Mohamed Ali

I smiled the whole time as I wrote this.

***

In Search of the Champ

It was 1968. After the pope and Richard Nixon, Mohamed Ali was the most famous man on earth and he had moved into a house about a quarter a mile away from my own. Well, that’s what John Brennon said.

JB always said things like that. Thinking back on it he was a most unusual kid. At age 10 he read the newspaper every morning. He was sharp in both wit and temperament. He was often my best friend but my mother didn’t like him. She thought he was a wise guy and she was right. I have no idea what happened to JB. If I heard he was a millionaire in LA or a permanent inmate in a rehab centre, neither would surprise me.

On a glorious spring Saturday JB showed up at my house with what we would now call – the posse but in those days was just – the gang. Flanking JB was: Tommy H – a natural born innocent that we took delight in corrupting. He had a mop of sandy hair and big Bambie type eyes that I’m sure must have gotten him laid later in life. Peter D -a good level headed guy. Just the sort of bloke you want on a dangerous expedition and Eddy Mo – a short dark guy with an infectious impish laugh that allowed him to get away with anything. It was usually Eddy that got us into trouble but you could never get mad at him.

This was an unusual event. The gang almost never came to my house. I lived at the edge of the parish. It took me twenty minutes to walk to the closest of my classmate’s homes – a half an hour to one I liked. JB had brought the gang cause we were going on an expedition to find Mohamid Ali’s house and we would have to cross the great divide – Route 1 – City Line Avenue. We weren’t allowed to cross City Line. I lived in Green Hill Farms, the first Philadelphia suburb going west. My neighbourhood was pretty well off, mainly Jewish. (I am one of the few Christian kids that got beat up by the Jewish kids on the way to school.) The other side of City Line it was… well, it was The City. We always imagined that just past that four busy lanes of traffic was an instant Gomorrha where the kids wore leather and picked their teeth with switchblades. I know now that just over City Line Ave. is some of the most expensive real estate within the Philly boundaries but back then we thought we were off to infiltrate – the hood.

We left my house and headed west so my mom wouldn’t get suspicious and doubled back through a convoluted route until we arrived at the great divide. It was actually quite difficult to cross City Line. It was, and still is, a very busy road, jaywalking across it would be certain death and traffic lights were few and far between. It probably took us the better part of an hour to reach the distance we could have gotten to in ten minutes, if we had travelled in a straight line. Finally we found ourselves on a beautiful street that on one side sported huge mansions and on the other open parkland. JB confidently said this was the road that Mohamed Ali lived on. JB gave no details on how he knew this was The Champ’s street but he was the brains of the gang so, none of us doubted him.

“Which house?” I asked.

That JB didn’t know. Nor did he know if we were even allowed to be on this street, so just to be safe we ducked into the park and hid in a clump of bushes. There we waited for ages in the greenery hoping for a glance of the finest pugilist of the century. When our supply of Twinkies and Ring Dings were gone, the always sensible Peter D suggested that we give up. That’s when we saw a chunky black man walk down the street and let himself into the front door of the house almost directly across from our stakeout. He was obviously not Ali but we were such insulated white suburban kids that just the sight of a black man made us decide that – this must be the place.

Tommy H had seen an episode of Combat that very week where the soldiers decided on who was to take a suicide mission by drawing straws. We snapped twigs off the bush we were hiding in, JB held them in his fist and I drew the short one.

It was a very long and slow walk across the street. I walked up to what I remember as a very large door and knocked. It quicky opened and there standing in front of me was the man himself – Mohammed Ali – the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world – and he was shirtless! I don’t know how I did it but finally I asked, “Can I have your autograph?” He invited me into his house through a winding corridor entirely panelled with mirrors, that he shadowboxed in as we walked. In the most sumptuous living room I had ever seen (it had a TV sunken into the wall) his very young daughter was playing on a toy typewriter. He took a letter sized piece of paper out of it and wrote, “To John from the Heavyweight Champion of the World – Mohamed Ali.”

Then he took another piece of paper out of the typewriter and said, “How many of your pals are hiding in those bushes?” I said “Four,” and he drew two vertical and two horizontal lines on the paper, like a giant tick-tack-toe game and signed his name six times – once in each square. “You can sell the other two at school,” he said. He walked me back to the door and asked me where I lived. He talked about inviting the neighbourhood kids around to watch films of his fights. It never happened but I have no doubt that he meant it. He came out on the front lawn with me, shook my hand and then threw a fake punch to my stomach. He waved to my friends in the bushes and went back inside. I could see their open mouths from there.

That autograph was my most precious possession and I kept in my little grey safe -the combination of which was: right -0, left-40, right-0. When I went to university my parents moved and the safe disappeared along with my Spiderman comic book collection. Mothers.

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22 Responses to “Mohamed Ali”

  1. Conor Says:

    I love that story, but you skipped what was always my favorite part! I’ve mostly only heard the story in reference to Ali’s excitement over having a telephone in his bathroom, and that he went out of his way to drag you into the bathroom to show it to you. I guess that’s just the version my father always tells.

    Well written though! I understand the above tidbit would have wrecked the flow of things, but there is no shortage of critics in the world – not even in your own family.

    -Conor

  2. chris Says:

    true story?

  3. DJK Says:

    I loved this story so much! So sad to hear the safe and contents dissapeared though. I am making a pact to NEVER to that to my sons after reading this precious story.

  4. johnlenahan Says:

    Dear Chris
    Absolutely!
    JL

  5. chris Says:

    how come you never told me that before, i would have touched your hem!

  6. johnlenahan Says:

    Chris
    Jeremy said the same thing.
    JL

  7. johnlenahan Says:

    Conor
    I don’t remember the phone part but I do remember a TV remote control that was recessed in the arm of a chair – in 1969!

  8. osirisoflight Says:

    wow..stunning. great little piece. the part i liked the most was where Ali asked how many friends were in the bushes. Priceless.

  9. Nik Says:

    Wow! Jealous.

    Nik.

  10. Sara Says:

    You know what Mom may have thrown away the safe but even she was impressed that you got that autograph.

    & who was it that led us to believe that across that great divide lived leather jacketed, teeth pickers?

    S

  11. Sara Says:

    Hey wasn’t he Cassius clay back then?

  12. Scott Pacl Says:

    Great to see this story up here, John.

    Oh, and you’ve been blog tagged.

    Check out my blog for the rules.

    Scott

  13. johnlenahan Says:

    Dear Sara
    Hey sis. Did you ever go over there?
    And yes he was Ali then.
    JL

  14. Sara Says:

    Why in the world would I care to visit a boxer? But yes I snuck across the great divide to check out the park & the cool “modern” houses.

    S

  15. Matt Says:

    What a fantastic story, you must have been so nervous when he answered the door.
    Did you sell the other two autographs?

  16. johnlenahan Says:

    No Matt – they were in the safe.
    JL

  17. Mike Cirba Says:

    John,

    That story should be sent out for publication to one of the sports mags.

    It is absolutely classic and delightfully told.

    Mike

  18. cactusnic Says:

    That is fantastic. Did the kids at school believe you all?

  19. Bob McEntee Says:

    John,

    I think the best part of your story is that you got beat up by the jewish kids? I believe they have erected a shrine to you down at the JCC.

    Bob

  20. Ron Says:

    Is this the same John Lenahan that went to Bloomsburg State?

  21. johnlenahan Says:

    I am but it’s nothing that I’m proud of.

    JL

  22. Ron Says:

    But you were a fun guy, from Ron Edwards and Rich Hocker

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