Elvis was a lover, not a fighter, but . . .
(Thirteen years ago, The Clarion-Ledger dispatched me to Memphis to cover the Lewis-Tyson
fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, Tunica included. I had a ball, although I did get bored with all the hype. One day, a couple days before the fight, I found myself musing over what Elvis Presley would have thought. The following column was the result.)
MEMPHIS – Denzel Washington is here for the big fight, Clint Eastwood, too. And that’s just for starters.
Wesley Snipes, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter and Ben Affleck – fight fans, all – are in Memphis this week to watch Lennox Lewis fight Mike Tyson.
Nothing brings out celebrities like a heavyweight championship fight. Which brings to mind the eternal question about this city’s ultimate celebrity: What about The King?
Where would Elvis fit in?
“Elvis would be right in the middle of this,” says Bernard Lansky, self-professed “Clothier of the King.”
Lansky, 75, gave Elvis Presley his look – the big, turned-up collars, the tailored pink and black shirts.
“I turned his collar up and at first he was afraid it would mess his ducktail up,” Lansky says, smiling. “I said, `Son, this is you.’ ”
Lansky describes Elvis as “an all-around man, a big sports fan.”
“This would blow his mind,” Lansky said. “He would love all this coming to Memphis.”
There is evidence everywhere in this town that Elvis, who once played the movie role of a prize fighter named Kid Galahad, would be ringside – and reveling in it – for Tyson-Lewis.
Little known fact: Elvis went out for the boxing team at Humes High in north Memphis. The late Walt Doxey, the Humes coach, once described Elvis’s short-lived boxing career: “I put him in the ring against Sambo Barrom and this guy bloodied Elvis’s nose pretty good. Then Elvis came to me and said, `Coach, I hate to tell you this, but I’m quitting the team. I’m a lover, not a fighter.’ ”
Nevertheless, two sets of boxing gloves are on display at Graceland this week. One is a set of 16-ounce gloves alongside other athletic equipment Elvis used, including a baseball mitt, a football, a racquetball racquet and his karate uniform. (The King earned a black belt in two different disciplines and was called “Tiger” by one of his instructors.)
The other boxing gloves, gold-colored, are a gift from his pal, Muhammad Ali. Both are signed by Ali. One says, “To Elvis, you are the greatest.”
The other says, “To Elvis, my main man.” They are dated 1973. Ali added the word “Peace” to both inscriptions.
Apparently, Ali and Presley were huge fans of one another. Ali once said, “People don’t realize what they have until it’s gone … like my man Elvis Presley. I was the Elvis of boxing.”
Ali also has told the story of the time Elvis visited his training camp in Pennsylvania and stayed two weeks.
“Nobody knew about it,” Ali said. “One night I said, `Elvis, do me a favor. I got a guitar. Please come with me down to Pottsville, a little town nearby, to this redneck place called Spoonies.'”
It was a Saturday night. Ali called ahead to the owner and told him to let them in the back door.
“Elvis went up to the mike with a towel over his face, took it off,” Ali said.
The King broke into, “You ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time.” He sang just the one song.
“Then we flew out of the door again,” Ali said. “Can you imagine being in a little one-horse town and Elvis Presley runs on stage? Man, people ran all outta the place lookin’, gettin’ into cars, tryin’ to find us.
“Elvis said, `Champ, I’ve never done that before in my life.’ ”
Longtime Memphis sports personality George Lapides remembers back when Elvis would visit his newspaper office.
“Elvis was a huge sports fan,” Lapides says. “He would just come and sit around sometimes, like he was just another guy.
“I knew him to be a bigger pro football fan than boxing fan, but he liked all sports,” Lapides continues.
“He was fascinated with our wire machines. He would read the sports news coming off the AP and UPI wires.”
Lapides remembers a chance meeting with Elvis at a football game at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Lapides and Presley were waiting at the press box elevator for Charley Rich, while Rich sang the national anthem. Only Rich apparently was drunk and kept messing up the lyrics.
“When Rich finally got to the elevator, Elvis said, `Tough song, huh Charley.’
“Rich looked at Elvis and said, `Elvis, it damn sure ain’t Behind Closed Doors.”
Although Elvis professed to be a lover, not a fighter, The King was not adverse to putting up his dukes if a fight couldn’t be avoided.
Grenada legend has it that Elvis once cold-cocked a guy in front of the old Chicken Inn on Highway 51. The guy’s girlfriend apparently was sweet on Elvis, and the guy didn’t like it. The King made short work of him.
A more well-documented bout took place on Oct. 18, 1956, at a Memphis gas station. The station’s manager apparently asked Elvis to leave because he was attracting a crowd. The guy was not polite.
Witnesses said the manager cuffed Elvis on the back of his head, and Elvis responded, “Hey man, don’t be messin’ with my hair.”
The two came to blows, and Elvis was the clear winner. Another attendant took a shot at Elvis, and he, too, is said to have paid dearly in bruises and cuts.
Charges of assault were filed against Presley. But a judge acquitted Elvis and fined the two service station workers.
Bernard Lansky’s clothing store was on Beale Street back in the ’50s back when Elvis first started coming around.
“He worked at movie theater and he’d come down and look in the window on his coffee breaks,” Lansky says.
“He was just a kid, and I’d see him looking in, and I finally invited him in,” Lansky continues. “He loved my shirts, but he didn’t have any money.
“He told me, `Mr. Lansky, I don’t have any money to buy your clothes now, but when I get rich and famous I’m going to buy your whole store.’ ”
Lansky says he gave Elvis a charge account.
“And he never forgot,” Lansky says. “He always remembered me. He always got his clothes here. I made ’em just the way he liked him.”
Lansky’s old store at 126 Beale Street is no more. The building is now a restaurant-tavern called Elvis Presley’s Memphis. The place is packed this week with fight fans.
Knowing what we know, you’ve got to believe, The King would approve.
Support your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame here. You know The King would.