The Muhammad Ali that Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, knows and considers a good friend is always intelligent - but often slow of speech and frustrated - whether he's talking on the telephone or in person.
That's why Hatch describes as "unmitigated bull corn" and "almost racist" the conclusions in a series of stories in The Atlanta Constitution this week that essentially portray Ali as a brain-damaged boxer who is manipulated by a crafty lawyer, Richard M. Hirsch-feld.The stories say that someone, maybe Hirschfeld, is impersonating Ali on the telephone and fool-ing senators and journalists. It claims the "Ali voice" on the phone is more intelligent and politically savvy than the Ali that people meet in person.
Although Hatch said he talked to Atlanta Journal writer Dave Kindred and thinks that Kindred sincerely believes that theory, Hatch doesn't - and he's ready to defend his friend Ali, who even gave Hatch one of his championship belts, against such claims.
Hatch told reporters Monday, "It's tough for some people to believe that a black former heavyweight champion of the world could fight so much and get hit so hard that he doesn't have major brain damage that would make that person incompetent to act. That's unmitigated bull corn in my book.
"This man (Ali) is a bright man, an intelligent man. Frankly, that allegation . . . is almost racist, if it's not racist."
Kindred, who wrote the stories, was out of town and unavailable for his reaction, according to The Atlanta Journal sports desk.
Hatch said that he has spent enough time in person with Ali - including making campaign appearances together in Utah and at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans - and knows many of Ali's idiosyncrasies well enough that it would "take a top-rate, professional impressionist" to have fooled him consistently throughout some of their intricate hourlong telephone conversations.
But Hatch did decide to do some checking of his own earlier this year when he became aware of Kindred's theory - shortly after Kindred tried to interview Ali at a Hatch campaign appearance in Salt Lake City, and Hirschfeld almost threw him out of the room because of mutual animosity.
Hatch said he wove into his telephone conversations with Ali references to personal conversations about which only the two of them would know. Hatch said Ali "knew what was going on," and that was sufficient to convince Hatch that he was talking to the real heavyweight champion.
Some people might think that Ali was brain damaged if they talked to him at the wrong time, Hatch said. He said when Ali is rested and has recently taken medication for Parkinson's syndrome, he is witty and speaks well. But when he is tired, under stress or has not had medication recently, he has trouble speaking rapidly and speaks in only a whisper.
"But he's always intelligent, if you give him enough time," he said.
On one of his bad days, Hatch remembers, "He told me, `Senator, I feel like a very intelligent man who would love to break out of this body so I could speak.' " Hatch said that is not an unintelligent person speaking.