There’s a story about Muhammad Ali that might have been lost in history, but one that The Los Angeles Times photographer Boris Yaro would never forget. And one moment that should still be talked about today. And today especially, because 38 years ago today Muhammad Ali saved someone from jumping off a very large building.
On Monday, Jan. 19, 1981, Yaro heard reports of a suicidal jumper on the radio. His editor wasn’t interested, but Yaro drove over to Los Angeles’s Miracle Mile anyway, he found a young black man in flared jeans and a hoodie, perched on an office-building fire escape nine floors above.
“Joe,” as he was named in reports, had been up there for hours. According to a police spokesman, “he seemed to think he was in Vietnam with the Viet Cong coming at him.” A crowd gathered on the street below, goading Joe to jump to his death.
Police officers, a psychologist and a chaplain leaned out of a nearby window, imploring him to come inside. “I’m no good,” he shouted, dangling his feet over the side whenever someone got too close. “I’m going to jump!”
Ali’s best friend, Howard Bingham, was at the scene. He called Ali, who lived nearby. “About four minutes later,” Bingham later told reporters, “Ali comes driving up the wrong side of the street in his Rolls-Royce with his lights blinking.”
By The Los Angeles Times’s account, Ali leaned out and shouted to Joe: “You’re my brother! I love you, and I couldn’t lie to you.” Soon, he made his way to the fire escape, put an arm around Joe and guided him inside.
The two walked out of the building together, got in Ali’s car and drove, after a stop at a police station, to a nearby V.A. hospital.
Ali spent three and a half years of his athletic prime stripped of his boxing license for protesting the very war that haunted Joe. Perhaps he felt a kinship with the vet.
What kind of guy gets in his car and drives toward a potential suicide, to save the life of a man he has never met?
A true hero.
The Los Angeles Times published a follow-up: Joe, it turned out, was only 21, too young to have served in Vietnam.
On Wednesday, Jan. 21, at a news conference for a beverage company, Ali announced that he was going to buy Joe clothes and travel with him to his home state, Michigan, though it’s unclear if they ever made the trip.
“In some sort of ways, he talked a lot of people off the ledge,” “I think about a guy who made people brave. That’s what he did.”