Getting to know the real Ali

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012
— In Mike Austin's mind, Muhammad Ali is still "The Greatest."

The former heavyweight champ celebrates his 70th birthday today.

Austin, the morning announcer on WJVL radio, joins millions of people around the world who reflect today on Ali's life and career. But in Austin's case, he's thinking about a friend.

"I was a disc jockey at WHFB in the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor area of Michigan," Austin said while taking a break from cutting commercials in the WJVL production room. "I didn't know it at the time, but Ali and his wife, Lonnie, listened to my show."

Austin asked his audience one morning 16 years ago to weigh in on a trivia question: Who was Ali's last opponent?

"Lonnie called in and said she knew the answer," Austin said. "I immediately asked if I could come to his home in Berrien Springs and meet him. Lonnie said, 'Sure, come out anytime.'"

That introduction led to 20 or more visits with Ali at his rural compound, thought to be a former Al Capone gangster hangout, Austin said.

"Cassius Clay and later Muhammad Ali fights were Super Bowl-type events in my house when I was a kid," Austin said. "He was a real-life hero."

Austin recalled that even though Parkinson's disease had attacked the champ, on most occasions he still was alert and eager to converse.

"He loved to do magic tricks, but he had a unique spin on the craft. One time, he told us he would levitate a paperweight off the table.

"He told us to stare at the paperweight. After about a minute, he laughed and asked if I was crazy for thinking he could levitate something. That's when he started calling me 'Crazy Man.'"

Ali is a boxing legend—some say he was the greatest boxer ever. Austin agrees, but he insists the champ should be remembered for more than his boxing accomplishments.

"Sure, he was an Olympic gold medal winner and a heavyweight champion, but he's so much more," Austin said. "I saw firsthand why he not only talked the talk but walked the walk."

Austin recalled the premiere of "When We Were Kings," the documentary detailing the "Rumble in the Jungle," Ali's spectacular rope-a-dope win in Zaire over then-champion George Foreman.

"Ali could have had that premiere anywhere in the world, but he decided to have it in his hometown of Berrien Springs at the community college," Austin said. "The proceeds from that event paid for a new running track and field house for the town's high school."

Ali, for all his fame, is a simple, kind and gentle man, Austin said.

"One of the first times I met with him I asked if I could bring my son David along to meet the champ. He said, 'Sure,' and when we got there, he met us in the driveway, picked up my son and hugged him," Austin said.

"It was such a meaningful gesture on his part that, for me, defined the real Muhammad Ali."

Last updated: 7:18 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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