ali (standing over sonny liston)

*Muhammad Ali crossed my mind just two days before he died. I found a 23-year old notebook I carried with me when I was a budding TV news reporter in eastern North Carolina. I came across the notebook while cleaning out my closet the other day. I was looking back at the notes I had written about the assignments I covered and there it was: A notation that said “I did a live shot w/o Muhammad Ali.”

It happened March 12, 1993. I remember it, because it was the best live shot I never did! Ali was in Wilson, N.C. for a scheduled appearance at a local venue there. It probably was one of the first live shots assigned to me, because I only had been working at the station less than six months. A live shot is when a reporter does a live report from somewhere other than the television studio.

Anyway, the live shot was scheduled for the 12 o’clock newscast and we set up the live shot in front of the entrance where Ali was scheduled to walk past on his way to the event. I was the only local news reporter there to cover the boxing icon’s appearance in eastern North Carolina. So my one-on-one interview was going to be a major coup for my station and for me, the young ace reporter!
Since nobody was certain of his exact time of arrival, the noon anchor opened the newscast with me building the anticipation for my big interview. And she kept cutting to me through out the newscast to keep viewers tuned in. I remember thinking this interview was going to be replayed on the evening newscast, possibly on national news, I could use the video on my audition video and I would get a picture with The Champ, himself.

There’s just one thing: Nobody told Ali what the plan was! When I saw him emerge from the back seat of his chauffeured vehicle, I told my producer that Ali was headed towards me. That’s when the news anchor cut live to me.

As Ali approached me, I was talking about the event and his appearance! That’s when the former heavyweight champ stepped into the camera shot, and I segued into the interview by saying “The Champ is here,” – one of Ali’s proclamations he would make to announce his own presence. But before I could ask him a single question Ali and his heavyweight entourage kept walking right past. And I felt helpless to try to stop him.

On TV, the only place I had seen him before that day, he was an imposing figure! In person he was even more intimidating. Even at 51, the 6’3” 240 pound Ali still looked the part of a heavyweight boxing champ. Frankly, I was scared to try to physically block him from walking past me for fear he would have a flashback to one of his many fights and punch me in the face on live TV. YouTube didn’t exist yet, but looking back I could see that video being replayed more times than Ali’s boxing matches. As much as I wanted pictorial evidence of our encounter, getting punched in the face was not something for which I was going to volunteer. So I had no choice but to let him pass.

My news director didn’t see it that way. From the safety of his office chair 30 miles away he insisted that I could have, should have done something to get Ali to stop and talk. All the video showed was me verbally stumbling through an awkward situation. It took me some time to live that down before I was trusted with another live shot – a scheduled interview no doubt. That second chance happened because it was a weekend when nobody else was available to do it. The live shot was at the scene of a murder, our station was the only one there to cover it (again) and my news director had no choice but to pick me. After that I always volunteered to work on weekends! It was the only way I was going to get enough live shot video to build my resume tape.

To myself and millions of others, Muhammad Ali was more than a charismatic sports figure. He was the first (self-proclaimed) pitchman without a major endorsement deal, but he should have. He was a conscientious sociopolitical leader who never campaigned for office. But he could have. He was so vocal about his convictions against the Vietnam War that a judge sentenced him to jail for it!
Not many people would be willing to jeopardize their livelihood and celebrity status to voice their beliefs in opposition to the masses.

But Cassius Clay, who was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title, who converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali was that kind of boxer, that kind of man, that kind of leader.
About a year ago I was in Louisville for the day, where Ali was born and raised. Most of my colleagues chose to tour the Louisville Slugger factory and other downtown attractions. I made a beeline to the Muhammad Ali Center, because I wanted to see all the bouts, read all the articles and experience the museum created in honor of the man and boxing legend who was a hero to so many.

The man who was his own best publicist! Donald Trump has nothing on Muhammad Ali. He was the greatest and he proved it at least fifty times inside the boxing ring and more times than I can count outside of it. Even if he didn’t stop for my live shot.

Steffanie Rivers

Steffanie Rivers

Steffanie Rivers is a freelance journalist living in the Dallas, Texas metroplex. Send comments, questions and speaking inquiries to [email protected].