Gene Kilroy long time business manager plus facilitator and loyal friend to Muhammad Ali SIGNED (gold sharpie) Everlast bag mitt.
Steve Bunce throws light on Gene Kilroy, business manager, facilitator and friend to Muhammad Ali, and a man who witnessed boxing history being made.
Gene Kilroy most certainly was there.
He was there when Muhammad Ali lost, he was there when he tamed George Foreman, he was present at the end, spitting up blood from his ulcers as Ali rested, exhausted, and he is still there now, opening a door whenever Ali is in town.
He was known as The Facilitator in a tiny team of people devoted to their boss, Ali. He was the business manager. It was and it will remain the greatest and closest inner circle in boxing history. Kilroy has the diamond-studded heavyweight championship ring that only the elite from the inner circle can wear. He was also there as a pallbearer at the funeral of Ali’s mother. He has the impeccable credentials to bask forever in the glory haze of the fighter, but he has lived a life since the man he served finally quit.
His perm and safari suit can often be spotted at the edges in some of boxing’s most famous pictures. He does not have the profile; he is often vaguely referred to as one of “Ali’s men” and the people that know his history are in ever decreasing numbers and taking their stories with them.
The only proper way to trace his history as one of Ali’s closest and most influential friends is by sitting and talking and listening to Gene Kilroy tell his tales; tales from several thousand nights inside the magic spell of Ali’s great ride.
“I’m just an ordinary guy who had extraordinary opportunities,” insisted Kilroy, who works in Las Vegas as an executive host at the Luxor casino. He has walked the plush carpets in casino land as a host at the MGM, New York, New York, Binion’s, Dunes, Golden Nugget, the Tropicana and a few others since Ali’s last fight. It was inevitable that Kilroy ended up in the city that held mixed memories from Ali nights; the men in charge of the casinos pursued him because of his contact book.
“When I was with Ali I sat with presidents and they asked favours. They asked me to ask Ali. I sat with kings and emperors and queens when I travelled with him,” continued Kilroy, who first met Ali at the Rome Olympics, where Kilroy was attached to the army fighters. It was only during the fighter’s exile that Kilroy quit his job in the marketing department at MGM to work with Ali.
“I’ve said this before, but please tell me what can compare? Do you think any trip, any fight, any woman, any day could ever compare to what we did? Do you? Let me tell you that the richest guy in the World, a millionaire, would pay his fortune to do what I’ve done and see what I’ve seen. I know because people have been trying to buy in from the start! But what we had was not for sale,” insisted Kilroy.
It was Kilroy who spotted Eddie Futch cradling and retiring Joe Frazier in Manila. It was Kilroy, already halfway in the ring at the time, who screamed at the men standing on the ring apron, who were desperately trying to prepare Ali to go out again for another round, when he saw Futch’s act of mercy.
It was Kilroy who stood impassive in George Foreman’s changing room watching the champion putting on his gloves.
There was menace in the air. Archie Moore was walking from corner to corner like a man possessed, talking about “smelling death”. It was clearly a crazy place to be sane at that very moment in history. Gene was scared, real scared, at that point, and went back to Ali’s soulless changing room, where the gloom was thickening. Gene told me once that Ali immediately turned to him and asked: “What that nigger say?”
There was no room for anything but the truth.
“I had to tell him. ‘He said that he is going to make orphans of your children.’”
Ali jumped up, throwing wicked combinations, Kilroy smiled, Bundini Brown started hollering and even Angelo Dundee looked up from preparing his swabs and managed a grin.
“Ali had the fight won right then. He was never afraid of Foreman and that is a mistake people made,” added Kilroy.
Two months earlier, Kilroy had facilitated a meeting between Ali and Jack Dempsey at the final press conference for the Rumble in the Jungle, in New York. Foreman was glaring and threatening. Kilroy was on edge. “I could see George getting angry and Ali was just laughing and talking to Dempsey.
George got right in Ali’s face at one point and Ali told him: ‘Sonny Liston tried that when you were just a little boy — I’ll whup your ass too!’ George just stormed out. Conference over. Ali turned to Dempsey and said: “Mr Dempsey, I just won the first round!’ Every day was like that.”
