To this day Bingham remains convinced that Ali was somehow drugged before his fight with Larry Holmes in 1980. "Ali had just come from the Mayo Clinic," Bingham says. "His eyes were so bright when he got to Vegas, and my thinking is that [the people who could profit if Ali lost] saw he was looking much better than they had anticipated. But he took medication he was given in Vegas, and in the ring he wasn't perspiring, he wasn't fighting. It doesn't make any sense. You know, all these years, I'm still not a boxing expert. I'm just a Muhammad Ali expert, and...." He shrugs helplessly.
Holmes gave Ali a terrible whipping, and, Bingham and some others believe, it was only after that fight that Ali began to change, to grow diminished. But Ali isn't interested in Bingham's suspicions, even if that bout might have changed his life. It's over and done with, Allah's will no less than the earthquake in Tokyo.
Likewise, whenever Ali learned that somebody in his confidence had been ripping him off, he avoided any confrontation. There were even occasions when Bingham revealed to him the hard truth about some hanger-on, some buttonhole salesman who was conning him, and Ali got mad at Bingham for being the messenger.
As in the parable of the Lost Son (Muhammad: see Luke 15:11-32), Bingham has played the dutiful younger son, the one who was always there, always faithful. But no matter how many prodigals left with part of Ali's fortune or how truthfully Bingham warned the Champ about those leeches, Ali's response would be, "What do you know, Howard Bingham, you with your slave name? You're no Muslim."
Bingham would accept the slights and stay. "Then," he says, "when everything I told him turned out to be true, he had to notice. You see, everybody around Ali had a cause, but not the cause they said. The cause wasn't Ali. It wasn't Islam. The cause was them."
Bernie Yuman, manager of Siegfried and Roy, a man long close to Ali and Bingham, says, "Ali realized that if you're Howard's friend, then you—not him—are foremost on his agenda."
Herbert Muhammad, a son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad who was designated by his father to be Ali's manager, became Bingham's most prominent bête noire. Herbert would never cut the Christian confidant any slack. Bingham, for example, has an extraordinary ability to recall telephone numbers, and Ali, impressed by this sleight of mind, would swirl his head about in astonishment whenever Bingham would throw up 10 digits. It drove Herbert crazy. Once when Ali voiced his amazement at Bingham's gift, Herbert snapped, "It's only because he hasn't got anything else to do."
Bingham's essential sweetness masks a tougher cookie. He sued Arsenio Hall Communications (the suit was settled for an undisclosed amount), and he punched out a member of Ali's entourage, Gene Kilroy, who was once characterized by a writer as "a white Red Cap." It was a one-punch fight. "He cocked back; I cocked faster," Bingham says. With Herbert Muhammad he had to be more subtle, more conniving, but once he almost pulled off a coup. Bingham persuaded Ali to sign a contract that turned over his management to his and Bingham's friend John Jay Hooker, a white Christian. Hooker eventually burned that signed paper, convinced that the contract would create such a dispute with Herbert Muhammad that it would, in the long run, hurt Ali more than help him.
Where he could, Herbert tried to make a nonperson out of Howard. In Ali's autobiography, censored by the Muslims, Bingham's name appears only a few times. But Bingham would get some sweet revenge through Hauser's 1991 biography of Ali—which, though authorized, was remarkably candid.
Hauser, a stranger to Ali's entourage, understood immediately who Bingham was in the scheme of things. "I remember [approaching] Mike Katz of the New York Daily News—he's supposed to be such a curmudgeon," Hauser says. "I introduced myself and told him what I was going to do, and the first thing he said was, 'You'll love Howard Bingham.' "