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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

Journalist who spent a week with Muhammad Ali speaks at Bengal Bouts finals

Journalist and author Cal Fussman spent a week with Muhammad Ali to write a front-page story for Esquire Magazine in 2003. By the week’s end, Fussman had no idea what to write about his childhood hero, who at that point was limited by age and the onset of Parkinson’s disease. That’s when Fussman stepped into the boxing gym with Ali.

The two soon stood gloved up — toe-to-toe and eye-to-eye. A few moments later, Fussman watched the heavyweight champion dance around the ring once more.

“I thought I’d pushed him as far as I possibly could, but he had more to give,” Fussman said.

Illuminated by a spotlight and controlling the Joyce Center ring with his words, Fussman highlighted Ali’s resiliency in his speech between bouts of the Bengal Bouts tournament finals. He championed Ali’s mindset and said Notre Dame boxers display their own laudable ability to overcome obstacles.

Fussman tells full-circle story of Bengal champion Shawn Newburg

“I’ve been to a lot of boxing events, seen world champions and for the last 50 years, I have never seen anything like this,” Fussman said of the Saturday night final bouts. “It doesn’t stop here, because everything in this club keeps going forward.”

Fussman then told a story about Sam Fuller and Shawn Newburg, Bengal Bouts boxing teammates in 2002. Fuller, a novice and underdog, followed Newburg’s coaching to win his bout over Jon Pribaz by split decision. According to The Observer, “Fuller was knocked down, but rallied to win against Alumni’s Jon Pribaz” in a surprising comeback.

A few years later, as Fuller was applying for medical school, he met the father of his opponent, who just so happened to be the chief of surgery interviewing Fuller for a surgical residency spot at Harvard.

“‘Tell me something about Notre Dame,’” Fussman narrated in the voice of Pribaz’s father, the interviewer and chief of surgery.

According to Fussman’s story, Fuller responded: “‘One of my best moments at Notre Dame was beating your son in Bengal Bouts.’”

Fussman then explained that Newburg tragically passed away in a car accident in 2006. He is buried in Notre Dame’s Cedar Grove Cemetery, his headstone engraved with a boxing glove. Newburg was a boxing captain in 2002 and 2003 for his junior and senior years. He also wrote for The Observer, primarily as a Scene film critic. He became a three-time Bengal Bouts champion in 2003.

“It’s unique,” Newburg told The Observer in 2003. “We get in great shape, we make real friends and we can make a life-saving difference for people who need it halfway around the world.”

Newburg’s legacy lives on through a scholarship. Jack “The Ghost” Phillips, the current Bengal Bouts president, is the recipient of that scholarship. This year, Phillips advanced to the semifinals, losing to Patrick “PSweet” Sweet by split decision.

Though Phillips had only fought in one bout prior to this year due to study abroad, COVID cancellation and food poisoning, Fussman said boxing will stick with him forever.

“What plays out in Jack’s life over the next decade is going to be tremendous,” Fussman said. “I know how special this all is and how special Jack is because he changed my life by inviting me here to tell my Muhammad Ali story to all of you here in a boxing ring.”

Fussman relates time he met Muhammad Ali to ND boxing

The chance to write a feature on Ali arrived with the 70th anniversary of Esquire Magazine. Since Ali had been on the cover more than anyone else in those decades, Esquire editors wanted Fussman to write an update, especially after the world watched him battle through shaking limbs to light the Olympic Torch for the 1996 Olympics.

“We want to put him on the cover and we want you to write a cover story. I’m thinking ‘Oh man, this is my childhood hero. I can almost not speak,’” Fussman recalled.

The first few encounters for the story were difficult.

“I say to him, 'Champ, champ, I want to find out all the wisdom you’ve accumulated in your life,’  but he doesn’t seem to be paying attention,” Fussman recalled. “His right hand is jangling from his elbows down to his fingertips. Now both of his hands.”

Even in his later days, Ali displayed a lightheartedness.

“I said, ‘Champ, champ, are you okay?’” Fussman recalled. “Slowly, his head comes up and he looks me in the eye and he says, 'Scared you, huh?'"

Fussman became acquainted with Ali through days filled with wheelchair transport, labored breathing, reclining cushion chairs, spontaneous naps and Parkinson’s medication that dyed the boxer's tongue orange. Although Ali could barely speak, he was still performing magic tricks for visitors. The week created a conundrum for Fussman, who was still unsure what to write.

“I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to explain this in a magazine story?’” Fussman said.

Ali’s wife was the one who suggested Fussman and Ali visit the gym. When he stepped inside, Fussman said he noticed the gym looked barely used, without even a hint of sweat in the air. Photos of Ali’s iconic fights framed the space, many of them featuring another famed boxer, "Smokin' Joe" Frazier. 

Fussman said the photos reminded him of how Frazier stood uncontested for three years when Ali could not fight due to a court case involving his stance as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Ali eventually won his case in the Supreme Court and jumped back into the ring against Frazier — with a little rust on his punches. 

“Only Ali is a little older, and he wasn’t as fast as he was, and he started to get hit,” Fussman said. The tide began to turn, however, when Ali’s corner started screaming, “‘The world needs the champ! Go in the well once more!’”

“Always, Ali would reach inside himself and find what he needed to raise himself to the next level,” Fussman said.

Staring at those photos, Fussman knew his question: “What is still in the well?”

Still unsure how to ask, Fussman gloved up and helped Ali glove up, too.

“Now I’m standing there, looking at Muhammad Ali with boxing gloves on,” Fussman remembered.

Mimicking the same show he gave Ali, Fussman began vigorously shadowboxing and bouncing around the ring, in the same style as Frazier, Ali’s former opponent. The crowd in the Joyce Center reacted with thunderous cheering and applause.

“Oh, so that’s your question?’” Ali asked, as Fussman continued the story. “And he waved me into the ring, and I saw something I thought I’d never see again — Muhammad Ali start to dance.”

But the stupor didn’t last. Fussman said Ali soon crossed his feet, stumbled and fell. Before Fussman could help him up, “he’s flipped on his back, and he’s doing stomach crunches.”

“I see what’s in the well. You don’t have to do it anymore,’” Fussman told Ali.

“‘It feels good,’ [Ali said],” Fussman remembered. “ I thought I’d pushed him as far as I possibly could, but he had more to give.”

Later that night, Ali showed Fussman a sheet of paper. He “points to a line in the center. It says: God will not place a burden on a man’s shoulders knowing that he can’t carry it,” Fussman said.

To cap off the night, Ali served Fussman a bowl of ice cream.

“I was able to, for a moment, bring out the best in the person who had inspired me over the years, just as everybody who’s stepped in this ring tonight is going to be great,” Fussman said.

He said the boxers in the ring Saturday night would meet many challenges and achieve great things.

“[For] many people, we don’t even know what’s coming, but it’s going to be fantastic,” he concluded.