Sports Nut

The Time Muhammad Ali Stopped a Man From Leaping to His Death

In January 1981, the champ talked a man down from a ninth-floor ledge.

Former Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (right) leans out of the window on the ninth floor of a high-rise structure Jan. 19, 1981, and talks with an unidentified man (left) who threatens to jump.

Bettmann/Getty Images

On Oct. 2, 1980, Larry Holmes humiliated Muhammad Ali in a matchup billed as “The Last Hurrah.” Though the 38-year-old Ali had flunked a pre-fight neurological exam, the Nevada State Athletic Commission licensed him anyway. Ali’s corner stopped the fight after 10 rounds; Holmes cried in an interview afterwards, seeming to regret the beatdown. “All the people involved in this fight should’ve been arrested. This fight was an abomination, a crime,” said Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s former ring doctor. “Tired, punched, and punchless, Muhammad Ali ran out of miracles last night,” said ABC’s Dick Schaap.


Three months later, with his boxing glory long since past, Ali found another miracle. “Former heavyweight champions slip out of the news as easily as ex-presidents, but Muhammad Ali was never your garden-variety champion of all the world,” said Walter Cronkite on the Jan. 20, 1981, edition of the CBS Evening News. “Yesterday in Los Angeles, he responded like a superhero when a distraught man threatened suicide.”


The CBS segment is amazing to watch. It shows Ali, dressed in a suit and tie, dangling out of a ninth-story window, talking to a man who was perched on a ledge and threatening to jump.


A United Press International story published on Jan. 20, 1981, has more details on how Ali came to the scene.

Police negotiators tried for hours to persuade the man to come inside the building. Ali, who was told of the suicide threat by his public relations manager, talked to the depressed man for about 20 minutes.


Howard Bingham. All’s public relations manager, said he first saw the man on the ledge and when he asked police if Ali could help, they told him no.

“I went back to my car and called Ali anyway,” Bingham said. “I told Ali there was a guy up here on a building about a mile from his house and maybe he could get through.


“About four minutes later, Ali comes driving up the wrong side of the street in his Rolls-Royce with his lights blinking,” Bingham said.

An Associated Press piece claims that “[p]eople on the ground urged the distraught 21-year-old man to jump. But Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight boxing champion, promised to help him find a job and talked the man down from a ninth-floor fire escape.” When the man saw Ali, he reportedly shouted, “It’s really you!”

Policemen, a psychologist and a police chaplain tried unsuccessfully to talk to him, said Sgt. Bruce Hagerty, who described the man as “a very distraught, mixed-up young man.”

The man, who was too young to have served in Vietnam, “was talking Army jargon …  He said the Viet Cong were out there,” Hagerty said.


Ali told the man: “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.”

After half an hour, Ali put his arm around the shoulders of the man and led him back to safety, witnesses said.

The two emerged from the building, ignoring cheering onlookers and drove away in Ali’s Rolls-Royce limousine to a police station.

Ali accompanied the man to a Veterans Administration Hospital, where police said the man would undergo a 72-hour mental examination.

Los Angeles police gave Ali all the credit for talking the man down. “No doubt about it, Ali saved that man’s life,” a police spokesman told the AP.


The AP story quotes Ali as saying that the man, who was never identified, “was just depressed. He couldn’t find work. His father and mother don’t like him. He don’t get along with his family. He wants to be somebody.”

The CBS footage shows a bunch of onlookers chanting as Ali and the man he rescued walk away from the scene. They’re chanting, “USA! Digs Ali! USA! Digs Ali!”

Read more in Slate about Muhammad Ali: