” and “so ironic, for a guy who talked so much, and he was silenced. It was very, very sad.”
Despite his illness, Russo said, Ali “never faded from the scene too much” for those who love boxing, and many others.
“Muhammad Ali was more than an icon,” Russo said. “Most heroes are heroes in one certain thing, but he did a lot of good stuff. He used his position to further good causes. That’s why he’s the greatest. He really was a strong man of principle, even as a young guy. And he was a great fighter, too.”