Phoenix Bartending Guru Steve Shliveck Recalls His Days With Ali, Don King

Steve Shliveck at the Bartending Academy in Tempe.
Steve Shliveck at the Bartending Academy in Tempe. Jim Louvau

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Steve Shliveck displays memorabilia from the "Thrilla in Manila" fight, where much of the time he was under the boxing ring.
Jim Louvau
I’m back in New York ready to go, Been with Dick Gregory in Show Low, A place in Arizona where the air is clear and free, And the people out there are so nice to me.
—Muhammad Ali

It’s late summer 1976. Staring down the barrel of a September rubber match with chiseled bruiser Ken Norton, Muhammad Ali is halfheartedly working out at his training facility in Michigan, besieged all the while by girls in hot pants angling for a sugar daddy.

At 34, the champ is aging, doughy by boxing standards, and slipping into self-parody. (In Tokyo earlier that summer, he’d faced off against a Japanese professional wrestler while the crowd threw garbage into the ring and chanted, “Money back! Money back!”) He is well aware that if he doesn’t change his ways, he’s destined for a pummeling at the hands of Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw during their first fight in ’73.

On the advice of comedian/activist/buddy Dick Gregory, Ali flies to Arizona, rents a station wagon, and heads northeast into the solitude of the White Mountains. En route to Springerville, his intended destination, he spies a hangar at a small airfield 200 miles outside Phoenix.

This will be his sanctuary, Ali decides.

A ring is shipped in, and for a few weeks Ali takes up residence in tiny Show Low, Arizona, and gets down to business training for his now-legendary successful title defense against Norton in Yankee Stadium.

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A 1976 photo the champ signed for Shliveck.
Courtesy of Steve Shliveck
Meanwhile in New York, longtime Ali promoter and sports-broadcast pioneer Hank Schwartz has an idea to make a little extra money off the upcoming megafight. He quickly brainstorms a television ad campaign to promote Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a-Dope Jump Rope: an otherwise everyday jump rope packaged with Ali’s signature punch-absorbing fighting technique and literally branded with Ali’s autograph on one of its handles.

But how can Schwartz get a commercial shot with the champ hiding out in the boonies of Arizona?

Schwartz decides to dispatch a family friend who’d joined his crew a year earlier, during the run-up to Ali’s “Thrilla in Manila” match with Joe Frazier. Steve Shliveck isn’t a TV ad pro, but Schwartz is convinced the young man has the tools to pull it off.

“He was a smart kid, he picked things up so quickly, and I trusted him,” Schwartz, now 89, says by phone from his home on Long Island, New York. “Steve would get it done.”

The Bartending Academy in Tempe looks like an ASU college bar. It is a tired space in a nondescript strip mall not far from campus, where one can walk up to the bar in flatteringly bad light and ponder a glittering wall of everything from cheap and sweet to pricey and savage.

Yet here, the bottles are full of colored water. Here, over the years, hundreds of drinks, from the common to the exotic, have been taught, mixed, and poured, but not one has been drunk. This is a mixology dojo, Steve Shliveck its longtime sensei. If you frequent the bars of Arizona, there’s a good chance your favorite bartender was one of some 5,000 students who have honed their chops under Shliveck.

On this morning, photos line the bar instead of students and drinks. Shliveck is reminiscing about the years he spent in the mid-1970s helping Hank Schwartz set the scene for some of the greatest moments in sports history.

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Steve Shliveck at the Bartending Academy in Tempe.
Jim Louvau
Many of his fondest memories revolve around Ali, who spent a large part of the last half of his life in the Valley before he died this past summer.

“I remember a lot of those times like they were yesterday,” Shliveck, now 66, says. He points to Norman Mailer’s autograph on a 1975 event program from Manila, adds, “How could you not? They were amazing times.”

Shliveck grew up in the Bronx, New York. In his late teens, after both his parents had died, he went to stay with relatives on Long Island. It was there that he met Hank Schwartz’s son, Ira, and the two became close friends. Shliveck, Hank Schwartz recalls, “was always at the house. He was a family friend — he became part of the family.”

After high school, the restless young man, a budding artist and musician, hitchhiked across the United States.

He fell in love with the Southwest and, after traveling the country with music acts, settled in the Valley. In 1973, he entered ASU to pursue degrees in fine arts and special education.

Two years later came the call that offered a new adventure Shliveck couldn’t pass up.

Through the 1960s and early 1970s, Hank Schwartz became known as the sports world’s go-to guy for pulling off the impossible. Not only did he promote nearly all of the premier boxing events of the 1970s — some with his young associate, Don King — but he also engineered much of the satellite and telecommunications technology that made worldwide broadcasts from far-flung locales possible.

It was a thrilling time, Schwartz says, a series of technological and financial triumphs wrestled from scarcely controlled chaos.

That, and the occasional sucker punch of abject mortal terror.

Cut to “The Rumble in the Jungle” of 1974, which Schwartz says almost didn’t happen owing to the incompetence of Zaire’s minister of communications. As the world’s sportswriters and broadcasters packed up and prepared to leave after a series of technical failures threatened to cancel the event, Zaire’s military dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, called a meeting with Schwartz and the hapless communications minister.

Schwartz explained the problem to Mobutu and proposed a solution to the technical problems. But Mobutu had another idea to help the process.

“Mobutu leans over to the general beside him, the general calls over a captain standing in the corner, and the captain walks over to the minister sitting next to me,” Schwartz recounts. “The captain unhooked his holster, pulled out his pistol, and, as the minister tried to stand, shot him right between the eyes.

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Steve Shliveck with legendary boxing promoter Don King.
Courtesy of Steve Shliveck
“My partner sitting next to me shit his pants,” Schwartz goes on. “Mobutu never took his eyes off of me. He said, ‘Fix the telephone problems. You are our new minister of communications.’ I felt I should accept the position.”

