THERE IS A QUIET, inviting light in the gaze of Elmo Henderson, the look of a charming man who knows he’s charming. He’s clearly from another time, still tipping his hat to the ladies, peppering his speech with “ma’am’s” and “sir’s” and “oh, no, after you’s” and insisting on eating every dish with a knife and fork—french fries, hamburgers, tacos, everything. He’s 69 years old, an age when people expect nothing more from him than a story and a smile. That is, after all, the only real currency that an old homeless man like Elmo has, and it’s how he’s made his way for quite a while now. No conversation gets far before he brings up the night in 1972 when he fought Muhammad Ali in an exhibition in San Antonio and all the unlikely doors that that opened for him.
“I was in Fort Worth from Reno to see the family,” said the onetime light-heavyweight champion of Texas, “and I picked up the morning paper one day and it exposed that Ali would be in San Antonio that Tuesday putting on an exhibition against some local fighters. I said, ‘Let me go to San Antonio and congratulate Muhammad on coming back to the ring.’ Well, I didn’t know nothing about it, but one of the fighters for that night was a kid from Mexico who couldn’t get his visa to get in the country. So when I went to where Ali was staying, across from the Alamo, I ran into the promoter on the bottom floor, and he says, ‘Good morning, Elmo. How would you like to put on an exhibition with Ali tonight?’ And I okayed it. Then, when I’m signing the contract, Ali comes up and taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Get up and let me see what you got.’ I said, ‘Get away from me, sucker. I’m too fast for you!’ And he popped his eyes and got away.”
We were sitting in an East Austin Mexican food place called Juan in a Million, and Elmo looked closer to fifty than seventy. His ash-colored hair is always hidden by a hat, what he calls his “lid,” and on this August morning he’d chosen a black straw fedora with a small feather in the band. He wore a short-sleeved button-down shirt, white with black pinstripes, that he tucked into black, pleated Bermuda shorts. The only hints at his age were sheer black dress socks and clean white tennis shoes below bony old knees. The restaurant was a block from the halfway house where Elmo had lived for the spring and summer, but in his mind we’d moved considerably farther, to a time when boxing mattered to people other than ring nuts and gamblers. The ring then was the domain of true lions, champions like Ali, Frazier, and Foreman, heroes people felt they knew, not vague figures who came out each year and a half for a pay-per-viewing. Once upon that time, some fight fans even knew the name Elmo Henderson.
“About seven-thirty that evening, I cranked up and made it to the dressing room at the coliseum. I got into my togs, and a guy came in and asked for me personally, Elmo Henderson. He said, ‘You first.’ Here I am, thirty-seven years old, and they wanted me first, for three rounds with Ali. So I put my robe on and ran out there. I didn’t walk. I ran. And I got up in the ring, looking at the fans, you know, putting the game on Ali, and the ref motioned us into the center. I’m looking down, and what’s going through my mind is, ‘I’m first, so I guess the old man gets the honors.’”
He pushed his taco plate aside and spread out a folded-up, Xeroxed copy of an old newspaper photo on the table. His hands are heavy and broad, with the joint at the bottom of his right thumb shoved back to his wrist, a trophy of a fight that is harder for him to find in his mind than the one with Ali. “That’s me and Ali,” he said, pointing at the picture.
“When they rang that bell, I came out like a speedball: Brr-rrrr-rrrr-rrrr, everything a blur, and then the first round was over. On to the second round. I didn’t run out. I took my time. Moving. Ali was throwing jabs, and I moved away from one and threw a right hand and—bam!—that put him down. So the referee runs the count to eight, and instead of going on, he went back to one. Then he brought it up to eight again and stopped. I just pushed him away and said, ‘Hey, if you want to let him up, let him up.’ I said, ‘Get your ass up, kid! You ain’t hurt!’ Then the bell rang and the referee came to my corner and said, ‘Elmo, that’s all.’ But he didn’t raise my hand or give me my rights. He just put me out the ring, and they went on with the rest of the bouts.”
Elmo paused to watch me soak it all in. Then he rolled through the ways that that night had redirected his life. In the dressing room after the fight, Ali’s headlining opponent, Terry Daniels, asked him to spar out in Reno. A couple months later, he took a similar job with George Foreman and then accompanied Foreman to Zaire for the Rumble in the Jungle with Ali. In Africa Foreman appointed Elmo cheerleader of his entourage, the designated counterbalance to the histrionics of Ali. He made enough of an impression there to merit a section in Norman Mailer’s account of the fight in Playboy, which, in turn, became the basis of a million-dollar libel claim after Elmo took issue with the way he was depicted. In 1977 a Corpus Christi jury awarded Elmo $105,000, making him, at least in his telling of the story, the first black man ever to win a