By Phil Johnson
When Muhammad Ali died this month, the world lost a great athlete who turned out to be much more. He earned the respect of people throughout the world. No one was more proud of that than the late Ben Becker.
Ben Becker was a former boxer and boxing coach in Albany N.Y. No one who ever met him face to face challenged those credentials. He looked the part – think rougher version of the actor Pat O’Brien in Knute Rockne: All-American.
In 1960, Becker, by then, a hard-nosed high school administrator and disciplinarian – no one ever had to be called into his office a second time- was chosen as one of three coaches for the US Boxing Team competing at the Olympic Games in Rome. His light heavyweight boxer, Cassius Clay, won the gold medal.
Clay, a trash talker even then, was a Becker favorite and a boxing legend as early as 1964 when he won the heavyweight championship upsetting Sonny Liston. Soon to become known as Muhammad Ali, the boxer’s prominence grew well beyond the ring, mainly because of his outsized personality, his conversion to Islam and affiliation with The Nation of Islam, and his principled refusal to be drafted into the military during the Viet Nam War.
Although they kept in touch for several years, by the mid-1970s it had been a while since Becker and Ali had spoken. By that time, Ali was again the Heavyweight Champion of the World and Becker had retired after a 40-year career working in the Albany schools.
In 1979 Ali was scheduled to make a public appearance at the State University of New York at Albany. Earlier that year, I had written a profile of Becker for the University’s alumni magazine. And he reached out to me to see if he could attend a reception being held for Ali before the boxer’s public remarks that evening.
He could come with me, I said.
Becker wasn’t sure Ali would recognize him. It was 19 years after the Rome Olympics, several years since they had been in touch, and Ali was -arguably – now the most famous athlete in the world.
Becker was one of a small group waiting just inside the rear entrance of the University’s Alumni House when Ali came through the door. All of a sudden the champ stopped.
He spotted his old coach.
“BEN BEKKA!” Ali shouted. Then he took two steps and threw a huge bear hug around his former coach. They exchanged private words, heard only by the two. But those of us watching knew it was a moment of genuine, mutual affection.
That evening Ali went on to say he wanted “nothing to do with boxing anymore” (a pledge he would break and make several more times before retiring from the ring in 1981). But he had the full attention of the 3,000 on hand.
No matter how many were there, the happiest person in the room was Ben Becker. He was proud of Ali. And the champ had remembered.
Becker died in 1987 at age 80.
Phil Johnson, a longtime freelance writer, was Director of Communications at the State University of New York at Albany when Ali and Becker reunited in 1979.