As an eight-year-old, Earnest Butts Jr., was nervous about boxing in a tournament in the hometown of Muhammad Ali.
Butts, however, became calm when he was able to meet the boxing great prior to Butts’ first fight in Louisville, Kentucky. Butts, now the head trainer of the Macon Bibb United Boxing Club, is among the scores of people fondly remembering Ali following his death on Friday night.
Ali transcended boxing, and became a controversial figure for his stances on issues and later one of the most beloved figures in the world. The 74-year-old, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, passed away Friday at an Arizona hospital.
“It actually took the fear away going into the Louisville fight,” said Butts, 52. “I was so thrilled to meet him that the fight at hand was just small. It made me feel better.”
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Butts, whose father was a professional boxer, said Ali is an example that others should follow on how they battle through tough times.
“I always speak to my kids about how he came up and the adversity he went through,” Butts said.
Ali’s performance in the ring was nearly outshined by his verbal gymnastics, earning his way into press clippings and soundbites, and sometimes inside the heads of his opponents.
Macon native James Hand, center director of the Macon-Bibb County boxing club that fights out of Freedom Park, said Ali inspired him to be vocal about his ability.
“People say I talk a lot of trash, but truth be told I got that from Ali,” Hand said. “He used to talk a lot of trash, but he backed it up.”
As a teenager, Hand said he nearly cried watching Ali lose to Ken Norton in March of 1973. In that fight, Ali suffered a broken jaw due to a punch from Norton, and ended up losing to Norton by split decision.
Learning about Ali’s death on Friday was another emotional moment for Hand.
“I was just shocked,” the 57-year-old said. “It was like a family member died.”
Ali’s convictions also led to him being robbed of some of his best years as a boxer. He missed nearly four years in the ring during his 20s after he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army at a time the nation was involved in the Vietnam War.
“We probably never even saw him at his tip-top best,” Hand said.
Ali was able to “inspire others with his spirit,” he said.
“Even though his record wasn’t the best of all time, he was still the best because he spoke his mind and most of the time was right,” Hand said.
Like many boxers, part of Ali’s desire to become a champion boxer came from him growing up in poverty. He was about 6’2 and 220 lbs but had the speed of fighters much smaller than him, Butts said.
“Sure enough, he was the greatest boxer, but he was also a great person overall,” Butts said.
Ali’s impact in other countries was evident when Ali fought against Joe Frazier in 1975 in the Philippines. The epic final bout of a trilogy ended with Ali emerging as the victor, although both fighters suffered considerable damage during the bout.
“When he went to the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, the people loved him,” Butts said. “They thought he was God.”
Charlie Brundage, a barber at Macon’s House of Kings barbershop, remembers watching Ali’s fights on closed-circuit television.
“He made a big impact on a lot of guys,” he said Saturday afternoon at the Plum Street shop. “He did some things that never been done before. He was a man of principle.”
He noted that in Ali’s heyday the caliber of championship level heavyweight fighters was much stronger than today. But even more than fighting, Ali stood for much more than that.
“He’ll be a great loss to the community and the country also,” Brundage said.
Telegraph reporter Wynston Wilcox contributed to this report.