Fred Mitchell: My day with Muhammad Ali in Michigan

Years before the dreadful effects of Parkinson's disease ravaged the motor skills of Muhammad Ali, I was able to spend a few precious hours with the champ in 1998 at his former estate in Berrien Springs, Mich.

The meeting was arranged by the late Mary McCall, founder of the chair auction charity initiative in Chicago. I was the only media representative in the group, and I later dined with Ali's longtime friend and personal photographer, Howard Bingham, to hear more fascinating personal stories.


Ali was 56 and still full of mischievous energy, ready to entertain his visitors with magic tricks, poetry and boxing anecdotes. And he was proud and eager to show us the new boxing ring that had been installed on his property.

One visitor, 13-year-old Cassius Harris of Chicago, was enthralled by his namesake's magic tricks.


Ali produced a red handkerchief, stuffed it into his left hand and made it "disappear," eliciting a look of bewilderment on the face of young Cassius.

Then Ali, the former Cassius Clay, turned his back on his audience and appeared to levitate a few inches off the ground, "floating like a butterfly" as he used to boast when he was a brash young champion.

"Who taught you those magic tricks?" Ali was asked.

"Houdini," he answered without cracking a smile.

When Cassius asked Ali a question about his boxing career for a school project, Ali replied, "Who are you, the black Howard Cosell?"

As the adults chuckled, young Cassius looked puzzled and sheepishly asked, "Who is Howard Cosell?"

As if on cue, Ali repeated one of his famous bits of poetry:

"I wrestled with an alligator, tussled with a whale, handcuffed lightning, threw thunder in jail. I'm a baaaad dude!"


Ali then climbed between the ropes of his new boxing ring and invited his visitors, one by one, to spar playfully with him and pose for pictures.

Kevin Kalinich, an attorney, was first to jump into the ring.

Ali managed a smile and said, "Are you the Great White Hope? Are you the one who called me a name?"

Kalinich, who studied at Yale and had written a thesis on the life and tribulations of Ali, feigned being knocked against the ropes, then dropped to the canvas as Ali stood over him the way he once did against Sonny Liston.

Overwhelmed by emotion, Kalinich later was in tears as he left the gymnasium after what he called "a dream of a lifetime."

I also accepted Ali's challenge and broke journalistic protocol to put up my dukes against him.


Ali looked content in the new ring, the first he had entered since 1981.

"I love it," he said. "It keeps me in shape."

Next, Chicago artist Dujuan Austin, who presented Ali with a magnificent portrait rendered on a chair that would be sold at the annual celebrity chair auction at the Sheraton Hotel, donned a pair of red boxing gloves to "challenge" the champ.

Over the history of the auction, Ali helped raise more than $75,000 with his signed items.

When we sat down in front of the boxing ring to conduct the formal part of the interview, Ali closed his eyes and appeared to fall asleep. His personal assistant and co-conspirator, Kim Vidt, said to me with a straight face, "Muhammad has narcolepsy and sometimes just falls asleep like this in the middle of the day."

Once he felt convinced I had been persuaded, Ali opened his eyes, lunged toward me and shouted, "Boo!"


He flashed a broad smile after the prank he and his wife, Lonnie, had pulled on "60 Minutes" reporter Ed Bradley three years earlier.

"Did I get you on that one?" Ali asked.

One of Ali's pressing concerns in 1998 was raising more money for his proposed museum in his native Louisville, Ky. Nearly $40 million had been generated, but another $50 million in corporate sponsorship funding was needed to break ground.

Ali told me he hoped the museum would be a center where people could learn tolerance and understanding.

On Nov. 19, 2005, the Muhammad Ali Center opened in Louisville's West Main downtown district.

Back to boxing, I asked which fight he considered his greatest.


"The 'Thrilla in Manila.' The third Joe Frazier fight," he answered without hesitation.

Then he launched into another signature rhyme: "I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick ... I'm so mean I make medicine sick."

Turning serious for a moment, Ali recalled the indignity of returning to Louisville after winning a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, only to be denied entrance to a restaurant in his hometown. In disgust, Ali threw his gold medal into the Ohio River, saying it was not worth having if his freedom was denied.

While the veracity of that story has been debated over the years, the U.S. Olympic basketball team presented him with another gold medal in 1996.

When Ali refused military induction in 1967, he became a controversial figure, saying he was standing up for his religious convictions as a Muslim.

How ironic that the defiant "Louisville Lip" — with the nonstop mouth, charismatic personality and self-proclaimed pretty face — was left to communicate in his later life via the mere essence of his former self.


Yet he was and will remain an enduring symbol of American history — the greatest of all time.

Fred Mitchell is a former Chicago Tribune reporter.