By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
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
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,
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
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.