"The Greatest" brought his fading boxing skills, and his legendary flair for promotion, to Denver in 1979. We were thinking about that moment when we heard the news that Muhammad Ali died Friday at age 74.
On a hot summer day, in a boxing ring installed on the floor of Mile High Stadium, Muhammad Ali faced off against Denver Bronco defensive end Lyle Alzado in an exhibition match. Ali was handsomely paid. Alzado, looking to up his profile and gain contract leverage with the Broncos, had mortgaged his house to foot the bills.
The bout ended weeks of hype. Ali taunted Alzado at press conferences and touted his own boxing skills, saying the football player wouldn't have a chance. The chatter, though, didn't draw many fans to the fight. A crowd of 15,000 showed up, leaving 60,000 Mile High seats unfilled.
Denver Post sportswriter Terry Frei watched the fight that day. He spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner as the world remembers Ali.
Terry Frei on what people expected to see:
"I think the people who showed up -- I think there were about 50,000 -- there was a sense of anticipation as long as they had a realistic outlook on what they were going to see. They were going to see an over-the-hill icon fighter going against a Denver Bronco and there was kind of a subtle agreement they wouldn't go all out and try to hit each other, it had those kinds of things but the atmosphere was, if you had to crack attitude about it. This was going to be a fun way to see Muhammad Ali in a boxing ring."
On Alzado's motivation:
"He had been a Golden Gloves fighter previously. He grew up in New York and there had been talk that maybe he would leverage this possibility of going into boxing as a leverage in his contract negotiations with the Broncos. That's what he was doing it or and the promotion before the fight was all based on those premises -- and I think they fouled up the promotion. They tried to treat it as a serious boxing match instead of the idea, hey come on out, have fun at Mile High Stadium and see the three-time world champion who had allegedly retired. He did come back and fight twice more, but at that point he was supposed to have been retired."
Why Mohammed Ali would have agreed to this:
"He missed the spotlight to an extent, but he also was paid an extensive amount of money, based on the premise that they believed it was going to be a huge box office draw in an outdoor football stadium going against the Denver Bronco. They turned out to have calculated wrong, but Muhammad Ali was paid rather handsomely and it was viewed as kind of an afternoon where he broke a sweat broke a made a lot of money. There are significant stories that lend credence to the idea that Muhammad Ali was financially troubled in the sense of not taking full advantage all the money it made over the years. And of course he had that dark period where in the prime of his career he couldn't fight at all. So I think he was very conscious of getting the big paycheck and also stepping back into the spotlight and being a part of what they all thought going in was going to be a huge afternoon at Mile High Stadium."