The Greatest

My lunch with Muhammad Ali

• He ate, I took his picture.

• Call me crazy, but. . .that’s what Ali did in 1996

I get the question sometimes: “Who was the first famous person you interviewed?” Or, “Who was the most famous person you interviewed?”

They were one and the same: Muhammad Ali.

I crossed paths more than once with The Greatest.

Press kit cover

In the spring of 1975, several months after regaining his heavyweight championship crown from George Foreman in what was then Zaire, promoter Don King arranged for Ali’s first title defense. A bout was scheduled for the Cleveland Coliseum. Ali versus Chuck Wepner, a pug from New Jersey known as “The Bayonne Bleeder.”

News media from all over Ohio were invited to a promotional luncheon a few weeks before the fight to meet the fighters. I drove over from Toledo right after my last morning newscast on WIOT-FM with my tape recorder and my Nikkormat SLR.

After Ali had done one-on-one interviews with television sportscasters, King’s minions told me he would eat lunch next but I could interview him while he ate. I sat on a banquette next to the champ and he answered my questions while noisily scarfing down a salad.

I had the presence of mind to take a few color shots of him from close up, but it didn’t occur to me to hand the camera to someone else and get a shot of the two of us. As I would later make a habit of posing with most of the celebs I interviewed – if they wished – this one lapse chagrins me to this day. I did get his autograph on an 8 X 10 glossy from the press kit, which I framed.

Wepner, who lost the fight but went 15 rounds before a TKO, later claimed Sylvester Stallone got the idea for his first film, Rocky, from watching the fight on a closed-circuit telecast. Stallone denied it, but the story lives on.

Other Philadelphia stories

When I worked in Philadelphia, I inadvertently photobombed a media event with Ali and the mayor.:

It was a sad day in 1984 when ABC Radio News sent me to a news conference at the Cloisters in New York City where Ali’s doctors announced their diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

A much happier time was 1996, when a documentary film about the Ali-Forman rumble in the jungle, “When We Were Kings,” had its premiere at Radio City Music Hall. I was sent to cover it by CNN’s Showbiz Today. In the theater’s lobby, television crews were penned into a lengthy receiving line, with luminaries moving by on their way in, offering sound bites to reporters or producers. I watched as Ali came down the line, moving slowly, but animated and engaging despite the Parkinson’s wracking him. I thought about what I might do to get something a little different from him than everyone else. As he moved in front of our camera and lights, I started bobbing and weaving, my fists flanking my head, saying, “C’mon, Champ! Let’s go! I know you still got it! Show me what you got!”

He stopped in his tracks, took a long, perfectly timed pause, looked left and right at the people around him with a look on his face that said, “Seriously?” Then he turned to me with a twinkle in his eye, twirled an index finger to the side of his head, pointed it at me and said, “You crazy!”


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