He was brash, courageous and talented. He was contentious, controversial and giving. Muhammad Ali was one of my heroes. Here is what I wrote in the second entry in this blog on April 3, 2012:
In my first post here I featured my favorite card. Today it's my most prized piece of memorabilia. This is the May 5, 1969 Sports Illustrated cover. I had liked the picture a lot when the issue arrived and kept it. In July of 1971 Ali and Jimmy Ellis were preparing to fight in the Astrodome here in Houston. For a buck or two you could get in to watch sparring sessions in the Arena next to the Dome.
I went to a couple and would watch Ali clown with the small audience set up on three sides of a ring set against one wall. He liked to flip up the hem of his rubberized sweatshirt and watch the ringsiders duck the sweat that flew out. He put on a real 'Ali' show, talking about Ellis, hollering at the boxing writers, showing off his 'Ali Shuffle', etc.
I had taken along this cover just on the off chance that what happened after his session would happen. After Ali finished and not long after Ellis entered the ring I heard the metal crash doors behind me open and close a few times. I turned and saw Ali peeking in from the corridor. I went out there and he was alone, it was just me and one of the most famous figures on the planet. I mumbled a few words and asked him to sign the cover and he took my 'Flair' pen (the 70's version of a sharpie) and signed across the crown as you can see.
I thanked him and went back into the Arena seating area. As I got to the row of metal chairs I was sitting in I was jolted from behind and before I could react Ali dove into a chair pulling me down by my shoulders into the seat next to him. And there I sat. Next to Muhammad Ali, with Dick Young of the New York Daily News (among my favorite writers) now standing on the other side of me, kibitzing with him.
Ali taunted Ellis for a bit, ducking behind my back as if hiding from Ellis. After awhile Angelo Dundee's people (Dundee was Ellis' trainer for that fight!) had had enough and began yelling at Ali from the ring.
That was forty two years ago but I remember it vividly. I have a lot of nice cards and lots of other cool memorabilia but I'd give all that away before I'd give up this SI cover. Looking back I wish I had kept it in glass or something. I had it in a cheap frame in dorm rooms and the apartments I lived in for years. You can probably tell it's a bit frayed along the edges. The blue 'Flair' ink has turned purplish (but it hasn't spread or faded, thank goodness) And I wish I had not covered my mailing label with the smaller photo. But nevertheless this piece holds a great memory.
A few days later I posted this follow-up. And another terrific SI cover.
I went back and dug up the Sports Illustrated issue that was published late in July of '71 that mentioned the gym training session I attended. You can read it on SI's Vault site (images below). I really don't recall the Ali-Ellis byplay that Tex Maule writes about but I'm sure I was in a fog at that point. And just to show that you can't believe everything you read, not even in the unerring Sports Illustrated (sigh), Maule mentions Ali being behind the first row while kibitzing Ellis. We were in the 3rd or 4th row of about five. I know because the other writers all turned around and came back to surround us. A tiny matter, but it's bugged me since July of 1971.