JIM THIELMAN: Muhammad Ali Called Me An Idiot, And It Was Great

I had just turned 26 when Muhammad Ali came to WFMC. World Famous Mayo Clinic. It was a deadline press conference held in a bland, beige conference room at the Kahler Hotel in Rochester, Minn.

At any major press conference today, there is sponsorship signage in the background and lecterns adorned with expensively researched brand logos. “Tell the agency to make the dot on the ‘i’ a little less red.”

In 1980 Rochester, this press conference was held in a room with chairs. A room in which Ali would call me an idiot.

The assignment was no big deal. I started working at The Forum in Fargo, N.D., when I was in college. Covered the Minnesota Vikings’ path to their last Super Bowl at 22. In a blink, I had gone from a high school kid idolizing athletes to knowing they were just people. Sometimes unpleasant people.

I expected nothing of Ali. Then the door to my left opened.

It could just as well been the ceremonial opening of the Ark in the climactic scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” with shards of light bouncing around the room.

He wasn’t four steps into a room of high windows and 75 murmuring people when I said, quietly, “Whoa.”

For years, the bio on my web site has read:

[Jim counts] interviewing Muhammad Ali at the top of his list of famous folks he has met.

“The minute he walked into the room there was an aura that skittered over the rooftop, clattered down the drainpipe and jiggled around your shoes like Jell-O, if you’ll pardon the cliché.

“Walter Payton? Sandy Koufax? John Wooden? Payne Stewart? I never met anyone else who projected whatever it was Ali had.”

Ali was making a comeback in 1980 after a brief retirement. He was trumpeting his trip to Mayo Clinic to assure the world that rumblings of his health having sprung a leak were just rumors.

That 1980 story about Ali read, in part:

“Ali appeared relaxed, almost docile when he opened the press conference. … But when a reporter asked why he should take a chance on getting hurt, he came to life, radiating confidence and arousing the crowd.

“Me, get hurt? Me, get hurt? …

“What are you, the local Howard Cosell? Howard Cosell gets paid to be an idiot. What’s your excuse?”

I had stood to ask my questions. I did not sit back down.

When he burst to life, I didn’t turn my head to look at the crowd. I looked at him. Some of the assembled did click into my peripheral vision. They were in collective recoil, as if inching away after someone had stuck a bottle of unappealing perfume under their noses.

I started to grin and could not stop. It was all a show. I had no idea that terrific show would play in my head a couple of times a year for decades.

When Ali finished, I asked him if he really needed the millions of dollars that he would make from this little rumble with Larry Holmes.

Instead of getting defensive, Ali did what he’d be doing for years: Answered unconventionally.

“Yeah, I need the money. What’s wrong with needing money? Everyone needs money. Washington, D.C., needs money. The Pentagon needs money.”

He then segued into touting his health, explaining that Mayo doctors “had me on the table for hours. Like Frankenstein. With wires sticking in me.”

When it was over, he posed for photos. I headed back to write my story. At age 26, I figured someone with such a double-barreled luminous aura would come along again.

I’m still waiting.

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