By Steve Svetovich
Not many can say they had a personal encounter with Muhammad Ali.
But former Dunmore councilman Paul Nardozzi did.
Ali, one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, as a heavyweight boxer called himself, “The Greatest.” He died last June 3 from complications due to Parkinson’s which ravaged his body from its onset in 1984. Ali was 74.
It is believed the Parkinson’s was brought on early due to the many blows Ali took to the head.
Ali, formerly Cassius Clay, converted to Muslim and became Muhammad Ali in the mid 1960s. He was a three time heavyweight champion earning the titles in 1964, 1974 and 1978.
He was best remembered for his defeat over Sonny Liston in 1964, his three fights with Smokin Joe Frazier, including “The Thrilla in Manila,” and his “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman.
Ali entertained his fans by speaking in poetry and making outlandish comments about his opponents. His banter with late sports broadcaster Howard Cosell was classic. His three fights with Frazier were epic. Ali won two of those battles. In one of those wins he was quoted as saying, “It was the first time in my life I thought I was going to die.”
Nardozzi was able to experience the personality of Ali, the funny man and jokester, firsthand.
“I met Ali in Deer Lake,” said Nardozzi. “He used to train there. I used to go up there with my buddies Teddy Hadley, Joe Burke, Jerry Burke, Jack Neary and Kevin Oliver.
“We ran into one of Ali’s handlers there. He asked if I wanted to meet Ali. I said, ‘Are, you kidding me? Of course, I want to meet him.’ So he took us to his cabin. Jack Neary and I went to see him. We pulled into a complex and saw a sign that read ‘No training today.’ I remember seeing a lot of huge boulders with boxers names on them.
“We went into the cabin. There was a guy and his wife there. So there were only four of us. Ali did magic tricks for us while he was resting in bed. He talked to me. He was pretty funny and cordial. This happened in 1978. I was about 20 at the time. He was training for the Foreman fight.
“I went there every year and met him about seven other times. He was always comical, a clown, cordial to all the people there. He autographed a 1973 boxing magazine for me. He was on the cover.
“There is nothing like the experience of being in the same room, especially with a smaller crowd, with Muhammad Ali. Not everyone gets the opportunity to meet him and be with him and even get autographed items from him.
“I rank him as one of the top 10 athletes of all time. When he died, I just started remembering the times as a kid following him. My late dad and I used to go to a lot of boxing matches at the Catholic Youth Center (CYC). We were big fans of Ali and also of Larry Holmes, who had local ties and used to spar with him.
“And then I got to meet Ali. I had a personal encounter with him. I will never forget it. It was one of the biggest thrills in my life.
“He had a warm personality and loved to joke around. I could tell he loved people of all races during a time when there was prejudice and racial tension.
“I am saddened by his death. To me, he really was ‘The Greatest.'”
Ali came to Deer Lake (Schuylkill County) after refusing to serve in the Vietnam War and being banned from boxing.