Rhona Attwater could feel his presence immediately.
In the early 1980s, she was working for a Santa Monica-based boxing promotion and training company that was named after Muhammad Ali. And every now and then, the three-time heavyweight champion would pop into the company’s workout area on Main Street near Bicknell Avenue.
“He would come into the office periodically and go to the gym,” said Attwater, a Santa Monica native. “He would mingle with people, hang out and observe. He was very well-respected, and he had a fabulous personality. He was a larger-than-life figure to a lot of people.”
Attwater’s memories of her interactions with the sports and cultural icon came flooding into focus following his passing earlier this month. Ali, widely considered to be one of the most influential athletes in history, died June 3 at the age of 74 after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease.
News of his death hit hard in Santa Monica as well as across the globe, with many current and former local residents recalling brief moments with Ali during his visits in town. Some remembered him stopping by the Main Street facility, while others recounted seeing him around the old Santa Monica Place mall or at book signings on Third Street Promenade.
“It’s a shame,” said Attwater, who graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1977. “The whole world has lost a pretty fabulous celebrity.”
Since Attwater worked for Muhammad Ali Professional Sports, she was well aware that the boxing star didn’t run the now-defunct company. But others weren’t.
The naming rights had been acquired by Harold Smith, a boxing promoter who befriended Ali. Smith also ran the locally based Muhammad Ali Amateur Sports Inc.
“The sweatshirts they wore were emblazoned with Muhammad Ali,” reads an archived Los Angeles Times article from 1981. “The caps they wore read Muhammad Ali. The gym they trained in was called Muhammad Ali. The only trouble was, Muhammad Ali had no official connection to the program.”
But the name alone lured young boxers to Southern California. According to a Times article, Smith’s company arranged for 18-year-old Washington state native Robert Shannon and other up-and-coming fighters to live rent-free in a Santa Monica house. The business also provided them with food prepared by hired chiefs. But those perks disappeared when Smith’s financial dealings were called into question.
“The FBI was trying to find out where all this money was coming from,” Attwater said.
Smith was accused and later convicted of embezzling $21 million from Wells Fargo Bank, a scandal that landed him in jail for six years. His business was shut down for good.
“Everybody believed it was Muhammad Ali that owned it,” Ferman Knox, a trainer in Cincinnati who had prospects leave for the ill-fated enterprise, told the Times as the ordeal unfolded. “Now we know different.”
But the Smith embezzlement case didn’t seem to tarnish Ali’s name or reputation in the long run.
Attwater, who now oversees trademark compliance for Venice-based Mad Dogg Athletics, said she didn’t know Ali well but that he still had a powerful and lasting impact on her.
“He did a lot of good for the younger people who were not as privileged as others,” she said. “Anybody that came past him, he paid attention to. The fact that he was so open and didn’t have an air about him was really refreshing. He just really seemed to love people.”