Ali took the world heavyweight title from George Foreman, and the event went down as one of the greatest boxing matches and worldwide sports spectacles in history. Schwartz says he was happy to leave Zaire to set up his next big event: “The Thrilla in Manila.”

Before flying to Manila from San Francisco in 1975, Schwartz called Shliveck in Phoenix and asked him if he’d like to join the production crew for the event.

In Manila, Shliveck first served as a gaffer — basically the guy who does whatever needs to be done. He worked long hours and learned the tech and the business along the way. By fight night, he had risen to stage manager.

He was perched ringside, ready to play intermediary between celebrities and sports journalists, or to spring up at a moment’s notice to address any technical glitches.

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Staff badge for the "Thrilla in Manila' fight.
Courtesy of Steve Shliveck
It was 98 degrees in the building with 98 percent humidity and no air conditioning. The venue was packed, and celebrities and dignitaries jammed the front row.

“We ran out of chairs,” Shliveck says. “So I had to share a seat with Don King. He had one half; I had space for my right cheek. Every time Ali landed a punch, King would punch me in excitement. I took a pounding.”

In the midst of the bout, Schwartz got word that the West German phone line had fritzed out. “I immediately called to Steve,” he says.

“Hank said, ‘Get your ass beneath the ring and fix West Germany’s phone lines,’” Shliveck recalls. “So I’m crawling around under the canvas as Ali and Frazier are beating the crap out of each other above me,” he says.

Ali won the third and final bout of their series in what some consider the greatest fight of all time. Shliveck felt the power of every punch.

“It was like thunder," he says. "When people ask how close I was to that fight, well, I was a couple feet away right beneath it.”

In questionable condition and facing a man
who could punch through walls, Ali employed a defensive technique in Zaire that was intended to diffuse the impact of Foreman’s punches until Foreman tired enough to drop his hands.

Ali backed into the ropes, covered up what his opponent wanted to hit, and then used the ropes as struts to minimize the damage. Ali’s revolutionary covering technique infuriated spectators, but, after his win, quickly gained fame as a modern version of David’s sling.

In early 1976, as a thank-you to Schwartz, Ali signed over exclusive rights to develop and market any product or media based on the term “rope-a-dope.” Schwartz’s thinking: Ali conditioned with a jump rope, the word “rope” is in “rope-a-dope,” so, as Schwartz wryly puts it, “How could you not have a ‘Rope-a-Dope Jump Rope?’”

Schwartz needed a commercial, Ali was in Arizona, and so he sent the Arizona-wise kid.

Shliveck flew from Sky Harbor to Show Low with four of Ali’s close Muslim friends through a lightning storm so intense “it had me thinking about Buddy Holly.” The four men began reciting passages from Koran, he says, “and I just started chanting from the Koran with them.”

Having survived the flight, Shliveck set out to get a commercial written and shot in two days.

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The Ali Rope-a-Dope exerciser.
Schwartz’s target market was kids, so Shliveck posted fliers around Show Low and approached school officials to help him find youngsters to audition for the commercial. Out of dozen or so hopefuls, they settled on a 12-year-old girl whose name he can’t remember.

“She was wonderful and not nervous at all, a real natural,” Shliveck says.

And then: “I spent the day with Ali in his motel room with his wife and his new baby. We just sat there and wrote the actual commercial. I remember he was talking a lot about his baby. She was so quiet. We got something we liked and did a couple takes and that was it: We nailed it.”

All Shliveck remembers verbatim is the ending:

Ali (to Girl): “Hey, you jump rope really well.”

Girl: “You don’t have to be a great champ to jump rope.”

“And she punches him,” Shliveck says. “And that was it.”

The footage appears to have been lost to history. Neither Schwartz nor Shliveck saved a copy, and although an internet search quickly turns up a spot touting an updated version of the jump rope released in the early 2000s — complete with a digital calorie counter! — the original commercial is nowhere to be found.

You can only imagine the champ did his product proud; a late-1970s ad for d-CON roach traps (“Roaches get trapped inside, and wham! they’re dead!”) is an absolute hoot.

And if you scout enough collectors’ auctions, you can still pick up a vintage Rope-a-Dope Jump Rope, though the gender-specific Ms. Rope-a-Dope Jump Rope is a rarer specimen.

Likewise the Rope-a-Dope Personal Exerciser, which looks a lot like a rolling pin.

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Some of Steve Shliveck's Ali memorabilia.
Courtesy of Steve Shliveck
Shliveck left Hank Schwartz’s crew in 1978. Schwartz had become involved in other business ventures, and Shliveck wanted to get married and go back to pursuing a career in music and theater.

Thirteen years later, after stints that included running his own youth theater company in New York, Shliveck returned to the desert, where he took a position as a social worker. As time passed, he found himself yearning to find something that involved teaching and working with people “in a positive environment.”

The day after the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in the 2001 World Series, he was hired as director of the Bartending Academy. He bought the bartending school outright two years ago. In his 16 years there, he estimates that he has taught more than 5,000 people to bartend during the school’s three-day-a-week, two-week-long training courses.

“I love my work so much,” he says. “We have fun, but beyond that, students are coming out of here with all the skills and information they need to be responsible, top-shelf bartenders. They can go out and get good-paying jobs — genuinely improve their lives.”

Although Ali spent much of his time since the 1980s in the Phoenix area, eventually buying a house in Paradise Valley in 2005, Shliveck never spent time again with the champ, who didn't drink alcohol after becoming a Muslim. But when Ali died last June, Shliveck felt as if he’d lost an old friend.

“That was such a wild time in my life — to be there as sports history is made while working with one of the greatest sports figures in history. Those are memories that will stay with me forever.”

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Robert Nelson