Monday Memories: My ringside encounter with Mohammad Ali!


JE Thompson One

Mohammad Ali!

Like everyone I’m saddened with the passing of this iconic sports figure. I never met the man, but I did have a ringside encounter with the greatest boxer of all time.

I graduated from The City College of New York and then spent a summer as an intern with the Washington Star. I became a copyboy with The New York Times in 1970. This was the year before I became a sportswriter with the Philadelphia Bulletin.

One of my jobs, as a copyboy, was to hop on the subway (The “A” Train) at Times Square and ride to 34th Street and Madison Square Garden. I would wait for The Times’ Photographers to take pictures of the New York Knicks basketball games, New York Rangers hockey games and the big heavyweight fights of the era.

During that time there wasn’t internet or computer transmissions. You had to physically go to the event and return with the hand delivered film packets of photos.

On Dec. 7, 1970, the sports editor yelled “Copy Boy.”

I responded, “Yes Sir.”

“Kid you got a Garden run tonight…we need the pictures of the heavyweight fight for the early edition. Get the photos and back to us and don’t’ stop for anything.”

“Yes Sir.”

When I arrived at The Garden, I showed my New York Times press credentials and walked through the crowd and down the steps to the floor of the smoke-filled arena. The undercard was just finishing and now the Mohammad Ali-Oscar Bonavena heavyweight fight was on tap.

This was Ali’s second fight in his 1970 comeback. His next fight would be against the heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Frazier. The fight was scheduled for 15 rounds to get Ali ready for the Frazier fight.

I walked passed all the expensive ringside seats, with the celebrities and rich people (
including legendary fight promoter Don King) and sat in a chair at ringside where you see the photographers with their flash bulbs pooping.

I could literally touch the boxers, but what impressed me was the physical size of the heavyweights. I could feel the reverberations of the blows as they hit each other.

They were the biggest human beings I have ever seen.  I could see why you had to have courage to step into a ring and fight against somebody that is big, strong, agile and athletic.

Ali was quick with the hands and his feet moved in unison and created a dance that was mesmerizing. I have never seen an athlete move so gracefully on the basketball court or football field. He was dreamlike in his movement in the rink.

I edged closer and watched in amazement as I peeped under the bottom rope.

The Great media people of the day were at ringside. I was only a few feet from the ABC superstar: Howard Cosell. I didn’t realize he was tall and could look athletes eye to eye. He looked as grumpy as he did on television.

I stayed for the first three or four rounds. The photographer gave me the film packet and I literally put it in my front pocket. Little did I know I was carrying history on my person.

Now, as I look through the lens of all the years that have passed since that day December Day in 1970 and see how a fighter became a world-wide success story.

Mohammad Ali, the legend, will be missed!

Here is a link to watch the Ali-Bonavena fight on YouTube:

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