Breakfast With Champions

In the fall of 1977, Medic and his brother drove from Newark, New Jersey to Muhammad Ali’s training camp, in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania to see the champ prepare for his fight with Ernie Shaver’s.

We arrived early, about 7am. It was cold. The parking lot was empty. Was this the right place? We made our way to the main log cabin. I knocked on the door. Once. Twice. No one answered. We were shivering. What to do? Then the door creaked opened and a very large man leaned out.

“You the reporter’s come to see me?”
“No,” said my brother. “We’re just fans.”
“Man, it’s cold out here,” said Ali, and he motioned us inside.

It was cozy and warm in the soft lit cabin. Eight dignified black Muslims, who sat on long benches around a large green table, welcomed us to sit with them. Ali, who spoke in a sort of loud whisper, resumed his talk, about Allah, and Elijah Mohammad. Everyone listened attentively. A half hour later it was time for breakfast.

Ali served each man oatmeal, cooked on the stove in the kitchen behind him. After he slid a steaming bowl down the long table to my brother, he looked at me.

“You want some sugar on that?” he asked. “Man, you look like you could use some brown sugar!”

Everyone laughed. My brother smirked with envy.

After the meal, Ali talked about living one’s life according to the holy Koran. We sat spellbound; the Muslims listening intently.

Footsteps. A sharp knock at the door. Ali looked up. A cheerful middle-aged couple, both wearing flip flops, shorts and Hawaiian shirts, entered the cabin.

In a loud voice, the smiling woman said,“Hi, we’re from Florida. We’re here to see you practice. Would you mind if my husband takes a picture?”

From his shirt pocket the man produced a disposable camera. Eye brows arched, Ali looked at each of us at the table, as if to ask,“Where do they get these people?” He motioned the woman forward.

“Well, c’mon, then. Take your picture.”

The woman walked hurriedly around us, then plopped herself directly on Ali’s lap. She fussed with her hair, straightened her blouse, draped her arm around Ali’s neck. The champ feigned bewilderment. The husband held the camera to his eye.

“Say cheese!” he said.

For a split second the dim room lit up with artificial light. Immediately, the woman unseated herself, walked sassily back to the door.

“Thank you!” she said.

Ali graciously smiled, the happy couple waved good bye, the door closed behind them, and  they were gone. Ali shook his head woefully, then resumed his talk.

A few minutes later the pay phone on the wall behind us, rang. Ali stood up, sat in a chair next to the phone, and answered the call.

“Hello,” he said. “Ali’s training camp.” He listened and narrated the callers concerns. “You want me to sing Happy Birthday to your son? Well, how old is he?”

Ali held up ten fingers. Next, he cleared his throat, drew a deep breath,and sang the song with great delight.

“Well, put him on,” he said to the boy’s mother. And he spoke to the boy with sincerity, and wished him well.

Ali thought for a moment, then announced to us that he wanted to rest. As he stood up, I walked toward him, hoping to shake his hand. Ferociously tall and powerfully built, I hadn’t realized how huge he was.

The champ hunched his shoulders, drew up his fists, squinted, launched multiple feints, threw salvos of playful punches at me. Even in jest, his enormous hands and dazzling hand speed were fearsome.

“Stop! Stop!” I protested, trying to duck the swarming blows.

I put out my hand, expecting a friendly hand shake, but the touch of his palm was surprisingly cold. Ali repeated he would see us all later, and lumbered off to his private cabin.

That afternoon, in front of hundreds of fans, Ali adroitly pounded the heavy bag, deftly pummeled the speed bag, skillfully jumped rope, and sparred multiple rounds with ex-heavy weight champ Jimmy Ellis. Throughout the hours, the atmosphere in the sizeable gym was electric. Later, Ali signed autographs.

In September of that year, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Muhammad Ali fought Ernie Shavers, a brutal fifteen round fight, which Ali won by decision.

Forty years later, with Ali’s passing, I realize this story is less about the excitement of meeting the champ, or the rude comedy of the photo seekers, but the humanity and religious beliefs of Muhammad Ali, and the Muslim men who wished to hear him speak.

Thomas Hauser, Ali’s official biographer, who knew the champ well, has written a moving epitaph in The Guardian. The writer Ismael Reed, interviewed on DemocracyNow, relates a darker side of the champ, which only confirms his humanity.


Many experts regard Ali’s performance in the Shavers fight
to be one of the finest in his boxing career.