Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles cuts right through the heart of Beverly Hills. One particularly famous stretch of the street, between Fairfax and Highland Avenues, is known as ‘the Miracle Mile’.
From a ledge nine floors above this busy road in South California, a 21-year-old man, hooded, wearing flapping flared jeans, straddles the narrow divide between life and death precariously. He is visibly agitated. It is 19 January 1981. He looks down at the congregated mass of people almost 100 feet below him and says, “I’m no good. I’m going to jump.”
Some below tell him to do it. Traffic slows to stare at the spectacle. Emergency services and news teams rush to the scene. Hours pass. There are moments when the fall seems imminent, others when retreat seems possible. But unfortunately, a policeman, a psychologist, and a minister all fail to talk him down. More time goes by.
And then, to the suicidal man’s left, appears the beautiful, brown face. It is that of a man dressed in a dark suit and tie, leaning out of a window, staring passionately, focused purely on this desperate figure.
“You're my brother. I love you and I wouldn't lie to you. You got to listen. I want you to come home with me, meet some friends of mine,” says the second man, peering around a pillar to get a look at the suicidal man.
He has arrived after blazing to the scene, driving down the wrong side of the road, running across the street, past the crowds, heading straight upstairs, ignoring the cries of the masses behind him. He is intent on convincing this man that his life is still worth living.
This is the greatest athlete of the 20th century. This is Muhammad Ali, and over the course of a nerve-shredding 20 minutes he will convince this man that today will not be the day that he will die. As Charles Bukowski said, “You begin saving the world by saving one man at a time.”
The Greatest’s roll-call of achievements is longer and more distinguished than most. Far more than perhaps the best boxer of all time. The only three-time lineal heavyweight champion, human and civil rights activist, a messiah to many across the planet. Sports icon isn’t a term of any justice.
“Jump! Jump! Jump!” bellowed some of the crowd staring up into the LA sky. Police hadn’t got anywhere in their attempts to persuade the man, who they would call ‘Joe’ and appeared to be a war veteran, to come away from the ledge. “He seemed to think he was in Vietnam,” said a police spokesman, “with the Viet Cong coming at him.” When the services of Muhammad Ali miraculously apparated, they were quickly rendered, without any protestation. Sgt Bruce Haggerty later recounted to documentarian Andrew Jenks, “Nothing was working. None of our tools were working. Out of nowhere we see this black Rolls Royce pull up.
“Ali asked if he could go up and talk to him and I said ‘OK, we can do this but there’s some rules of engagement.’ He was then escorted by officers up to where the man was.”
Ali’s friend and photographer Howard Bingham had been amongst the purportedly bloodthirsty mob below. But instead of joining in the taunts, Bingham had called Ali, who lived nearby.
“About four minutes later,” Bingham later told reporters, “Ali comes driving up the wrong side of the street in his Rolls Royce with his lights blinking.”
Video cameras captured the dramatic scenes, as did The Los Angeles Times photographer Boris Yaro who had ignored the protestations of his editor to attend to reports of the suicidal jumper after hearing on the radio. Yaro drove over to the Miracle Mile regardless and when he saw Ali run into the building he started clicking. His incredible photographs capture the fighter - actually in the year of his retirement from the ring - participating in one more battle, with the most dangerous type of opponent - one who is ready to lay down his life.
Confronted with the most famous sportsman who ever lived, ‘Joe’ finally opened the door of the fire escape to allow Ali to come to talk to him, allowing the boxer to remain metres away. Eventually, Ali put his arm around Joe and convinced the man to come down. Joe was taken to the psychiatrist ward of the veteran’s hospital, with Ali promising to visit him later that week.
Afterwards Ali said, “I'm going to help him go to school and find a job, buy him some clothes. I'm going to go home with him to meet his mother and father. They called him a nobody, so I'm going home with him. I'll walk the streets with him and they'll see he's big.
“Every day I'm going to visit him in the hospital. I told him I'd stay close to him.”
As they exited the building, policemen began chanting. The sounds of ‘Jump! Jump! Jump!’ just an hour before heard on the Miracle Mile, were now replaced with ‘USA! USA! USA!’ Ali had asked Sgt Haggerty if he could drive away Joe in his Rolls Royce, which he was permitted, albeit with Joe handcuffed.
The next evening in the primetime news slot, CBS and Walter Conkrite covered the story, Ali’s latest triumph even overshadowing President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.
“Former heavyweight champions slip out of the news as easily as ex-Presidents,” read Cronkite, “But Muhammad Ali was never your garden variety champion of all the world.
“Yesterday in Los Angeles he responded like a superhero.”