Three-time heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali came to town Thursday night to urge Utahns to re-elect Sen. Orrin Hatch, but landed a surprise knockout punch in the process.
"I am one day thinking about getting myself into politics, and am gradually sneaking around to get my face acquainted," he said. "I think I am going to be the first black president," he teased, flashing that unmistakable Ali grin.Ali, sporting a "Bush in 1988 - Hatch in 1996" button on his dark, tailored suit, quickly garnered the support of the Utah senator, who sparred with his friend before members of the press.
The champ's appearance at the Capitol was the highlight of a weeklong series of events held across the state to kick off Hatch's re-election bid. With balloons flying above his head, Ali strolled through a crowd of dozens of partisan fans, stooping to hug every youngster along the way.
Hatch isn't Ali's first political ally. He has also campaigned for Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown and deceased Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. He's also expected to stump for Vice President Bush and Virginia senatorial candidate Charles S. Robb this year.
Ali, 46, said he knows little about politics and only backs politicians he feels his fans can trust. And Hatch, with whom Ali also appeared during the Republican National Convention in New Orleans, is clearly in that camp.
"My friend volunteered to come out here, and frankly it's a very humbling thing to have one of the greatest people in the world to be my friend to begin with, and secondly come and visit me in Utah," said Hatch, who was wearing a diamond-studded championship ring. He said Ali had loaned the ring to him for good luck during the campaign. The ring is inscribed with the names of three boxers Ali defeated to win championships: Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Leon Spinks.
Hatch, who repeatedly referred to Ali as "pretty," said the champ promised to have a copy of the ring made for him as a gift - a gift, he said, he'll have to report in congresional financial disclosures.
"I have enjoyed this relationship as much as any I have ever had. He's had a dramatic imprint on my life and I care for this man. I always thought he was the greatest fighter who ever lived.
"You thought, you thought?" Ali jabbed, reminding the press of that quick and confident rhetoric that endeared the boxer to people around the world.
"Well, I didn't know until you threatened to hit me the other day," said Hatch, himself a former amateur boxer.
The lanky senator and the broad-shouldered champion could easily have been tagged, "the odd couple." But the mutual respect and affection between them was evident.
"This is my man," said Ali, whose speech is soft and slurred now - the result of his being plagued for several years with Parkinson's syndrome - and was almost drowned out by cameras clicking during the press conference. Actually, Ali invited himself to Utah to "give my name and my fame, and all my prestige to a man who speaks his piece. I know he's (Hatch) a good man. I can feel it. I can see it in his eyes."
The legend and senator first met in Washington, D.C., last year after the Utahn helped a friend of the ex-boxer secure a Justice Department appointment.
This year Hatch is a strong favorite to win a third term. He led Democratic senatorial candidate Brian Moss by 47 percentage points in a recent Deseret News-KSL-TV poll, and has raised about $2 million for the campaign, about 20 times more than Moss.
But Moss thinks Hatch has got Ali fooled.
In a telegram sent to Ali, he urged the champ to reconsider his support of Hatch. "Check with some political advisers you trust," Moss wrote. "If you do, I suspect you would agree with me that it is past time to send Orrin to the showers."
In the telegram Moss welcomed Ali to Utah and complimented him on his prowess in the ring, but told the champ he "has it all wrong" when it comes to Hatch.
"There are many things he (Hatch) stands for which I am certain you would agree are not right," Moss wrote. "He has tried to block reauthorization of civil rights legislation, supported cutbacks in education funds for economically disadvantaged children and opposed adequate funding for the homeless and the hungry."
Ali, who said he had not received the telegram, asked annoyingly, "Who is Moss?"
"He's my opponent for the Senate this year," Hatch replied.
"Tell Moss you're the boss," said Ali, rolling his mischievous eyes.
The friendly jabs and hooks ended when other Republican candidates, eager to have their picture taken with the world champion, crowded outside the press conference.
Before departing for the photo session and a rally to raise money for the Committee for a Republican Majority, Ali presented the senator with another symbol of his friendship.
On a large gold glove, Ali wrote: "To Orrin. Love, Muhammad Ali. Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth."
The senator and champ hosted a private dinner at Little America later Thursday night for a small group of supporters to raise $5,000 to pay for Ali's traveling expenses.
Friday, they will travel to Southern California to campaign for a Republican congressman. They will return for more public appearances, including one at Primary Children's Medical Center, in Salt Lake Saturday.