Sports enthusiasts from all over the world are mourning the death Muhammad Ali, and those in Northeastern Pennsylvania are no different.
“He was like no other,” said Ian Hughes of Wilkes-Barre, who is a lifelong fan and painter of the sport. “He was more than an athlete, he was such a social figure in the 60s and 70s — he was bigger than just a boxer.”
Hughes explained that Ali created the loud, brass, “trash-talking” persona that many celebrity athletes emulate today.
“Every boxer now wants to be him,” Hughes said. “But as far as I’m concerned, there will never be another Muhammad Ali.”
Aside from floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee in the ring, Ali almost lost it all at the height of his career while protesting the Vietnam War.
Accused by the U.S. government of draft evasion, Ali was stripped of his title and was unable to fight until four years later, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971.
His deep — and very public — opposition to the war boosted his celebrity status even higher and his willpower demanded respect, regardless of whether someone liked him or not, according to Jack Marie Smith of Laurel Run.
“He was a rebel. He stood up for what he believed in,” said Smith, a retired amateur boxer who once went punch-for-punch with Ali’s rival, Joe Frazier, at the Allentown Fair in 1962. “Even if you didn’t like him, he commanded respect from everyone — and he got it.”
Smith said he can remember many of Ali’s fights, noting that most of the greatest boxers of that era are now gone. But aside from being a fighter, Smith said he was very generous as well.
“Muhammad Ali was a very generous guy — with his money, his time, and his fans,” he said. “He leaves behind an incredible legacy of determination, willpower and courage. He will forever be remembered as one of the greatest fighters of all time.”
Once Ali was able to fight again, he purchased and built a training camp overlooking the Poconos in Deer Lake, where he trained from 1972 until 1981. Ali later sold the camp in 1997 to George Dillman, an old friend of the boxer’s, who still owns the property today.
The camp’s location meant that Ali would often travel near or through the Wyoming Valley.
Luckily for Don Skiro, now a resident of Plains Township, Ali’s tour bus happened to break down right in downtown Wilkes-Barre around in the mid-70s.
At the time, Skiro was teen and working the graveyard shift at the old Wilkes-Barre Publishing Company as a mailroom clerk.
“I was going into work and saw some cop cars with a tow truck pulling a tour bus,” he said of the event.
Skiro said he walked into work and the reporters told him it was Ali’s tour bus that was being towed. So Skiro and a friend decided to go over and check out the scene, only to find the boxer himself standing outside the bus with his entourage.
“Ali said ‘Do you drive?,’” Skiro recalled. “I said ‘Yes,’ then he asked me what was the first thing I ever learned about driving.
“Checking the oil,” he said, assuming Ali meant the engine in the bus blew because it was out of oil.
Skiro said they got to spend about an hour with the boxing legend, ultimately changing his view of the celebrity.
“The funny thing was, I was a fight fan, but not an Ali fan,” Skiro said, claiming Ali’s antics drew him away from the boxer. “Then I realized most of that was to sell tickets. I wasn’t a fan until that day — until I found out he was just a regular guy.”