MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. (WOOD) — The world knows him as the greatest boxer of all time — a man who transcended sports to become a sometimes controversial cultural icon.
But to one 74-year-old West Michigan man, Muhammad Ali was a close friend lost too soon.
“We had some good days. I can say that for sure,” said Phil Baldwin in the home he shares with his wife in Muskegon Heights.
The home is decorated with pictures of President Barack Obama and Muhammad Ali.
Phil Baldwin was a 17-year-old boxing phenomenon out of Muskegon who would go on to win numerous Golden Gloves and amateur boxing titles when he met fellow 17-year-old Cassius Clay.
While some of the fellow boxers were put off by the brash and confident boxer, the quiet and polite Baldwin found a compatible opposite.
“He was a lot of fun to me,” Baldwin said. “That didn’t bother me. And that’s how we ended up becoming friends.”
The two would rise up from the ranks of Midwest boxing championships to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic boxing team in 1960 — at 18, they were the youngest members of the team.
The pair spent time together in Rome engaging in some playful sparring.
Baldwin said he knew he was looking at a man who would one day be a world champion.
“I told a lot of people that and I was right,” Baldwin said.
In 1960, Cassius Clay would earn a gold metal while Baldwin, depleted from a bout of pneumonia would bow out after two wins in a controversial decision.
Baldwin decided to hang up his gloves after one professional fight, but he would watch as his friend would rise up to become Mohammad Ali, arguably the most celebrated American sports figure of all time.
Their friendship continued as Baldwin became the first African American deputy in Muskegon County and when Ali owned a home in Berrien Springs from 1975 until 2006.
The Baldwins had the access code to the gates of Ali’s estate and families got together several time a year.
“It was just a pleasure to have known him and been a part of his life,” Baldwin said.
In 1992, Baldwin brought Ali to Muskegon Heights for its annual festival parade and Ali insisted he ride the float with him.
As Ali’s health declined, the two stayed in contact, but saw less of each other as Ali lived near Phoenix.
“I feel like one of the more fortunate people to have known him. It’s a privilege a lot of people won’t get a chance to experience,” Baldwin says.
Baldwin said while the world mourns an icon, he will miss his pal.
“What he represented was peace, liberty, justice for all men. For all mankind. That’s as far as I can go, fellas.”