Published Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Updated Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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He called himself The Greatest.
“He was a catalyst for the sport of boxing in Nevada,” Rogich says in remembering Ali, whom he saw in each of his Las Vegas bouts. A highly successful and respected political operative who worked closely with President George H.W. Bush during his 1988 election campaign and during his term in office, Rogich was immersed in the fight game during Ali’s boxing days.
He grew to appreciate Ali in and out of the ring.
“He was a great athlete, a great champion, a great guy, and the press loved him,” Rogich says. “He always threw them off because he never gave a canned quote. He’d answer with a poem or some over-the-top quote. Reporters would walk away saying, ‘That was a stupid thing to say,’ but it really was smart for him to say because he was an unbelievable promoter.”
When Ali refused to serve for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, classifying himself as a “conscientious objector” in 1967 in a move that eventually cost him four years of the prime of his career, Rogich says he made a move based solely on conviction.
“I did not agree with that decision at the time, but you have to respect what he did for the reasons he did it,” Rogich says. “It caused him as much hatred as love, but what Ali did was create a conversation about Vietnam across the country. Whether you agree with it or not, it was important to have that conversation.”
As the state athletic commission chairman, Rogich eventually helmed the public hearing that prevented Ali from fighting his final bout in Vegas.
The hearing featured a pivotal moment that might retrospectively be called “The Men’s Room Summit,” involving Rogich, Ali and longtime Ali confident Gene Kilroy.
In the middle of the hearing, held in December 1980 to determine whether to revoke Ali’s boxing license after his punishing loss to Larry Holmes in October of that year, Rogich banged the gavel to call a recess.
As Rogich recalls, Kilroy called Ali over and Rogich went into the men’s room with them.
“It was just us three in the bathroom, and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t think you’re going to be approved (to box). People here are scared to death you’re going to get hurt,” Rogich said.
Convinced he had the three votes needed from the five-member commission to revoke Ali’s license, Rogich said: “I don’t want to be disrespectful, but if you withdraw your application I’ll suspend the hearing and prevent this from going to a vote. He said, ‘You would do that?’ I would, and I did. I said, ‘Muhammad Ali has decided to withdraw his application,’ and gaveled it to a close.”
Thus ended Ali’s boxing career in Las Vegas, and also in the United States. His final fight was held in the Bahamas, a loss by decision to Trevor Berbick on Dec. 11, 1981. But the sad and inevitable decline of Ali has not diminished Rogich’s affection for the boxing legend.
Rogich will be on hand Saturday for the Keep Memory Alive Power of Love Gala celebrating Ali’s life and legacy. The event is a fundraiser for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the Muhammad Ali Center, a cultural and educational institution in the fighter’s hometown of Louisville, Ky.
“I was enthralled by boxing, and enthralled by him,” Rogich says. “I used to watch him train at the Stardust, and he was always so gracious. He was a splendid champion and is still a splendid man. It’s tough not to love Muhammad Ali.”