Among Don Hubbard’s most-prized mementoes of a long, colorful and often controversial career spent in local political activism, promotions, business, and, for the past 15 years, as the proprietor of a sumptuous bed and breakfast on St. Charles Avenue, is a handsome ring, given to him almost four decades ago by the man the world was remembering Saturday.
But until Saturday, Hubbard had never worn the reminder of his role in bringing the Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks heavyweight championship to the Superdome in September of 1978, the first, and to date, only such event in the facility’s storied history.
“I just never wanted to show it off,” said Hubbard, whose $3 million bid won him live gate rights for the rematch after Spinks’ stunning upset of Ali earlier that year in Las Vegas. “But today, I felt like it was right to put it on and think about The Champ.”
Ali, who died late Friday at age 74 after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, won the title for the third and final time with his unanimous decision over Spinks in the ’Dome before an official turnout of 65,370, still the record for an indoor championship bout, and a worldwide TV audience. The live gate of $7 million was a record at the time.
It turned out to be Hubbard’s only venture as a boxing promoter.
“I tell people ‘I’m the Greatest Boxing Promoter of All Time,’” he said between calls from friends like Aaron Neville. “Of course, when you start with Muhammad Ali, you might as well quit while you’re ahead because you’ve got nowhere else to go but down.”
The Spinks fight was the final victory of Ali’s career. Already showing signs of the disease that would diminish him throughout his final years, he first retired and then twice returned to the ring in losing causes.
“The saddest thing to me was seeing him having to be fed by his wife,” said Hubbard, who maintained a personal friendship with Ali over the years, although the two would never had financial dealings again.
“But we’d be at a dinner or something, and that was over, he’d start to work the crowd, shaking his fist at people and things like that.
“It really turned him on.”
Ali, Hubbard added, particularly liked to tease wives about their husbands, including Rosetta Hubbard.
“He’d whisper to her, ‘Why don’t you get rid of him? He’ll never amount to anything,’” Hubbard said. “And I’d say, ‘Well, why don’t you just take her with you then?’
“And he’s say, ‘Nah, you’ve got her too spoiled.’ We were just two Southern boys who understood each other and loved spending time together.”
Like many of Hubbard’s activities of the period, this one was marked by turmoil — including a $15 million slander suit filed by Hubbard and his partner, Sherman Copelin, against promoter Bob Arum (“I still call him ‘The Snake,’” Hubbard said) after Arum called them “hooligans” and “dangerous people,” along with making what they said were false allegations after tickets sold that weren’t on the master seating plan.
Also, at a news conference a few days after the fight, Ali, who was supposed to read a statement praising Hubbard, Copelin and former Arum associate Butch Lewis, instead attacked whites in general and Jews and Italians (Jake Dimaggio and Phillip Ciaccio were partners with Hubbard and Copelin) in particular.
It was not a proud moment for all involved.
But Saturday, Hubbard, who long ago cut ties with Copelin, said it was not a time refight old battles but to remember Ali and in particular what bringing the fight to New Orleans signified.
“First of all, he was a gentleman,” Hubbard said. “He always kept his word.
“And he knew what to the world. He once told me that maybe 1/10 of one percent of the people of color in the world would ever get to see him fight, so he went to see them.”
That, Hubbard added, especially included children, whom Ali like to bestow tickets to his fights — although in the case of the Spinks fight, it was only actions like telling local restaurants that wanted Ali to visit that they would have to purchase 100 tickets — and comp the Ali party.
“We had about 3,000 underprivileged kids at the fight,” Hubbard said. “Ali and I were very proud of that.”
For Hubbard, after Superdome Services Inc., the management company he and Copelin had formed to operate the facility opened three years earlier, had had an ugly parting with state, it represented personal redemption plus an opportunity to bring worldwide recognition to his hometown and to Louisiana.
“Outside of the Super Bowl, people outside the United States really didn’t know what the Superdome was,” he said. “We put the Superdome on the international lips of the world.
“And we proved that a ‘Down South’ guy — that was code for dumb — could promote something like this better than anybody else because I knew New Orleans. Nobody ever gives me any credit for that.”
Hubbard said he never doubted that the fight would be a success. After all, he was selling Muhammad Ali in what most assumed would be his final fight (That was part of the promotion — along with the white lie suggestion that the bout would not be on local TV, although ABC had the broadcast rights) shouldn’t have been too difficult.
Others might have had their reservations, but not Ali.
“Two days before the fight, Ali came to the Dome with me, stood in the middle of the ring, looked around and said, ‘I’m gong to fill it up. I’m going to fill it up,’” Hubbard said. “I said, ‘I damned sure hope you do.’
“Well, he sure did. I’m sad he’s gone, but I’m celebrating Ali’s life today.”