Howard Bingham: A Remembrance
Howard Bingham, who died today, was Muhammad Ali’s truest, most trusted, loyal friend.
Bingham was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on May 29, 1939. For most of his life, he was a freelance photographer. Over the decades, he took more than 500,000 photos of Ali. If Muhammad was Don Quixote, then Howard was his Sancho Panza.
Years ago, Bingham told me how his relationship with Ali began.
“I was with a black newspaper in Los Angeles called The Sentinel,” Howard reminisced. “My assignment that day was to cover Ali at a news conference to announce an [April 23, 1962] fight at the Los Angeles Sports Arena against George Logan. I’d never heard of Cassius Clay, which was his name at the time. But I went to the news conference, introduced myself, took a couple of photos, and left. Then, that afternoon, I was driving downtown and saw these two guys on the corner of Fifth and Broadway, Cassius Clay and his brother Rudolph. I asked if they wanted a ride someplace because it looked like they were waiting for a bus, and they said no. They were just watching the girls go by. So I asked if they’d like to take a ride with me. They got in the car, and I had some errands to do. Then I took them by a bowling alley, to my mother’s house, and a couple of other places, and we hit it off good.”
“That was in the spring,” Bingham continued. “Ali came back to Los Angeles a couple of months later to fight Alejandro Lavorante, and then again at the end of the year for Archie Moore. Both times, I showed him around. He and Angelo offered me money to be a press secretary or guide and I did all that stuff, but I never took the money. It wasn’t something I wanted to get paid for. As far as I was concerned, we were friends. Then, on New Year’s Day 1963, Ali called me up and asked if I wanted to come to Miami and hang out with him for a while. I said yeah. I’d never been on an airplane before. I arrived in Miami on a Sunday night. Ali met me at the airport, and the next morning we drove to Louisville to his parents’ home. After that, we went to Pittsburgh, where he had a fight against Charlie Powell. I’d never been in cold weather before, so he bought me earmuffs, an overcoat and long underwear.”
I met Howard Bingham in 1988. Muhammad had married Lonnie Williams two years earlier. There was talk of a new biography that would update Ali’s life story and correct errors propagated by a faux autobiography – The Greatest: My Own Story – that had been written by Richard Durham and published in 1976. My name had come up as a prospective biographer. I was in Los Angeles on a business trip. Howard met me at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to check me out. Apparently, I passed the test because, in October 1988, I was called to a meeting in New York with Muhammad and Lonnie.
Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times followed. Howard was crucial to the researching and writing of the book. He set up interviews, educated me on the nuances of Ali’s life and defended me against attacks from Herbert Muhammad (Ali’s former manager, who was trying to torpedo the project because he didn’t have a financial interest in the book or control over it). He was my guardian angel.
When the first draft of the manuscript was complete, Muhammad, Lonnie, Howard and I gathered at the Ali’s home in Berrien Springs, Michigan, to read every word aloud. By agreement, there was to be no censorship. The purpose of our reading was to ensure that the book was factually accurate. Lonnie and I did all the reading with one exception.
I had told Muhammad that I wanted to dedicate the book to Howard.
Ali was pleased. “I’m glad you understand how good Howard is,” he said.
On day one of our reading, I asked Muhammad to read the dedication.
Ali stood up, cleared his throat, and very clearly read, “For Howard Bingham, there’s no one like him.”
“That’s a joke, right?” Howard said.
Muhammad shook his head and showed Howard the dedication page.
Howard began to cry.
Later that day, we came to a quote in the manuscript that put the dedication in context.
“Everybody says I love people,” Muhammad’s tribute to his friend read. “So it’s only fair that I have the best friend in the world, and that’s Howard Bingham. He never asks for anything. He’s always there when someone needs him. There’s no one like him. He’s the best there is. And if you write that, I don’t want Howard to think I’m getting soft, so write down that he’s lucky I’m his friend too. And tell him I said I’m the only person in the world who likes him.”
The end game for Howard wasn’t pretty. His final years were spent in an assisted living facility because of cognitive issues. Then doctors discovered cancer that had metastasized throughout his body. In April of this year, his oldest son died. On June 3, Ali left this world to join the immortals.
Howard’s bottom line was always what was best for Muhammad. Wherever they are now, I hope they’re together.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His most recent book – A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.