In the hotel room before leaving for Zaire there was a tiny crisis that Kilroy had to smooth over. “Ali was desperate to speak with Cus D’Amato about the fight. He knew Cus would not lie to him. He knew that Cus would tell him the truth and he wanted to know. I finally get Cus on the phone, and then put Ali on. Cus famously told him: ‘Your first punch must be with devastating tenacity and bad intentions.’ Ali was smiling when he got off the phone. Now, watch the fight and tell me what happened,” said Kilroy.
A few years later, in another hotel room in New York, there was another call to D’Amato. “I spoke to Cus and he told me: ‘Gene, there’s a kid here claims he met you and Ali a couple of years ago’. I said: ‘Can he fight?’ Cus said that he could really fight. I told Cus to put him on. This crazy kid comes on the phone and tells me: ‘Mr Kilroy, this is Mike Tyson, you met me when the champ visited my school.’ Anyway, it turns out that we met this kid at some school a few years earlier and that he was so impressed that he decided he wanted to be heavyweight champion of the World.
He ends up with Cus and he ends up talking to me and then talking to Ali,” continued Kilroy, who often stayed in Ali’s suite when they went on the journey.
Kilroy’s first job in each town or country that they went to was to organise essentials like identifying the best doctors. He would then sit and take requests, but he was far more than just Ali’s facilitator. They were friends and that is something that many people then, and now, have struggled with accepting. Kilroy is not shy at naming names and conceals his contempt for a lot of people in the boxing business badly. “It’s just me. That’s it,” he often claimed. However, nobody, even Kilroy’s detractors, has ever doubted his devotion to Ali. Many saw him bent double in pain, puking up blood after the ferocious beating Ali took against Larry Holmes. By the way it was Kilroy who introduced Holmes to Ali and the others at Deer Lake a few years earlier. “Larry was a great kid back then.”
Kilroy is a unique Vegas and boxing beast because he is firmly from the past, loves the past, but has a great understanding of both the modern city and the modern boxing business. I saw Tyson and Kilroy together before fights. Tyson often stopped training when Kilroy walked in and would go over and hug him. I saw this happen on several occasions in makeshift gyms in Las Vegas outposts before big fights. “I had dinner with Mike and Tommy [Hearns] recently at the Luxor. Great guys. Mike’s lost a lot of weight. We talk about their old times,” added Kilroy.
It is a pleasure watching Big Gene at work inside a casino executive or VIP lounge or one of the hotel’s restaurants. In a restaurant he has his phones out on the table in seconds and then a house phone is delivered. He parts with his first 10 bucks to the kid that brings the house phone. There is 10 more for the kid with the ice, the girl with the coffee.
Somebody from the front office invariably arrives, most often with an envelope or to collect an envelope. The envelopes have tickets and tickets are currency in Kilroy’s life as the host of hosts. His convertible Mercedes car belonged to Tom Jones and Tom is still a pal: Gene is more Vegas than Vegas.
The deals take place in the lounge or at a regular restaurant booth. He arranges credit lines, he arranges tickets for shows — he is still the Facilitator. He drops it all when Ali comes to town and then they talk.
“It was not always presidents and kings. We sat and ate with killers and beggars. Ali visited hundreds of hospitals and nobody ever knew about that. There was this one kid, one time; he was dying of cancer. Ali went to see him and then before a fight I heard the kid’s condition was getting bad. I told Ali and we went to see this kid again. He’s going to die.
So Ali gets real close, I’m there too. This kid tells Ali what he’s going to do in heaven. He says: ‘I’m going to tell God that I know you.’ He died soon after. You see, it was always like a dream. A dream that one day I would wake from. That’s just what it was like.”
In Kilroy’s company it often feels the same way.
I remember Kilroy standing to leave the MGM lounge one night after Oscar De La Hoya beat Arturo Gatti. He paused at the lounge’s golden private elevators, placed the phone against his bulky shoulder. He was with Tony Curtis, another ancient and loyal friend, but he turned to me and said: “There is nothing left to see and being with Ali burnt me out for life.”
The executive lift door opened, they stepped in, and I was in the lounge again on my own. I ordered a triple vodka that time and scribbled down a few more Gene Kilroy tales on a sodden napkin.