Off the streets; in the ring
Fighting under his former name, Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali won gold for the United States at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome.
It was here in New Orleans that Ali (56-5) made history. On Sept. 15, 1978, Ali won a 15-round unanimous decision over Leon Spinks at the Louisiana Superdome to become the first and only three-time heavyweight champion of the world.
After Ali died June 3, at the age of 74, personal recollections of “The Greatest” have continued to flow from boxing gyms, barrooms and street corners.
Among those locals with an Ali tale to tell are two former boxers who saw Ali up close, after he retired in 1981.
Albert “Brother Al” Mims Jr., 63, of Central City, boxed briefly before becoming an internationally ranked kick-boxer. A cement-finisher, Mims has been a community activist since his father was murdered in 1987.
Mike “The Rock” Ricca, 42, (10-1) of Lakeview, a cruiserweight, retired in 2006 after winning his final fight in six rounds by a unanimous decision. Before the fight, Ricca dedicated the bout to two friends on the New Orleans Police Department who died unexpectedly in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.
Both men remain passionate advocates of education and sports for youths as alternatives to crime and drugs.
Their stories are a tribute to Ali and boxing in Louisiana, which in 1891, became the first state to legalize prizefighting.
One day in the early 1980s, Mims recalls, Peter “Champ” Clark, a pioneering black sportscaster in New Orleans and a licensed boxing announcer, called.
It was a call an ambitious fighter like Mims would answer.
Clark’s long list of boxing achievements included being the first black appointed to the Louisiana State Athletic Commission overseeing boxing and wrestling. He also served as announcer for hundreds of local bouts, including two dozen major fights including the historic Ali-Spinks at the Superdome in 1978.
On the phone, Clark said, ‘We’re going to the Landmark Hotel (for a banquet).”
Located in Metairie, the Landmark was major fight venue overlooking Interstate-10 West.
A local tuxedo store loaned Mims a dinner jacket.
At the Landmark, Clark and Mims joined several nationally ranked boxers: Floyd Patterson, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers and the fighter who had defeated them all – Muhammad Ali.
The Champ stood in a corner away from the rest of the crowd.
“Ali was doing magic tricks. He made handkerchiefs disappear in his hand. He pulled silver dollars from behind your ear.”
Ali then posed with a photograph with Mims and joked with the star-struck New Orleans kickboxer. “He said, ‘I’m going to take a picture with you Mims, but don’t kick me!’”
The Champ also offered advice: “‘The biggest fight of your life is not in the ring, it’s in life.’ ‘The fight is easy but life is hard.’ And, ‘it’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get up.’ Some of the stuff he told me wasn’t new, but coming from him it sounded different!”
During a chance meeting with a reporter in May near NOPD headquarters (715 South Broad St.), Mims’ recollections of Ali gave him a respite from grieving the loss of his mother, who died earlier this year. You can train for a fight, but there’s no way to prepare for the loss of your mother, the ex-fighter said, adding, “There’s no defense against it.”
On a more recent day, Mims laughed as he recalled another bit of Ali’s advice: “After you have done all you can do – do some more! That’s what makes champions!”
“Nothing stops a fight like a solid punch to the solar plexus,” former boxer Mike Ricca says by phone from a boxing gym.
Outside the ring, nothing breaks the cycle of violence like “a show of respect,” says Ricca, a former Golden Gloves boxer who coached boys and girls track at Lusher High School.
“Boxing builds self-confidence and the drive to meet and accomplish goals. It gives you organization and structure of your time, and the respect of others. You beat on each other, but you also learn good sportsmanship.”
Around 1990, Criminal Court Judge Laurie White – then a criminal defense attorney – brought several boxers, including Ricca, to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for a series of three-round amateur fights.
Ricca, a presidential history buff who graduated from the University of New Orleans with an undergraduate degree in history, sparred with former Olympic boxing hopeful Isaac Knapper (5-5) of New Orleans, who was serving life for the 1979 murder of a tourist. (In ’91, Knapper was released from Angola after attorney White won a court reversal conviction, successfully arguing that NOPD withheld evidence of Knapper’s innocence, according to the Innocence Project-New Orleans.)
Ricca turned pro in 2001.
On Aug. 23, 2003, he fought an undercard bout prior to one of the biggest stars in women’s boxing, super middleweight Laila Ali – the eighth of the Champ’s nine children – at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum at Biloxi, Mississippi.
Before Ricca’s fight began, Muhammad Ali himself walked into an open area locker-room for all fighters at the event.
“He was trying to find his daughter. I didn’t talk to him. My trainer, Frank Saatar, talked with him. Looking back, I wish I would have talked to him, but I was too focused on my fight. I wanted for him to see me do well.”
Ricca won his six-round fight by a unanimous decision.
Laila Ali (24-0) won her fight by a knockout.
Since the 19th century, prize fighting in New Orleans has “offered young men [emphasis added] from disadvantaged groups an opportunity to elude poverty and discrimination,” including blacks and Irish immigrants, according to historian Dale A. Somers’ book, The Rise of Sports in New Orleans, 1850-1900, (LSU Press, 1972.)
Today, Ricca works as a trainer for six amateur fighters – including one female boxer who’s on the path blazed by Ali’s daughter, Laila.
She is Bridget Wallis, a Mount Carmel Academy honor roll graduate who enters the University of Louisiana at Lafayette this fall. “She turns 18 this August,” Ricca says.
At this writing, Wallis is training for an amateur bout July 15 at Friday Night Fights gym in Central City.