Barry Hunter has been around boxing for decades, and like many others in the sport, the highly regarded District trainer acquired a special affinity for Muhammad Ali early in life. Some of his most vivid memories included listening to Ali fights on a transistor radio while growing up on H Street in Northeast only a short time after the D.C. riots in 1968.
Recollections of Ali’s first encounter with Joe Frazier in their legendary trilogy resonate particularly with Hunter. He recalled crying that night in 1971 because that’s what he always did when Ali lost. Not long after, Hunter’s father presented his son with his first pair of boxing gloves. They were Everlast, of course, since that was Ali’s brand.
More than 30 years later, when he was established in the industry, Hunter was boarding a plane on a trip back from Memphis along with two of his fighters, brothers Lamont and Anthony Peterson. Sitting near the front of the aircraft were Ali and his wife, Lonnie, who recognized Hunter and started a conversation.
Here, finally, was Hunter’s chance to greet his childhood hero for the first time.
“All these years I’ve been wanting to speak to this man, but I was at a loss for words,” said Hunter, mindful of Ali’s advanced-stage Parkinson’s disease. “I wanted to say something to the King so bad, but out of respect for him because he was fragile — he kind of had his head nodded down — even though I spent my whole life and my whole career wanting to speak to him, I let that moment go by.
“That meant more to me, to give him his peace in this time, than anything.”
Other luminaries from the fight scene in the nation’s capital reacted with similar reverence less than 24 hours after the passing of the three-time world heavyweight champion, whose impact transcended sports perhaps like no other athlete past, present or future.
Once vilified for refusing to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War because of his religious beliefs, Ali became a symbol for social justice and was beloved around the world for his philanthropy. Still, with all that was on his agenda outside the boxing ring, Ali continued to mentor young fighters, including Palmer Park native Sugar Ray Leonard, well into retirement.
Leonard even introduced Ali during an event at the DC Touchdown Club at which Bob Hope was the emcee. Charlie Brotman, the longtime public relations specialist in and around the District who worked closely with Leonard, was president of the club at the time and arranged to have Ali presented with an award for fighter of the century.
“That was the first time that they had met,” Brotman said. “They were both impressed with each other. It was kind of fun. The way I introduced them was the world champion of today talking to the world champion of tomorrow. Luckily I guess for me it turned out to be true.”
Brotman was part of the public relations team responsible for handling both of Ali’s fights at Capital Centre, the former arena in Landover that was home to the Washington Bullets and Washington Capitals upon its completion in 1973. Ali fought at Capital Centre in 1976 against Jimmy Young and a year later against Alfredo Evangelista. He won both bouts by unanimous decision.
Roughly 4½ months after the Evangelista fight, Ali came back to the District to attend a White House dinner celebrating the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty. In 1980, he returned to the White House for a meeting with President Jimmy Carter regarding a humanitarian trip to Africa.
“It’s crazy to think after all these years we still haven’t had anybody as big as Ali,” said Dusty Hernandez-Harrison, a promising District welterweight contender. “I think the reason why he was so big is he was much more than a boxer. He got involved and spoke about things that a lot of people were scared to talk about, maybe didn’t want to hear. He used his popularity for something good.”
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