Thoughts on Muhammad Ali’s Passing

Saturday, June 4th, 2016 | Uncategorized

mike-about-aliWith the passing of Muhammad Ali today, I find myself reflecting back on two occasions that I spent time with “The Greatest” They are among the most cherished moments of my 35-year journalism career and I would like to share them with all the Facebook friends of my three children, Jacquie, Jenny and Jason. The picture you see here is of me and Muhammad in Cedar Rapids on June 6, 1982.

In my opinion, Muhammad Ali (aka Cassius Clay) is the greatest heavyweight boxing champion ever, and maybe even the greatest sports figure of all time. It has been stated that during his peak years as champion, in the 1970s, his was the best known name on the planet. You could travel to the far corners of the civilized world, or to tiny huts in small African villages, and more people would recognize the name Muhammad Ali than that of any other person alive, including presidents, kings, queens and movie stars.

The first time I was around Ali was in the winter of 1978 when I was managing editor of the Daily Sentinel newspaper in Woodstock, Illinois, about sixty miles northwest of Chicago. One morning at my desk, I read in a Chicago newspaper that Ali was going to hold a sparring session in the Windy City Boxing Club. I turned to my sports editor, Don Doxsie, and said, “Grab your camera …. and let’s go see Muhammad Ali.”

The club was in a South Side neighborhood and a tough section of town, with deserted buildings and broken out windows. We walked to the entrance, and then up a steep set of creaking steps. We could hear the noise from the room at the top of the steps and figured we had the right place. I opened the door and we walked inside.

It was an entirely different scene than I had anticipated. There was what looked like a rundown ring, and hundreds of men crowded around it. Don and I were rather conspicuous – and not just because Don was six foot six inches tall and I was a stout 200-pounder. The fact is – we were the only white folk in the entire room!

But I didn’t care. My gaze was on the two figures in the ring. Not wanting to draw too much attention to ourselves, we stood several rows back and watched the sparring session for about thirty minutes, well aware that we had been noticed by those around us. At the end of one round, Ali leaned on the ropes, looking out into the crowd, smiling and chatting with the fans. His eyes fell on us – and he looked genuinely surprised.

“What you doing here?” he asked, looking at me. I shrugged and said, “We came to see you, champ.” His salutation had turned every eye in the place our way.

The bell rang and he began sparring again, but now we were being checked out by many of the men in the room, and some didn’t appear to be too pleased that the champ had focused his attention on us for a brief moment. Nonetheless, we stood our ground for a couple of more rounds, then watched as Ali climbed out of the ring. He threw a jacket on and began moving toward the doorway, people pushing in all sides to get close to him.

As he headed for the door, I maneuvered up close to him as I had a book I wanted him to sign. Don stayed right on my heels. Ali saw us again, and look of concern came on his face. He reached out a hand and gripped my coat.

“Stay by me,” he said quietly. We moved to the stairway and down the steps, Ali still gripping my coat. Outside in the sunlight, he was mobbed again. He looked at his car and quipped: “I’m glad to see my hubcaps are still here!” Everyone roared with delight.

mike-about-ali2Then he looked at me again and I told him I had a book I wanted him to sign. He told me to give it to him and he scribbled his name quickly. Ali nodded as he handed the book back to me, and said, “You’re crazy to come here.”

I took it as a compliment… to Mike Chapman from the heavyweight champion of the world! I’ve been called crazy many times during my life, but never by anyone with that much stature.

Several years later, Ali was invited by a not-for-profit group to come to Cedar Rapids on June 6, 1982, for a fundraiser, hoping to raise money for a cultural achievement center for underprivileged youth. At the time, I was sports editor of The Gazette, Iowa’s second largest newspaper. The head of the organizing committee asked me if I would like to spar a round with Ali for publicity’s sake, and I said I would be honored.

It seemed all set… but then, somehow, the sports director of a local television station was picked to spar instead and I was asked to serve as Ali’s corner man.

The anchorman was tall and lanky, and the committee figured the TV station would give the event lots of publicity (They had already gotten several long stories from me in The Gazette).

Ali was now forty years old and officially retired after being the only fighter to win the world heavyweight championship three times. I met Ali at the airport when he flew in with his small entourage, and went to a local hotel where he was going to do some magic tricks for kids. Yes, Ali did magic tricks…. simple gimmicks with his hands and with cards, and he loved performing for the kids. He was scheduled to spend just an hour there, but no one could get him to stop. He actually spent two hours with the kids.

As he was getting ready to go up to his room for a well-deserved rest (they had flown in from Los Angeles, and just a few days prior to that he had been in Rome, seeing the Pope), one little girl gripped his hand. He looked down at her, a white child perhaps three or four, and she said, “Hi, Muhammad” in a very sweet voice.

He gaped at her, smiled widely, then bent over and picked her up. She hugged him and he giggled, looking at me.

“Hey, Mr. Newspaperman,” he said, “Where is your photographer now? You need to get a picture of this.”

Everyone smiled broadly at the image of the little white girl hugging the most famous athlete of his generation, a black man who had made his reputation with his fists. It was a precious moment– but there was no photographer anywhere near.

Several hours later, I was with Ali about twenty minutes before the sparring event, which was held in the large Five Seasons Center. Ali stood in his corner, gloved hands resting on the ropes, chatting with everyone around the ring as I stood next to him, drinking it all in. He was wearing a white, short-sleeve dress shirt and dark slacks.

Later that evening, Ali spoke at a fundraising banquet and I walked up to him with a photo of us together and asked him to sign it.

“Wow, how did you get a photo so fast?” he asked, staring at it.

“The Gazette photographer knew I’d love having a picture for you to sign, so he went to the office and printed this for me right away,” I said. Muhammad wrote, “To Mike, from Muhammad Ali. Thanks for helping me with the fight. June 6, 1982.”

The next day, I was in the limousine that took him to the airport. He asked the organizing committee people how they had done financially. When Ali was informed they had just about broken even, he asked why they didn’t make a profit. They explained they had spent a lot on publicity, tickets for underprivileged kids, and his expenses. He looked at them for a moment… and then he took out the check they had just given him and tore it up. We were all stunned.

One of the women gasped, and exclaimed, “Muhammad, you can’t do that!”

“Yes I can,“ he said. “It’s my way of giving back.”

And then he was gone, back to Los Angeles, where he was living at the time.

I cherish the memory of the two occasions I was around Muhammad Ali, and to have been given such insight twice into his character, when not working the crowd. In my opinion, he is a true champion, in and out of the ring.

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