Craig Glazer’s first interaction with Muhammad Ali was as loud and flashy as anyone would expect.
It was 1974, and Ali had shocked the world, taking down the unbeatable George Foreman in Zaire. Ali arrived in Kansas City later that year for exhibition fights at Kemper Arena, and Glazer, who was in his 20s at the time, went to watch his hero.
“Who do you want me to fight next?” Ali screamed, milking the crowd and media for names, for noise, for love. He stood over everyone, a 6-foot-4 granite sculpture of a human body, his voice the only thing more noticeable than his imposing physical nature.
“He wouldn’t shut up,” Glazer said. “We’d never seen anything like him.”
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Glazer, a Kansas City native, never imagined he would later become producer of “Champions Forever” and its follow-up film, “Champions Forever: The Definitive Edition,” documentaries about Ali and the era’s heavyweight champs. He spent countless hours with Ali on the project, interviewing him alongside four heavyweights who had previously never been brought together — Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes and Ken Norton.
By the time Glazer began work on the documentary in the late 1980s, Ali had already begun his battle with Parkinson’s disease. He succumbed to illness Friday night, dying at the age of 74.
“I asked all the champs how they wanted to be remembered. That choked me up,” Glazer said. “He was already very sick at 54 years old, and we didn’t know he’d make it to 55. It was so unfair. He realized the illness would take the best of him, and he was never going to be what he once was. But he said ‘I wanted to be Johnny Appleseed, and plant the seeds of kindness, and do good for everyone. That’s how I want to be remembered.’ ”
Behind the scenes, even as Parkinson’s overtook a once-unbeatable body, Ali’s spirit remained intact. His favorite joke to play on Glazer was to ask if he wanted to see how fast his hands went. For all of Ali’s incomparable athletic qualities, his speed was one of the most mesmerizing. He would put up his fists and tell Glazer to count down — three, two, one.
“ ‘Okay, three, two, one, go,’ ” Glazer said. “He’d never move. And then he’d say, ‘You want to see it again? That’s how fast I am.’ ”
Glazer, once a Kansas City kid looking up through the ropes at his untouchable hero, saw Ali evolve from a brash, bragging champion to a man who wanted to simply be remembered as a good human.
In 1990, Ali arrived at the “Champions Forever” premier, in the limelight for the first time in years. Someone who had once reveled in media attention wasn’t ready to face the public and admit his physical decline. He asked Glazer not to ask questions about his illness. He was embarrassed at how much his hands shook.
But when he arrived at the premier, Glazer watched a young boy run out of the crowd and jump into Ali’s arms. Ali — who had spent a career towering over everyone else, both literally and metaphorically — found himself eye-to-eye with a child.
“Even in his condition, he got down on one knee and hugged this kid,” Glazer said. “He spent more time with this boy than he did with the press. That’s what was important to him after boxing. That’s who he had become, and that’s how he’ll be remembered.”