On a brush of greatness, Muhammad Ali

By Marc Katz

I could lie to you and tell you I’ve got all these personal Muhammad Ali stories, which I don’t.

But I do know some people who brushed up against Ali’s fame before his fame reached its apex, and I know Ali held a boxing exhibition right here in the Gem City, at Welcome Stadium.

I also know you could kick yourself in the pants for not going over there on June 25, 1971.

Joe Louis, another former heavyweight champ of note, was even the referee for at least one of the bouts.

All this came to mind this weekend when the revered Ali died at 74 and all the major tributes came flooding in from those who not only covered Ali in his prime but also knew him well.

But this was 1971 and Ali was sullied a bit, even with his 1960 Rome Olympics gold medal and a heavyweight championship belt taken away because he was claimed as being a draft evader, leading to his ban from championship bouts for three years.

To fill his time, he scheduled exhibition matches, even after being allowed back in the ring for championship bouts.

In one of those, he lost his first fight to Joe Frazier by a unanimous decision on March 8, 1971 at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

You could have seen that one in Dayton, too, at Hara Arena, where a ticket for a big-screen showing was just $12.

Three months later, there was Ali at Welcome Stadium, ready for a three-part exhibition versus J.D. McCarley, Eddie Brooks and Rufus Brassell.

McCarley, from Columbus, is also the uncle of and was the trainer for Buster Douglas, who made a name for himself at Dayton’s Sinclair Community College as a basketball player. Oh, and he also took down Mike Tyson in a heavyweight boxing match. Brassell, from Lima, was supposed to lure in the local crowd.

Brooks, of Milwaukee, made his name by once knocking down Ali in one of these exhibitions, but not in Dayton.

There were several other matches scheduled before Ali climbed into the ring for his workout, which came only a few days before the Supreme Court exonerated him of draft evasion.

Now retired, Gary Nuhn had the assignment on a Friday night, and security was scarce.

“The crowd was thin, maybe 250-300,” Nuhn says.

“I got there early and a cop showed me which locker room [Ali] was in. I knocked on the door and walked in.”

“None of his usual entourage was with him. There was just one guy, and Ali was standing there naked with only his shoes and socks on, shadow-boxing.”

“He eventually stopped and said, ‘C’mon over,’ and as I approached, he started throwing jabs at my face, stopping them like an inch or two away. I just stood there and ‘took’ it, until he started laughing and then we talked.”

“I don’t remember anything else.”

I’ll give Nuhn a pass. He remembered a lot, especially since it has been 45 years.

It has been even longer for another friend of mine, who chooses to stay anonymous about his meeting with Ali in 1966, when my friend was a college student in Atlanta.

Those were even easier days when you could bump into a celebrity, strike up a conversation and not get surrounded by 150 security people.

Ali was big in 1966—an Olympic champion and the heavyweight champion of the world—but he wasn’t the revered person he would become.

My friend joined Ali’s entourage, which was two to three guys, and Ali had just shed his first wife and was awaiting a court judgment on what he was going to owe.

They all went out to lunch, at Paschal’s, a famous Atlanta eatery.

My friend asked Ali who he was going to fight next and was told Henry Cooper. When that fight was staged May 21, 1966, my friend told all his friends he already knew about it.

Lunch was still digesting when the car veered into a campus area, and a bunch of co-eds surrounded the car, recognizing Ali.

At that point, Ali turned to my friend, sitting in the back seat.

“You’ve got to go, Hard Head,” he said.

I asked my friend what he did.

He got out of the car, leaving only with his brush with Ali.

This is all small potatoes stuff compared to Ali’s legacy. He won the heavyweight title three times, wrote some poetry (“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”) and became a worldwide legend.

He won his sport at the 1960 Rome Olympics, returning to the Olympics in 1996 to light the torch in Atlanta to ignite another Games.

Atlanta. That’s where my friend had his brush with greatness.

And Dayton. If you weren’t at Welcome Stadium in 1971, at least you know Ali was here. Maybe somebody should put up a sign.

Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at katzcopsnsports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@daytoncitypaper.com.

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Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at KatzCopsNSports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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