Rosie Perez: ‘Muhammad Ali will always be my perfect flawed hero’
Today marks the 75th anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s birth. To celebrate the occasion, Epix will televise an original documentary entitled “Muhammad Ali: A Life.”
I was involved in the making of the documentary, both as a talking head and on the production end. One of the pleasures that came with the job was working with Rosie Perez.
Perez is best known as an actress whose breakthrough films were “Do the Right Thing” and “White Men Can’t Jump.” She has been nominated for an Academy Award and three Emmys. She’s also a community activist, a choreographer and a serious boxing fan.
Rosie participated in “Muhammad Ali: A Life” and is on camera throughout the documentary. Some of what she had to say is in the final version; some isn’t. The quotes below are from Rosie and reflect her personal experiences as well as some of her insights regarding Ali and boxing.
“I was subjected to a lot of beatdowns. I grew up rough. I knew what it felt like at 7 years old to get hit in the face.”
“When I started in my career, people were like, ‘Why do you have to talk with such a strong accent?’ And I go, ‘Because I have a strong accent.’ A former agent said to me, ‘You know, you could pass.’ I go, ‘For what?’ I knew exactly what she was trying to say. She goes, ‘Tone down the accent.’ I told her, ‘It’s beyond insulting that you said that to me. You’re fired.’ Everyone thought I was crazy because nobody was trying to represent me, and that person represented me and I was very thankful for it. But I wasn’t going to bow down for it. I said, ‘No, I will not.’ Even when I got nominated for an Oscar, it was still told to me over and over and over again. And I didn’t have the personality that Ali had that could make light of everything. I was very, very angry. My accent has lessened since then because I stepped off the blocks of Bushwick [a neighborhood in Brooklyn] and I’ve gone out into the world. But it was organic; it wasn’t premeditated. It wasn’t something I did for my career. And when Ali said, ‘I will not apologize for who I am,’ it had a huge effect on me. That set the path to give me the encouragement to say, ‘You know what? I can do it differently.’”
[On Ali’s womanizing] “It’s not right for me to judge. I cheated on a boyfriend. I really was not proud of that. I swore to myself I would never cheat again, and I never have. I would judge Ali if he had cheated in the ring. If he had cheated in the ring, I would judge him harshly because that’s for us. What you do in the ring, you do not only for yourself and your career as an athlete, but you do it for the fans. You cheat us when you cheat. I have a big issue with that. And it’s a very dangerous sport, so you could put someone else’s life in jeopardy because of that. But in regards to Ali’s personal life, I have certain feelings about what Ali did still to this day. But it’s not right for me to judge. We all fall short.”
“I saw the Thrilla in Manila in a theater. We snuck in. We couldn’t afford those tickets; we wanted to see the fight, so we snuck in. Even as little girls, we knew how to do it. We made friends with the security guy at the back door. You slip him a dollar or you sit there and crack jokes. Then he opens the door and you slip in. I’m so glad I got to see it. But when I went back to school and said I saw the fight, nobody believed me.”
“I cried when I saw him fight Frazier in Manila. I was like, ‘He just didn’t give up. This is the greatest man ever.’ Other people were saying, ‘What a fool.’ They actually said that. ‘What a fool. He should have thrown in the towel. They both should have. This is stupid.’ But what I saw was determination and grit, never say never, I won’t give up. And for me, a child who was a victim of poverty and of child abuse – kids used to make fun of me – I was like, ‘I’m going to be great.’ I used to say stuff like that. That’s what I saw in him. That’s what I saw in that fight. It changed me as a person.”
“I was disappointed in Muhammad Ali in the way he treated Joe Frazier. As a person that had dealt with racism and prejudice and bigotry at a young age, I thought that it was really bad seeing my hero inflict that upon someone else who was of his own race. I felt bad for Joe; I really, really did. That hurt me. That hurt me a lot. Ali was such a big hero, and he was using that language and just verbally and mentally and emotionally beating this man down. I understood that it was a tactic. I got all that. But even as a young kid. I was like, ‘It’s just too far.’ When you’re a kid and you’re treated differently because of the color of your skin, you know how that feels. And what was really strange was that there were a lot of kids of color who were defending Ali. They defended Ali. And I was one of the few kids to say, ‘That’s wrong.’”
