This chapter appears in “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg,” which was released in paperback on December 31, 2020. There’s an additional chapter devoted to Izenberg’s memories of the legendary boxer.
By Ed Odeven
The bond between Jerry Izenberg and boxer Muhammad Ali extended beyond their jobs. It was truly unique, far beyond the typical relationships between journalists and pro athletes.
It’s 1974, and Izenberg is a recently divorced father. (At the time, Izenberg became the first father in New Jersey to be awarded sole custody of his children, he said.)
He also happened to be doing work in preparation for Ali’s fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, against then-world heavyweight champion George Foreman — The Rumble in the Jungle.
Izenberg’s children, Robert, 11, and Jenny, 8, had just come to live with him two days earlier, so his parental instincts are put to the test.
“I’m driving to Deer Lake (Pennsylvania), and I’ve got my daughter and my son in the car,” Izenberg recalled.
It was a challenging set of circumstances. Izenberg had plenty of work to do. In his heyday, he wrote five columns a week — plus numerous books and magazine articles. And over the years, he was involved in the narration, production and writing of 35 TV documentaries, among them the Emmy Award-nominated “A Man Named Lombardi,” about the inimitable NFL coach Vince Lombardi.
En route to Deer Lake, Izenberg is confronted with figuring out how to keep his children occupied while he is covering Ali’s training camp.
“He is crazy about television and I’m making a television show at the same time,” he remembered about his son, and gave him these instructions: “You can walk around with the crew; they know who you are. Don’t worry about it.’ ”
One down, one to go.
“His (daughter) says, ‘What am I gonna do?’ ” Izenberg recalled.
“Well, you go to Aunt Coretta (Ali’s paternal aunt) and tell her that you are the official water girl of the Jerry Izenberg television crew and she’ll give you a couple of bottles of water and you follow them around, but you keep your mouth shut.
“Then she proceeds to say, ‘I hope George Foreman knocks his block off.’
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”
“I said, ‘You’ve got to remember something: Both of these men are my friends, No. 1. This is a business, No. 2. It’s not a war, so they’ll do what they do to make their money. And you are going to keep your freakin’ mouth shut when you get in there.’ ”
That set the stage for the TV cameras to get rolling.
“So they go off and do what they do and we do the show,” Izenberg said, “and now we are in his locker room and we are talking very softly, and he says to me, ‘Is that your son?’ ”
Ali asked Izenberg what his son’s name was, then walked over to him.
“He put his arm around Robert and says, ‘Robert, I want to tell you something. You have come to live with a great man who loves you. Learn from him.’ And he gets up and walks away,” Izenberg remembered.
“Well that’s a helluva thing to do for me,” he went on. “The kids have been scared. They came to live with me two days earlier.”
The conversation continued.
“So is this your daughter here?” The Greatest inquired in a quiet tone.
“When you’re 7 years old, 8 years old, tell me what you think we’re talking about. She thinks I’m ratting her out about what she said about him,” Izenberg pointed out.
“So she’s trying to put her shoulders into the molecules in the wall, right? Because she thinks I’m ratting her out.”
As Izenberg remembers it, Ali said, “Little girl, will you come up here please. Little girl, I’m talking to you … You come up here right now!”
Izenberg’s daughter walks over to them slowly, and then…
“He swoops down, and he’s 6-3, and she wasn’t even 5 feet then,” the legendary columnist said. “He picks her up and holds her over his head. Now she has lost the total power of English. She cannot speak one word that means anything.”
The conversation shifted back to Ali.
“Is that your daddy?” he asked her.
“Is that your daddy?”
She mumbles again.
“Don’t you lie to me, little girl,” the boxer said. “Don’t you lie to me. That man is ugly. You’re beautiful. He’s not your daddy. The Gypsies musta brung you. Now give me a kiss right here (he points to his cheek).”
As they’re driving home, Izenberg and his daughter begin discussing boxing again.
“She says to me, ‘I hope Muhammad can win the fight.’ ”
Take a look at a compilation of readers’ thoughts on the book: What Others Are Saying About Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg.