The man behind the champ: Ali doc digs deep

Gene Kilroy first met Muhammad Ali in Rome at the 1960 Olympic Games. Ali was a light heavyweight medal hopeful for the U.S. known at the time as Cassius Marcellus Clay. Kilroy was in the Army.

They were walking the streets with several other men when a beggar approached them and asked for money. Ali, who was 18 years old, had $8 in his pocket.

He handed the man $3. Kilroy admonished him.

“I said, ‘Cassius, why did you do that?’” Kilroy told Yahoo Sports on Thursday. “And he said, ‘God might have been testing me. If he’s lying, he has to answer to God. But I don’t.’”

That was the start of a lifetime relationship between the two men, which ended in 2016 when Ali died at 74 and Kilroy served as one of his pallbearers.

Kilroy was one of the key subjects telling Ali’s story during Ken Burns’ brilliant four-part documentary on Ali that aired on PBS from Sunday through Wednesday. It is available to stream on the PBS website.

The documentary shows a complicated man, one who was athletically brilliant and not highly educated but very smart.

The two things that came out of the series, though, was Ali’s growth as a person and his eagerness to do what he saw as God’s work.

Kilroy, a longtime Las Vegas casino host, clearly reveres Ali and often rails at media portrayals of his friend. He was largely pleased with the documentary, but spent time Thursday talking to Yahoo Sports about the many extraordinary acts of kindness he saw from Ali before, during and after his fabled career.

They were in Malaysia together once when a woman approached Kilroy, wanting to meet Ali.

“She told me her son was sick and wanted Ali to talk to him,” Kilroy said.

That was all the information he had, but Kilroy went up to Ali’s room, told him about the woman and their discussion and asked Ali if he’d be willing to meet the son. Ali quickly agreed, and the next day they traveled to see the woman and her son.

It turned out they were going to a leper colony and the son was 22 years old. Ali got out of the car and with no hesitation, walked up to the man and embraced him.

“Ali just gives him this huge hug and smiles and they talked for a good long while,” Kilroy said. “We got back, and I went and took about 10 showers. Ali said to me, ‘I’m not concerned. God will look out for me.’”

The documentary showed all sides of Ali, including his womanizing and his occasional cruelty to opponents. Pointing out the flaws only served to make more powerful the image that emerged of Ali as a compassionate figure whose primary goal in his post-boxing career was to affect positive change in the world.

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 06:  Muhammad Ali punches a globe at the Plaza Hotel on February 6, 2001 in Rome, Italy. The great career of the most famous American boxer is highlighted by an Olympic gold medal in light- heavyweight at the Rome 1960 Games and three World Heavyweight Champion titles. Ali was also crowned Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated and the BBC.  (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Muhammad Ali punches a globe at the Plaza Hotel on Feb. 6, 2001, in Rome. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

When he was living in Los Angeles, police called him because a man was near the top of a tall building threatening to jump off a window ledge. Somehow, the police negotiator learned that the man was a fan of Ali’s, so the police asked if Ali would help.

There is a dramatic photo of Ali leaning out of a window in a room next to where the man was threatening to jump. Ali spoke to him and persuaded him not to jump.

Kilroy once took him to a Shriner’s Hospital in Philadelphia to meet a 7-year-old boy who had no arms. The doctors were going to attach artificial arms, but the boy didn’t want them. He’d learn to do everything with his feet, including eating.

Doctors asked Ali to talk to him.

Ali embraced the young man and spoke quietly to him. Then, he told the boy that when he had his new arms, he’d be throwing punches and jabbing like him.

The boy agreed to get the arms and learn how to use them. Kilroy glanced around the room at the doctors, nurses and family members who were watching the interaction the boy had with Ali.

“There were tears in the eyes of all of them,” Kilroy said.

Ali’s largesse was legendary and Kilroy said he saw Ali reach into his pocket and give what he had to someone else “hundreds, thousands of times. It didn’t happen once or twice or 10 times and 20. It happened all the time, every single day just about anywhere we went.”

Burns’ documentary painted an intimate portrait of the real Ali, the man behind the headlines.

His most extraordinary accomplishment wasn’t in winning the heavyweight title at 22 or becoming the first man to have three stints as a champion.

It was his life as an ambassador to the world, who grew and learned throughout his life and was determined to make his world better bit by bit.

One day, Kilroy and Ali left a home for Jewish senior citizens that was in financial difficulty. Ali had written two checks, one for $200,000 to help the home immediately and another post-dated for two weeks in the future for $150,000.

When they left, Ali talked about what he’d done and uttered what would become one of his famous quotes.

“He said that the money he gave would help get the home back on its feet and maybe with all the publicity the act got, it would encourage others to donate to fully fix the problem,” Kilroy said. “I said something like that was remarkable or amazing and Ali said to me, ‘Kindness to others is the rent you pay for your place on Earth.’”