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The Champ and Me: Remembering Muhammad Ali

Muhammed Ali in the locker room beneath Welcome Stadium, June 25, 1971
Dan Patterson
Muhammed Ali in the locker room beneath Welcome Stadium, June 25, 1971

Memorial services will be held Friday in Louisville Kentucky for Muhammad Ali.  Local photographer Dan Patterson has fond memories of Ali. 

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Credit Dan Patterson
Muhammed Ali in Dayton for the Phil Donahue Show, 1971

In 1971, I spent three days with The Champ.  He was is town twice that year, once be on the Phil Donahue show, still being produced at TV 2, and once to do an exhibition training fight as he prepared for another heavyweight fight with Joe Frazer.  

I was a very young photojournalist, 17 years old then and working as the staff photographer for RAP Magazine, a publication for the black Dayton community, published by Ernie Bickerstaff

The exhibition fight was at Welcome Stadium on June 25th, and I had press credentials from the magazine.  My best friend from high school, Doug France, went along too.  He was set to enter Ohio State, heavily recruited by Woody Hayes.  Doug was 6 feet, 7 inches and ran a 40 yard dash in 4.4 seconds.  

It was a typical Ohio August night, hot and muggy.  The air around the stadium lights and the other harsh lights was a cloud of gnats and mosquitos.

We arrived at the stadium, and I saw the head of security for the Dayton Schools, Emmett Watts.   He was running the security for the fight.  A friend of my Dad’s, he came over and said, “just stick with me and you’ll be on the inside."  Was he ever right.

We followed him into the locker room, and there was the Champ, leaning against the wall, introspective.  I had my Dad’s Leica, very quiet . . . click.

Doug and I had ringside seats, and after some local under-card bouts, the Champ climbed into the ring. There was a large crowd, and they loved him.

The Champ went a few rounds with some local heavyweights who seemed intimidated.  Ali was obviously going through a training routine of legwork and punches.  Then a boxer got into the ring who was not overwhelmed by Ali, and the training fight took on far greater level of intensity.  I cannot recall this fellow's name, and they were both wearing training headgear, so I couldn't recognize him today if I saw him.  He had, however, the same build as Joe Frazer.

The Champ let him get close, and some of the exchanges were pretty tough...but then like magic, The Greatest happened.  He danced like a butterfly and stung like a bee.  He showed off the footwork that became famous:  “The Ali Shuffle” and with his long reach kept the other fighter away with flicks of his red gloves.  He didn’t  knock his opponent out but nailed him with some solid punches and then the bell rang.  He knew exactly what he was doing as the time ran out.

The crowd went wild.  We had seen the greatest BE great.
 

As the Champ went back to the locker room and the crowd headed for the exits, Emmett Watts grabbed my arm and said what every photojournalist wants to hear, “follow me, we are going downtown to the Champ's hotel."

Doug and I got into my VW and followed Emmett’s gleaming white Cadillac.  We parked right next to him and in his company walked into the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, right on North Main Street in downtown Dayton.  That was when the Biltmore was still a Hilton hotel, and Dayton had a nightlife.  Larry Flynt’s “Hustler” bar was across the street, just about where Flying Pizza is now.
 

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Credit Dan Patterson
A quiet Muhammad Ali at his post exhibition fight press conference, June 25, 1971

In the hotel lobby was a scene that I can see in my mind right now.  In the center, of course, was Muhammad Ali, the Champ, The Greatest, flanked by legends I never thought I would see: Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Angelo Dundee and Bundini Brown.  The Leica quietly clicked as I made photographs.  

Black and white Tri-X , pushed for low light photos. - I had to be careful in the darkroom to get the developing correct.  This was the moment photojournalists dream of, and the old saying “it’s F8 and be there” was more true than ever.

There was a short press conference, and then the entourage headed to the Champ's suite.  Emmett Watts grabbed my arm again and said let’s go.  Doug and I were amazed, but off we went, into the elevator with the whole entourage.

Suddenly we were in the suite, which was huge. I didn't know there were hotel rooms that large, much less several rooms together.  The entire entourage was there, plus  many more people waiting to see the Champ and more gorgeous women than I had ever seen.

I was the only white guy.

Ali was circulating, and I realized that he was the same person in private as his public persona.  He was kidding and joking and making fun and reciting his poetry.  He spotted me leaning against a wall, trying to be unobtrusive, my friend Doug next to me.  

The Champ started reciting a poem, which started with the words I will never forget: "It's All Over Mighty Whitey,” followed by a chorus as if we were in a Baptist church service.   

The Champ walked over to me, and he seemed 20 feet tall.  The poem went on, and as he approached the chorus again, he looked down at me and winked, put his huge hands gently around my neck, winked again -I knew I was alright - and proclaimed, “It's All OVER Mighty Whitey!" 
 

He was my hero. He stood for the principles that were mine. He's still my hero.

It was an out-of body-experience for me.    The World Champion Heavyweight Boxer ,“The Greatest” was in full performance, and his huge hands were easily around my scrawny neck.  I was not afraid.   He was my hero.  He stood for the principles that were mine.  He’s still my hero.

When we left,  Doug and I were giddy, and we acted like the school boys we were. My old friend  Doug died this past April, but our time with the Champ bonded us forever.  Now they're both gone and the story is left for me to tell.  

It happened and the photos came out just fine. 

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

Do you have memories of Muhammad Ali that you’d like to share? Use the voice memo app on your smart phone and email the audio to wyso@wyso.org or call our listener line 937-769-1374.