“People ask me, ‘Why do you love going to the fights?’ It’s not just the fight itself. It’s the whole thing. It’s waiting on line to get into the arena. It’s finding your seats. It’s saying hello to your boxing friends. It’s saying, ‘Look, over there. There goes Bernard Hopkins. Oscar De La Hoya is right there. There’s Bob Arum. The first time I said hello to Bob Arum, he didn’t know who I was. I’m like, ‘Hey, Bob Arum, how are you doing?’ He looked at me like I was insane. The second time I saw him was at Madison Square Garden. I said, ‘Hey, Bob Arum.’ He goes, ‘Hello, young lady. I know who you are.’ I said, ‘You do?’ He says, ‘Yeah. Very nice to meet you.’ It’s fantastic, it’s fun; you want more of it, and you can’t wait to go to another fight. A fight in Vegas, I just love it. I like to go there the day before and just kind of settle in. I stay in the hotel, go downstairs, meet everybody, shake hands, talk and BS. I just love it.”
“In some sports, you have predominantly this set of people, predominantly that set of people. I’m not just talking about race either. There is a certain class of people that go and watch a tennis match. There is a certain class of people that watch NASCAR. Football is a little more mixed. But with boxing, there are no color lines. There are no socioeconomic lines. It’s just people.”
“When I watch a boxing match, a strange thing happens in my heart. It’s as if I’m fantasizing that that’s me in the ring. The Danny Garcia versus Paulie Malignaggi fight. Paulie is a friend of mine. Every punch that Paulie absorbed, I felt. I’ve been in those situations. Not on a prize fight level, not on a professional athletic level. But I’ve been in those situations where, ‘My gosh, someone is beating the crap out of me. What am I going to do?’ I didn’t have that stamina that Paulie had. I didn’t have that power that Danny Garcia had. But they have it, so I get to experience that level of greatness. Do you know what I mean? I get to see it and I get to sit ringside. I get to cheer for them and I get to cry for them, and that’s why I love boxing. It’s things that I experienced as a child that didn’t play out the way I wanted them to play out. But here are two prizefighters who are going to give me that opportunity every single time, over and over again. I root for them. I root for the winner and I root for the loser. I really do.”
“I always dreamed of the day. I always believed in my heart and soul that, one day, I would meet Muhammad Ali. One day, I’m invited to this party by a certain athlete. I go to the party, got real cute, having a great time at the party. That certain athlete’s wife comes over to me and says that I must leave. She wasn’t very nice. Actually, she was very rude and very mean about it. The group of people that I was sitting with who were kissing up to me turned on me in an instant. I was in shock, I couldn’t believe what was happening. A group of people circled around the athlete’s wife and were saying, ‘That’s right. Tell her to leave. That’s right.’ I was like, ‘What?’ She wanted me to leave because she believed that I was having an affair with her husband, which I wasn’t. I didn’t even know that’s what she thought at the time. Everyone was closing in on me. I got paranoid. I felt extremely threatened and I was extremely embarrassed. My emotions were rising up in me. This one particular person, who was a celebrity, who will remain nameless, she got close to my face and told me, ‘Nobody wants you here. You better leave.’ Brooklyn jumped out of me. Bushwick came out in full force. I turned to the woman and I said, ‘If you don’t get the fuck away from me, I’m going to punch you in your fucking face and I’m going to punch you in your big fucking fat titty.’ Everyone went, ‘Huh?’ My girlfriend, Rhonda, was with me. She was a VP at a record company at the time and she got just as ghetto as I’d gotten. She said, ‘We’ll take all you motherfuckers on.’ Then I feel a big hand on my shoulder, and I’m thinking it’s security. I turn to say, ‘Get the fuck off of me.’ And it was Muhammad Ali. In an instant, I was the 7-year old girl that dreamed, one day, I was going to meet the champ. I cried like a baby. My face turned bright red. The tears just started flooding down my eyes. My mascara was down in streaks. Lonnie was with him. She said, ‘That’s all right, that’s all right. You don’t have to go anywhere. Come on, let’s go sit over there. Sit with us.’ I said, ‘No.’ I was mortified. I was extremely embarrassed. This was not how I envisioned that I was going to meet the champ. Muhammad was pulling me in close and he had his condition and his body was shaking. He gets very, very close to my ear and he whispers in my ear. He says, ‘If I was younger …’ I burst out laughing. And then I started getting hysterical again. I said, ‘I didn’t want to meet you like this. I don’t want to meet you like this. This is not happening.’ I didn’t join them. I left the party because I just was too embarrassed. I sat in the car on the way home and cried the entire ride back to my house. Rhonda was like, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘No, that’s not how it was supposed to go down. I wasn’t supposed to meet the champ like that.’ It wasn’t until years later that I realized that’s how it was supposed to go down. He saw me at my worst and he only saw the best of me. He saw me at my worst and put his hand on my shoulder, pulled me in, and told me, ‘I’ve got your back. It’s OK. Don’t worry about it. Nobody is going to hurt you because I’m here.’”
“Muhammad Ali will always be my perfect flawed hero.”
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.