- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 8, 2009

In this business, you lose your sense of awe of the people you cover and meet along the way with each passing day. Greatness is often compromised by either flaws or familiarity.

It’s not cynicism. It’s just the revelation that most giants fit through the same doors you do.

Sometimes, though, the giants are too big to be diminished even after you get to know them. They remain giants, and you remain awestruck.

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Budd Schulberg is an American giant, and his stature will won’t change despite his death Wednesday at the age of 95.

There will always be “On the Waterfront,” the Schulberg screenplay that produced one of the greatest American films ever. It starred Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger and is about a former boxer who gets involved in a fight with a corrupt dockworkers union.

There will always be one of the great boxing films of all time, “The Harder They Fall,” another Schulberg work - and Humphrey Bogart’s last film - about an unemployed former sports writer hired by crooked boxing promoter Nick Benko to promote a heavyweight from Argentina who proves to be a fraud.

There will always be “What Makes Sammy Run,” his novel about the rise and fall of Sammy Glick, a poor New York kid who went from newspaper copy boy to Hollywood producer and became the standard for Hollywood novels and ruthlessness.

Schulberg’s love, though, was boxing. He covered the sport right up to the final years of his life and could be often seen at ringside with his son Benn helping him.

I met Schulberg several times at fights in Las Vegas and had numerous discussions with him about fighters and fighting. But I would always stop myself for a moment and take in the fact that I just had a conversation with the man who wrote “On the Waterfront.”

It is among the top five moments of my career. I remain in awe.

Schulberg passed on at a time when boxing, which he loved so much that he wrote stories revealing its dark side in the hope that some light would emerge, is just a flicker. Saturday in Philadelphia, one of the great old fight towns, the mixed martial arts powerhouse UFC will hold its first event in the city of brotherly brawling. It’s another foot on the throat of the “combat” sport that inspired such characters at Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront” and Eddie Willis in “The Harder They Fall.”

Nearly 10 years ago, I interviewed Schulberg about one of the great stories that we will never see the likes of again - the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Muhammad Ali’s stunning knockout of George Foreman in a dusty outdoor arena in the middle of Africa for the heavyweight championship of the world.

“I’ve covered a lot of fights in my life,” Schulberg said. “That fight, though, was the most dramatic and unusual one I’ve ever seen, and I don’t think anyone else had ever been through anything like that before or since. It was an amazing event.

“There was a cover over the ring, but it was very flimsy and there were concerns that it wouldn’t hold up if it rained. But it didn’t rain until just minutes after the fight ended. Almost like magic, the skies opened up and it poured. It really seemed like a mystical experience.”

The entire scene was surreal. The press corps included Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson and Schulberg, who wrote about the scene of this far-off land and about how Ali, with his charisma, won over the African nation and upset the seemingly invincible Foreman.

“Night after night, Ali would run films of Foreman’s fights, especially the one he had with [Gregorio] Peralta,” said Schulberg, who stayed in a villa in the Ali camp with trainer Angelo Dundee. “Ali would say, ‘Look at what he is doing - laying on the ropes, leaning back. George isn’t getting him. He’s hitting him on the shoulders and the elbows.’ He was forming the plan then to wear George out.”

“[The fight] redefined Ali’s career,” Schulberg said.

It was a blip, a moment in time, in the giant career of Budd Schulberg, who in 1964 wrote the obit of the sport he loved in a essay called “The Death of Boxing.”

“It will abolish itself if it persists in its program of anarchy, chaos and criminal neglect of the thousands who turn to it for escape from the dark corner of discrimination and want in which they find themselves trapped,” he wrote. “Boxing is at the crossroads. … Either it will lift itself or is lifted to some standard of conscience and regard for the boys on whom it feeds, or it will be nine, ten, and out, having lost through apathy and inhumanity its right to survive.”

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