Ali and Me: My Interview (on Co-0p) with “The Greatest” Boxer of the Age

I was lucky enough to have spent my four years on co-op after freshman year working at The News-Tribune, a six-day-a-week newspaper in Waltham, Mass., a suburb of Boston. I had had interviews at The Boston Globe and The News-Tribune for my first co-op assignment. The Globe offered me a spot (five days a week, 9-5 working hours, pretty good salary), while the Trib offered me a somewhat less-appealing job (six days a week, 3:30-10:30 p.m. and less money). 

However, I did get to talk to the co-op whom I was replacing, Rick Stewart, who went on to bigger and better things in a postgraduate career with the Hartford Courant. Rick told me that if I took the job in Boston, all I would be is a copy boy, running errands, getting copy and coffee, etc., with no real writing. But, if I took over after him at the Trib, I would start writing immediately and learn on the fly from a great staff. 

I took his advice and never looked back, even getting hired full-time after graduation in 1973 and eventually working my way up to assistant sports editor.

Anyway, the highlight of my journalistic career came in October 1972, just days before my first child, Tara, was born. One of my assignments at The News-Tribune was covering a weekly Monday night boxing show that took place in Waltham under legendary Boston boxing promoter Sam Silverman. After several months of covering these matches, Sam announced that he was promoting an exhibition at the Boston Garden in which heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali would battle four Boston-area boxers, each in a two-round match. I obtained my press credentials and sat ringside for the fights, after which the press corps was allowed a 15-minute interview session with Ali.

That is, all except this youthful looking, 23-year-old co-op student. Even though I knew several of the Boston beat writers who were allowed in and who vouched for me, Ali’s bodyguards refused to let me in. All I could do was stay outside the locker room and wait for the rest of the reporters to exit and get some quotes from them. Just as the “legitimate” reporters were leaving the locker room, Silverman came strolling along and asked me why I wasn’t inside. 

After I explained what had happened, Sam went ballistic, ripped the bodyguards a new one and brought me into Ali’s cooling-down room. After explaining the situation to the obviously tired legend, Sam asked whether Ali would give me a few minutes.

Now, truth be told, I had never been a huge fan of Ali because of his showmanship (you know, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”) outside the ring, but I was in awe of his boxing prowess. Amazingly, Ali said, “Sure, bring him over.”

Ali then was 30 years old and the winner of his 40th professional fight, against Floyd Patterson, the previous month. But the first thing he did was ask me my name and whether I minded if he sat down during the interview. Wait, was he really asking me if he could sit down? 

Well, all of a sudden, the bombastic style he used in front of the cameras was gone, and he was just another guy talking to a somewhat younger guy. 

We talked for more than 45 minutes about everything from where I was going to college, how I knew Silverman, what I thought of boxing as a sport, even a good place to eat near the Garden.

Oh, yeah, I got my interview, too, but in a more relaxed and friendly presentation. When we finally got done, I thanked him for his time and… he thanked me for answering his questions. Me, again, a 23-year-old co-op student from the Home of the Huskies. Needless to say, from that point on, I became a huge fan of Ali. 

Now, because this was before cell phones, I had to find a pay phone (a what?), and because the press room was already closed, I had to call in to the City Desk and explain everything. The editors said they would hold a spot open for me on the sports page, but hurry back to Waltham.

By the time I got to the paper, not only did I get the lead story in sports and a secondary story in sports, but I also got a third story on the front page (the only time I ever made the front page). It was humbling and thrilling, to say the least.

My other big claim to fame, while sports editor of the Northeastern News, came via “The Headline.” As an editor, I would go to our printer every week to help lay out the pages and make any last-minute fixes. One of our stories in this edition was about Northeastern’s men’s basketball team, which had toppled the Bates Bobcats, and I couldn’t help myself. 

At the printer, I changed the original headline to: 

Huskies Master Bates; Beat Off Visiting Cats

Let that sink in for a minute, and you know what was about to happen.

At our postmortem on Friday, poor Dean Harvey Vetstein — adviser to the News — said he had been summoned (nay, ordered) to President Ken Ryder’s office, where our illustrious head honcho was apoplectic over said headline. 

Harvey said he really had to do some fancy footwork to keep my scholarship and keep me in my position, but I had to be really, really careful from then on. He also noted that it was the funniest headline he had ever seen.

Years later when working as a stringer at two area newspapers, The Boston Globe and the Attleboro, Mass. Sun Chronicle, I saw that my original headline from the NU News had been cut out and pasted up in cubicles in the respective sports departments. After I admitted to being the author of the headline and brought in my copy of the original newspaper to further prove it, I became a minor celeb while working at these jobs because of that once-in-a-lifetime headline.