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September 26, 2019

When Muhammad Ali Stopped a Man From Jumping Off a Ledge in Los Angeles, 1981

Without a doubt, Muhammad Ali is the most influential boxer of all time. Everywhere you go, people are always throwing one of his quotes around. Everyone knows he’s a caring individual. But most people don’t know about one fateful day of January 19, 1981, when Ali saved a young man from jumping off a ledge.

Muhammad Ali (right) leans out of a window of a high-rise building on Jan. 19, 1981, in Los Angeles and talks with a man, later identified by reports as Joe, who threatens to jump. (Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times)

“I’m no good,” the 21-year-old man shouted, leaning out over a ledge nine floors above Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. “I'm going to jump!”

No one in the crowd below knew his name on that day, Jan. 17, 1981. But that didn’t stop some in the crowd from shouting for him to jump, to give everyone the show they wanted. He’d been up there for hours, shouting that the Viet Cong were coming for him, resisting all police efforts to bring him down.

And then, in what must have seemed like a dream to the man on the ledge, Muhammad Ali appeared at a nearby window.

“It’s really you!” the man said in disbelief.

The most famous man on the planet, Ali knew a little something about venturing out on ledges. Knew what it was like to have the Vietnam War twist you up inside, even if this particular man was too young to have served. Knew what it was like to have hostile crowds screaming for your blood.

He’d been nearby on business, and when his manager told him of the standoff, Ali drove his Rolls Royce the wrong way down Los Angeles streets, flashing his headlights all the way. When he arrived at the scene, Ali ignored the crowd of onlookers shouting his name, and sprinted into the building to get to the man's side. Police feared he had a gun, and Ali led off with that.

“I’m coming out,” Ali shouted. ”Don’t shoot me!”

“I won’t shoot you,” the man said. “I don’t even have a gun.”

Ali then began the delicate work of bringing the man in off the ledge. “I’m your brother,” Ali shouted. “I love you and I wouldn’t lie to you ... I want to help you.”

The man told Ali that he couldn’t find a job, that no one loved him. “Why do you worry about me?” the man shouted to Ali. “I’m a nobody.”

The former heavyweight champ replied that to him, the man wasn’t a nobody.

Ali and the man spoke for 20 minutes, and on more than one instance, it appeared that even Ali’s gift for inspiration wasn’t enough. But give Ali six rounds and he could wear down anyone. He convinced the man to open the door to the fire escape, then embraced the man and pulled him inside. Ali later escorted the man to the Sawtelle VA Hospital, and promised to get him the help he needed.

“I’m your brother. I love you and I wouldn’t lie to you” – Muhammad Ali on January 19, 1981 stopping a young man from suicide. (Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times)

Ali was at the time just two days past his 39th birthday and three months removed from his worst loss ever, a brutal beating at the hands of Larry Holmes. Ali’s speech had begun to slur and his hands had begun to shake, the earliest signs of the neurological damage that would soon ravage him. Ali fought just once more, losing to Trevor Berbick at the end of 1981. But that moment a hundred feet above Wilshire Boulevard showed more of Ali's heart than any of his final fights.

“I’m going to help him go to school and find a job, buy him some clothes,” Ali told reporters afterward. “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.”

Whether Ali followed through on his pledge has been lost to history, though Ali would often support those in need without seeking the spotlight. Bottom line, though: Ali gave the man a second chance at life.

“No doubt about it,” a police official said at the scene that day. “Ali saved that man’s life.”


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