Pen Pal: Remembrances of Mohammed Ali

By Bob Tickner

One of the big news items of the last week was the passing of American sports legend Muhammad Ali.

I want to share with you my memories of a brief personal encounter with the man.

In the spring of 1987, I was Director of the Work Release Program at Baltimore City Jail. Our Work Release office was in West Baltimore, about 10 miles from the downtown jail. At that time Muhammad Ali made frequent motivational speeches to Muslims at conventions around the country. One of the places he occasionally visited was the Baltimore Arena (now Royal Farms Arena) in the heart of downtown. He was slated to speak one night, and sports and media people were all excited.

Ali with WBAL-TV‘s Curt Anderson, 1978, Baltimore.

The day of his visit, the word circulated around Baltimore City Jail that Muhammad Ali was going to change venues. Instead of speaking at the Arena, he wanted to give his speech in the gym at the main city jail. Although our offices was miles across town from the main jail, word spread fast. As soon as I got the scoop of Ali’s location change, I hopped in my car, headed to the main jail, and looked for a place to park.

Located on the third floor of the jail, the gym held about 100 inmates, who had already gathered on the basketball court when I arrived. Shortly after that, Muhammad Ali appeared at the back entrance to the gym. He was escorted by his entourage of five body guards. He started to head toward the stage where he was going to speak. Suddenly one of the larger inmates stepped into Ali’s path. The inmate stopped, bore his teeth, and raised his fists in a challenge. One of Ali’s entourage helped remove the champ’s suit jacket and the two men squared off in a mock exchange of boxing. Although no real blows landed, the crowd roared with approval.

Ali made his way to the stage where he was handed a microphone. He started to speak, but it was difficult to understand him. His speech was noticeably impaired from slurring and garbled words. This was almost 30 years ago. It was apparent to all of us that after all the blows to the head, he was not the same man who had once ruled the ring. We did not know at the time that he was in the early stages of a disease that would effect Ali for the rest of his life. He was in the fight of his life with Parkinson’s.

After his speech Ali started to make his way to the exit of the gym. Despite the crush of admirers, he was momentarily standing by himself. Working my way up to him, we met eye to eye. I handed him a pen and my clipboard with a note pad on it. He quickly scrawled his autograph for me. Ali then made his way out of the gym with his entourage and started down the stairs towards the shift commander’s office.

I must admit that I was awed by his presence. When I had seen Ali on TV, he did not look anywhere as big as he did in person. It wasn’t his height that was so impressive, he was tall, but his body structure was massive. He wasn’t overweight. As Ali walked through the doorway and down the stairs, his body almost filled the entire open space.

That autograph was in my wallet for many years, but I am sad to report that it’s lost. Too bad it was not in a safer place –  I would still have it today.

Returning to my office across town, I called my supervisor, Deputy Warden Randy Corcoran, whose office was at the main jail. He told me that Ali had stopped in his office on his way out of the jail. The Champ wanted to greet some of the jail administrators. They gave Ali a framed certificate from the jail to commemorate his visit. Randy told me that one of the people in his office asked Ali why he came to a place like the Baltimore City Jail and he responsed, “When I was a little boy, I always hoped that Frank Sinatra would come to my neighborhood and visit – he never did. Now that I have attained the status of a celebrity, I often visit places that no one would expect me to go as a surprise.” That was Muhammad Ali – a showman who had a flair for the unexpected.

Remembrances of my brief encounter with Muhammad Ali will always be in my memory bank.