Musings by Dick Flavin: Muhammad Ali and Me

MUHAMMAD ALI AND ME

I have just finished reading a terrific book, Sting Like Bee, by Leigh Montville. It

chronicles Muhammad Ali's years in virtual exile when he was stripped of his

heavyweight title and denied the right to ply his trade as a boxer. He was vilified and

portrayed as an unpatriotic draft dodger for refusing military service during the war in

Vietnam. Montville has written a number of books, including biographies of both Ted

Williams and Babe Ruth, but this might be the best of them all. He writes as gracefully as

Ali once boxed.

Anyhow, reading about Ali stirred memories of my own brief encounter with him forty

years ago. As part of my on-going quest to get through life without actually working for a

living, I had managed to worm my way into a position as news commentator at WBZ-TV

in Boston, when, on a Sunday morning, I got a phone call at home. It was from a friend

who was sponsoring a charity reception that afternoon in one of the downtown hotels and

he wanted to let me know that Muhammad Ali was going to be there. The news media

had not been invited or even told about it and in any case would not be welcomed. But,

my friend said, if I were to show up with a camera and set up outside the function room

where the reception was being held - and take my chances on getting Ali to talk to me -

no one would stop me.

Ali, just turned thirty-five, was by this time seen as a man of great character, a hero, even,

for his stand against what had become an unpopular war. He had regained, lost, and then

regained once again his championship. He no longer possessed the astounding speed of

his early years but was still on the top of his game as a consummate showman. The long

physical slide caused by Parkinson's disease and too many fights when he should have

quit the game was still in the future

It was Sunday, January 30, 1977. I'm sure of that because Ali was in town the night

before to fight a series of exhibition rounds against an array of opponents, including Peter

Fuller, the well-known automobile dealer and sportsman. It was to benefit the Elma

Lewis School of Fine Arts. (You could look it up). I was not on duty the day that my

friend called, but I phoned the station, explained the situation, and arranged to have a

cameraman meet me at the hotel.

I was excited at the thought of having one of the most famous, to say nothing of colorful,

people in the world all to myself. There was just one thing – what was I going to do with

him once I had him? The exhibition bouts were all covered in that morning's newspapers,

and he had held a full-blown news conference prior to them. Besides, straight interviews

were not my stock in trade. I was known for doing satirical, off-the- wall commentaries.

I had to come up with an idea. In a hurry. I decided to use an alter ego character I had

invented named Biff Flavin, a stereo-typical sports reporter who wore a dirty raincoat, a

fedora hat with a press pass stuck in the brim, and a self-important attitude reminiscent of

Howard Cosell. The idea was that, as Biff, I would pontificate into the camera about how

Ali was afraid to fight me in one of the exhibitions the night before, when suddenly Ali

would interrupt me and dress me down in the rapid-fire, comic braggadocio way that he

had perfected in hyping his fights over the years. It wasn't much of an idea, but I was in a

hurry, for crying out loud.

We set up the camera in an anteroom outside the reception, no other media present, and

awaited the arrival of the great man. A tiny doubt, which I refused to let myself dwell

upon, kept popping into my head. What if he just brushed right past me and went straight

into the reception without stopping? I didn't want to think about it because there was no

Plan B.

Suddenly Ali and his sizeable entourage came sweeping into the anteroom headed for the

reception. I remember the entourage included several very foxy looking black ladies.

(Long gone were the days during his banishment when he was on the college lecture

circuit preaching against, among other things, adultery and "skirt chasing." He was by

this time firmly ensconsed in the pro-sins- of-the- flesh camp).

Lord only knows what his bodyguards thought but wearing my dirty raincoat and fedora

with the press pass, I stepped into his path and quickly introduced myself. I said, "Hi

Champ," (honest to God, I called him Champ) "I'm Dick Flavin from Channel Four, and

I just want to have a little fun on tonight's newscast. I'll talk into the camera about how

you were afraid to fight me last night, you let me go on the way for a while, then burst

into the picture and give me the business about how you'd beat me to a pulp. After thirty

seconds you stomp off, and I'll close the piece. Okay?" That was the sum total of my

pitch, maybe ten seconds long.

I think the word "fun" must have captured his fancy because, to my great relief, he said,

"Okay."

I knew there would be no second take;, we had to make it work this one time and we

were working without a net. Plus, we had to make it snappy. I nodded to the cameraman,

he started rolling and Biff went into his act. "It's good thing for Muhammad Ali that he

didn't let me get into the ring with him last night. I'd have hit him with a left and a right

and then another left. He wouldn't have been able to cope with my blinding speed." Or

words to that effect, the whole thing was totally unscripted. Suddenly, there was Ali, his

face right up against mine, spouting off things like, "You'd have been so covered in

blood your own mama wouldn't recognize you." It was vintage Muhammad Ali. I,

meanwhile, as Biff, was reacting with a mixture of shock, surprise and abject fear. Then,

just as suddenly as he arrived in the picture, he spun on his heel and left. I turned toward

the camera and, thoroughly chastened, said something like, "On the other hand maybe I

wouldn't have got into the ring against him."

That was it. Not brilliant by a long shot. Maybe seventy seconds in length from start to

finish. The whole thing was totally dependent upon the surprise effect of Ali suddenly

appearing on screen without warning and on his performance. I turned to shake his hand

and thank him, but he and his band of followers, foxes and all, had already headed into

the reception.

When I got back to the station and into the editing room, not that the piece needed any

editing, I found that Ali had played his part perfectly and I was astounded to discover that

he had followed my directions to a "T." I had asked him to do his bit for thirty seconds,

and that's what he did, exactly thirty seconds. As for Biff, it really didn't matter how he

did. For once, it wasn't about me.

Well, that's my story and I'm stickin' to it. I never thought to save the field tape; I was

too busy trying to come up with another weak idea for the next night's newcast, so I have

no record of my excellent adventure with Muhammad Ali. But it happened; really, it did.

Anyhow, buy Leigh Montville's book - even though I'm not in it.

©2017 BoSox Club. All rights reserved.