It was January 19, 1981, 40 years ago this week. A crowd had gathered around a high-rise building in Los Angeles’ famed Miracle Mile. A distressed, suicidal man wearing flared jeans and a tattered hoodie was on a ledge, threatening to jump. Police officers, a psychologist, and a minister were laboring in vain to talk the young man down.
“I’m no good,” the man later called ‘Joe’ shouted, as he dangled his feet over the side of the ledge, inching forward to his doom whenever someone got close. “I’m going to jump!” Police reports indicated that the man appeared to be under the illusion that he was in Vietnam, surrounded by the Viet Cong.
Several spectators below were showcasing the very worst in human nature, encouraging “Joe” to jump.
Howard Birmingham, Muhammad Ali’s longtime friend and eventual biographer, just happened to be on the scene, which was about four minutes from the former world champ’s residence. He called Ali to tell him about the situation taking place so close to home. The ex-champ, who was about three months removed from the worst beating of his life at the time, against Larry Holmes, bolted into action.
“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.”
Ali would rush into the building and up to the ninth floor where “Joe” was precariously perched. He popped his head out of a nearby window.
“You’re my brother! I love you, and I couldn’t lie to you,” Ali shouted.
The famed boxer spent more than 20 minutes speaking to the troubled man, who was clearly startled by the magnitude of celebrity who had rushed to his aid. Ali eventually succeeded in calming the man down and gaining his trust. “Joe” would open up the fire escape door that he had barricaded shut, allowing for the fighter to pull him to safety.
“Why do you worry about me?” ‘Joe’ asked, as Ali was leading him to safety. “I’m a nobody.”
“Because,” Ali responded,” If you jump, you’re going to hell because there’s no way to repent.”
The crowd below, which had been goading “Joe” into following through on his deadly threat just minutes before, suddenly broke out in applause. Chants of “Ali! Ali!” could be heard as the fighter and his new friend made their way out of the building and into the fighter’s Rolls-Royce.
Ali would take the troubled man to a nearby psychiatric hospital.
“I’m going to go home with him to meet his mother and father,” Ali later said about plans to go with “Joe” to Michigan. “They called him a nobody, so I’m going home with him. I’ll walk the streets with him and they’ll see he’s big.”
It’s not known whether the legendary boxer ever followed through on that redemptive trip to Michigan with the man he helped save, but it’s not unlikely. Ali’s life as a public figure was filled with casual moments of kindness, often undocumented and carried out away from the media’s collective eye.
Three years later, Ali would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome, an affliction that eventually took his life in 2016. By the time of his death, Ali had fought his way to icon status, not just as the greatest heavyweight champ of all-time, but also as a civil rights icon and living proof that one man, even coming from the most humble of beginnings, can make a difference in the world.
On Ali’s grave site in Louisville, Kentucky, one of his most famous quotes is emblazoned. It’s particularly appropriate for his deeds back in 1981 and his efforts to save a complete stranger.
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven.”