On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the famed “Thrilla in Manila,” Peter Bonventre recalls a scandalous side story illustrating how even the self-proclaimed Greatest could get too big for his britches.
Editor’s Note: This article has been republished from September 28th, 2015
Muhammad Ali once blew me a kiss.
The occasion was a dinner party in a Manhattan apartment, and when I was ready to leave, Ali walked me to the door. Just as I was about to step into the elevator, he slowly raised his right hand to his lips and then waved in my direction.
At the time, the champ was already wracked by the cruel symptoms of Parkinson’s disease: Vacant eyes. Unsteady hands. Shambling gait. Slurred speech. All of which turned his goodbye gesture that long-ago night into a bittersweet memory that lingers as clearly as any of his fights I witnessed at ringside.
I was a young Newsweek magazine sportswriter in 1970 when I covered Ali’s return to the ring against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta after a three-year exile for defying the draft at the height of the Vietnam War. Over the next 11 years, I hooked up with Ali on a wild ride that I will never forget. One stop along the way is now marking its 40th anniversary: The third fight between Ali and Joe Frazier, on October 1, 1975, in the Philippines, the epic “Thrilla in Manila.” The two fighters waged a brutal battle that ended when Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, threw in the towel after the 14th round. A nearly blind and battered Frazier begged his trainer to let him go on, but Futch refused to yield: “It’s all over, Joe.”
“It was like death,” Ali said after the fight, nursing terrible wounds of his own in defense of his heavyweight title. “Closest thing to dying I know of.”
Other than the fight itself, the biggest story to come out of Manila was one I had a hand in. Newsweek had assigned me to report a lengthy profile of the self-proclaimed Greatest, and about two weeks before the fight, I flew to Manila with Ali and his entourage and only one other journalist, the late Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram.
Ali readily granted me several long interviews. He was a delight to hang with, and I had plenty of marvelous material to begin writing. And then it happened. I accompanied Ali to a meet-and-greet with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda. The Philippine media were also in attendance, and they ate it up when Ali joked with Marcos, “You’re not as dumb as you look. I saw your wife.”
“And I saw your wife,” Marcos replied, referring to the woman with Ali, “and you’re not far behind me.”
Uh, oh. Trouble was, the woman with Ali wasn’t his wife Belinda, who was home in Chicago with their four children, and Ali didn’t bother to correct Marcos. The woman was an ex-beauty queen named Veronica Porche. For a year or so, Veronica had been a constant presence in the Ali camp, variously described as the champ’s “other wife,” Belinda’s “cousin,” even as a traveling baby sitter. We never wrote about her. Even before Veronica made the scene, we knew of Ali’s many extramarital dalliances, and we looked the other way. It was still a time when public figures, be they politicians or athletes, were generally given a pass and allowed a measure of personal privacy. In Ali’s case, that changed when he brought Veronica to meet the President of the Philippines and his wife.
The next day, Veronica’s picture appeared in local newspapers—identified as Belinda. There was now no way to keep a lid on Ali’s relationship with Veronica. I had no choice but to write about the incident as it happened. My story in Newsweek made headlines just as the American media were landing in Manila. Ali himself called a press conference to address the situation. He was the coolest cat in the room: “I could see some controversy if [Veronica] was white, but she’s not. The only person I answer to is Belinda Ali, and I don’t worry about her.”
Shortly later, word came that a furious Belinda was on a plane to Manila to confront her husband.
Ali was not pleased. The fallout from his affair with Veronica was blowing up all around him, and he blamed me. He called me to his suite in the hotel where we were both staying, and demanded to know why I had betrayed him. “You never wrote about Veronica before,” he said.
“You never pretended she was your wife before,” I said. “You can’t try to pull off something like that, especially on a head of state with the whole world watching your every move here.”
Ali thought about that for a few seconds, then smiled and said, “I guess I got too big for my britches, huh?”
When she arrived in Manila, Belinda went straight to Ali’s suite, and raised some serious hell, screaming bloody murder and throwing furniture around. An hour later, she left for the airport and flew home to Chicago. She filed for divorce a year later. Ali married Veronica, and they had two daughters together. Now 73, and though the ravages of Parkinson’s are ever more acute, he seems happy and content, lovingly cared for by Lonnie Williams, who became the fourth Mrs. Ali in 1986.
As for Ali and me, after he questioned me about revealing his affair with Veronica we continued to get along just fine. A lavish post-fight dinner, hosted by Marcos, had been planned in honor of Ali and Frazier at the President’s Palace. I was invited to attend the reception, as were a few other sportswriters. Frazier skipped the dinner. Ali came, his eyes bruised, his jaw swollen, and his hands so sore he could barely lift his fork. At the end of the night, I got the chance to say goodbye to him, and in a weary whisper, he said, “You were in on history. You’ll be telling your grandchildren about this fight.”
I surely will, champ, I surely will.