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Billy Crystal recalls big TV break at Muhammad Ali dinner

Billy Crystal discusses his first time meeting Muhammad Ali, and the start of a long friendship.

Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

On Friday at the massive funeral and tribute to the late, great Muhammad Ali, comedian, actor, writer, and director Billy Crystal, a longtime friend of Ali's, spoke about his first encounter with the former heavyweight champion, in 1974, which was also Crystal's big TV break.

Here's a transcript if you're unable to watch the video:

"I met him in 1974. I was just getting started as a standup comedian and struggling, but I had one good routine. It was a three-minute conversation between Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali where I would imitate both of them. Ali had just defeated George Foreman and regained the heavyweight title. Sport magazine made him the Man of the Year, and Dick Schaap, a wonderful writer and a great man, was the editor for Sport, and he was going to host this televised dinner honoring Muhammad Ali.

"So Dick called my agent, looking for a comedian who did some sports material. As fate would have it, that comedian was not available, and she wisely said -- it's destiny, man -- she wisely said, 'Listen, I've got this young kid, and he does this great imitation of Ali and Cosell, he'd be perfect for you.' And I don't know why, but Dick said, 'OK, I'll try him. If he stinks, I can cut him out of the show.' I couldn't believe it. My first time on television, and it would be with Ali.

"Mr. Schaap introduced me as one of Ali's closest and dearest friends. Two people clapped: my wife and the agent. I rose, Ali still staring at me, I pass right behind him, got to the podium, went right into the Cosell. It got big laughs. And then I went into the Ali. The audience exploded. See, no one had ever done him before, and here I was, a white kid from Long Island, imitating the greatest of all-time, and he was loving it.

"When I was done, he gave me this big bearhug and he whispered in my ear, 'You're my little brother.' Which is what he always called me, until the last time that I saw him."

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