The old boxer answers the door of his south suburban home with a smile and a firm handshake and he moves across his living room and sits in a chair and tells stories about when he was young and strong and beating the daylights out of people.
“I was a good boxer,” Kent Greene says. “There was this one fight in 1958 when I won the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions. Fought a guy named Loomis Oglesby. He was from Kansas City. I won by decision. Oglesby was a soldier who was later killed in Vietnam.”
Greene will be turning 84 years old in a couple of months but the names from his past come to him with clarity, his memory as fit as he is, looking maybe 20 years younger than the calendar indicates.
Of all the names he recalls, there are two most notable: Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali.
“When we first met I was 17 and a half and he was 16,” says Greene. “We fought at the old Chicago Stadium in the quarterfinals of the Golden Gloves. We had no idea what that fight would eventually mean to both of us.”
That fight, a light heavyweight bout with the 6-foot, 175 pound Greene, nine pounds heavier than 6-foot 3 Clay, would be a landmark in both of their lives.
Greene controlled the fight from the opening bell. As recalled more than a decade afterward by boxing promoter and later star of TV’s “The Sportswriters” Ben Bentley, “Clay didn’t go off on his feet, but I remember he wasn’t giving Greene any conversation either … Clay was out on his feet.”
The referee stopping it in the second round and declared Greene winner by TKO. After the fight, Kent’s father/trainer Arthur went to Clay’s dressing room where he found the fighter lying on a table.
“I lost the fight,” said Clay, who was crying.
“Hey, it’s only one fight,” said Arthur Greene. “That’s nothing. You could go on and become the champion of the world.”
That he would, becoming not only the heavyweight champion but a controversial figure and among the most famous and admired people on the planet. Ali would not suffer another knockout until being stopped by Larry Holmes in a savage and sad fight in 1980. And through it all, Kent Greene would proudly wear a tag given him by the press, “Ali’s ghost.”
Greene was born in Cleveland, came to Chicago at 5 and was raised in the Altgeld Gardens public housing complex. He played football and baseball at Dunbar High School but academics bored him so he dropped out and took a few menial jobs until his father started teaching him to box.
“My older brothers boxed and my dad thought it would be good for me,” he says. “My father was a perfectionist and so when I started, he tied my right hand behind my back for six months so I could learn to use my left. And I did.”
He would train and spar at the gym run by heavyweight champion Joe Louis at 51st Street and Michigan Avenue. “And I was up at 4 a.m. doing running, before the cars were out, putting carbon monoxide in the air,” he says.
Greene had more amateur fights after defeating Clay and won the light heavyweight title in the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament. He turned professional at age 20. “I was fighting three- and six-round bouts and getting paid $100 to $250,” he said. “I had a wife and baby and that wasn’t paying the bills.”
His wife did not enjoy the boxing life and so Greene quit, hung up his gloves in 1960 and began working in other fields. He closely observed Ali’s career, his climb to success in the ring. He will still tell you, “I truthfully feel that I could have beat Muhammad at any stage of our lives and careers.”
Ali had become the heavyweight champion when he knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964, the same year he denounced his birth name as a “slave name” and formally changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The next year he was in a Chicago restaurant with an entourage. Greene and his wife were there too.
Of course, he remembers, saying, “She convinced me to go into the private room and say hello. I didn’t want to at first. The champ was talking, dancing like he did and when he heard the door squeak open and saw me walk in, he stopped dancing and yelled, ‘It’s Kent Greene. That turkey knocked me out. Come here. I wanna knock you out.’ And then he put his arms around me in a big hug and asked what I had been up to.”
He was working for the YMCA’s detached youth workers program, which was an effort to deal with the city’s growing gang problem by mentoring young people. Greene was perfect for the job, a role model whose fistic reputation shadowed him.
Ali and Greene would keep in touch and often see one another. Greene remarried and one day, he and his new wife Betty, an executive secretary, were sitting with Ali at his home. The champion was in the midst of his nearly four-year exile from boxing for refusing to be inducted into the Army. The conversation turned to boxing and Greene told Ali he was still interested in fighting.
“He picked up the phone, made one call and the next thing I know I’m scheduled on a flight to Miami to fight,” Greene said. “I won two fights and lost one but it meant a lot to me that Ali still believed in my ability.”
Those three bouts were enough for Greene. He quit boxing and left his YMCA job and began working as a supervisor for Coca-Cola. (He would much later retire after a lengthy career with the CTA). He and Betty would start their family which includes four now adult children. They are still happily married.
He found time to attend Woodrow Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy-King), majoring in history and writing a novel, “The Razor,” about a Black gunfighter. In December, 1977, Ali was training at a local gym for an upcoming exhibition bout and when Greene told him about “The Razor.”
“I’m not putting you down but I get this all the time,” Ali said, adding stunningly, “But how would you like to fight me … for a million dollars?”
Greene said, “If you’re serious, I’ll fight 10 of you for a million dollars,” and crushed out his last cigarette of his life, “a Kool at 1:30 in the morning.” He started to train, with his father by his side, and took a leave of absence from his job. His family was supportive.
This fight kept getting delayed but in September, 1978, shortly after Ali had defeated Leon Spinks in their rematch, there was a private three round sparring session between Ali and Greene at the Windy City Gym on 63rd Street.
“I did more than hold my own,” Greene recalls. “His style hadn’t really changed much in all those years. I hit him and I hurt him. It was three torrid rounds and in that third round, I ate him up.”
But for a number of reasons — boxing regulations, money issues, contract troubles — two weeks before the scheduled bout at the Chicago Stadium, the event evaporated.
“Frustrating and disappointing? Yes,” Greene says now.
He was bitter for a time but no longer. “I was sad to see Ali end up the way he did,” he says, referring to the Parkinson’s disease that hastened Ali’s death at 74 in 2016. “He was a great fighter and a great man and humanitarian. I would never knock him.”
A poster sits against the wall, a poster of the 1978 fight that never was. His daughter reads at a nearby table. One of his grandkids plays upstairs. On Friday the old boxer will be inducted into the Gold Gloves Hall of Fame. Life is good.