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Coopwood: Remembering a Champ

Photo from Facebook.com / Muhammad Ali (Verified)
Photo from Facebook.com / Muhammad Ali (Verified)

The death last week of former boxing Heavy Weight Champion, Muhammed Ali brought back many memories to Mississippians who had seen him fight and had actually met him. I met Ali as well.

Back in the late 1970s, Ali and his wife visited my hometown of Shelby. As I recall, he was in Mississippi filming a movie with Kris Kristofferson and some others and had taken off from filming to travel the state with Charles Evers who was considering a run for governor and promoting his annual Medgar Evers Homecoming event (one or the other, I can’t remember).

Late one Sunday afternoon, Ali and his entourage pulled into Shelby in a Winnebago. A large crowd had gathered at the Shelby City Hall waiting for his arrival. When Ali stepped out of the vehicle and onto the front porch of the city hall, the crowd couldn’t take their eyes off of him. Robert Gray, mayor of Shelby at the time, stepped forward and began addressing the audience in a serious manner before introducing Ali. As Gray talked, Ali began making out with his wife (Ali’s wife, not Gray’s wife). The crowd erupted in laughter and it took Gray a few moments to figure out what was taking place behind him. When Mayor Gray saw Ali’s shenanigans, he began laughing as well.

After Ali’s brief comments, he patiently signed autographs and spoke with people. I waited until the very end of the commotion to meet him and when I did he was extremely kind and of course funny.

He first ran his gigantic hand across my head and said, “I like your hair!” Then, he said something to me along the lines of “You’re in the minority here today” and laughed. His meaning: I was one of a few whites in the audience of 300 blacks. I didn’t get an autograph, but I’m thankful for the memory of this great American athlete coming to my small town in the Mississippi Delta.

Fast forward 32 years later and in my Cleveland office sat famous boxer and Ali competitor, Smoking Joe Frazier. Through my good friend in Washington, Van Hipp, Joe had flown down to Cleveland to attend a symposium at Delta State that was organized by Dr. Robert Elliott. A Delta State University graduate, Dr. Elliott is one of authorities in the U.S. on breast and prostate cancer.

“You see how Ali shakes?” Fraizer said to me. “I did that to him.”

With that comment, his son Marvis, who was traveling with him, jumped in and said, “No, Daddy, don’t say things like that.”

“Well, it’s true, I did that to him,” said Joe, according to my notes from the meeting. Despite his comments, Joe was actually a nice person as well.

Fraizer fought Ali three times with their most noted and last match called, the “Thrilla In Manilla,” that took place on October 1, 1975. It was televised worldwide and leading up to the fight, Ali had mocked Joe calling him a gorilla and everything else. After 14 grueling rounds, the fight was stopped because of Frazier having a closed left eye. Ali won.

This past week there has been much talk about Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam and other things. However, Ali was one of America’s greatest athletes and through his foundation and celebrity he did many good things to help underprivileged children across the country … including the Mississippi Delta.

scott coopwood

Scott Coopwood is a seventh-generation Deltan who lives in Cleveland, Mississippi with his wife Cindy and their three children. Scott is the publisher and owner of Delta Magazine, one of the South’s leading lifestyle publications, the Delta Business Journal, the first business publication in the Mississippi Delta; and Cleveland’s weekly newspaper, The Cleveland Current.

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