'The Greatest' gets a haircut in Cincinnati

My brush with greatness

CINCINNATI - I hadn't been working in the Channel 9 newsroom for more than couple of weeks, and as I remember, I hadn't contributed much of anything to the effort yet.

I was new to Cincinnati in July of 1979. I had just been hired out of Davenport, Iowa. I was still trying to figure things out in this new town.  Why was Reading pronounced Redding, why did people say "please" when the real question was "what" and why was spaghetti allowed in their chili?

It was early in the evening. The king of local TV news Al Schottelkotte was raging at some beleaguered producer. I was scared to death of the man

Longtime sports guy Jack Moran was pounding out the final notes of of his 6 p.m. sportscast on a manual typewriter. And Tim Melton, a newcomer like me, was in an editing bay cranking out a story for our 7 O'clock Report.

The phone rang at the sports desk. I answered it. The guy on the other end said that Muhammad Ali was getting a haircut at a barber shop in Avondale. "Were we interested in talking to him?"

I did a slow glance around the newsroom. "Who's screwing with me?" I wondered. "Let's mess with the new kid" I thought. Nothing was obvious. Al was tearing up scripts and spitting out reporters. It didn't appear to be a good time for levity.

"If the champ is really there, put him on the phone" I told the caller. A moment later, a voice said "This is  Muhammad Ali, who's this? I told him my name, and told him I was skeptical that it was really him. He laughed and reassured me that he was in town to see some friends and needed a haircut. I asked if I could come with a camera crew and he said that was okay. "There's a lot of people here, I'll probably be here for a while."

I jumped across the room to the assignment desk and told them I needed a shooter to interview Muhammad Ali. I still was expecting somebody to yell out "Sucker!" But no one did. They asked where he we were going. I said Stag's Barber Shop in Avondale and that seemed to give my story credibility. I got a shooter and left.

Stag's, I soon learned, was an institution on Burnet Avenue. James Brown got haircuts there when he was in town. Ezzard Charles used to be a regular.

I recall that it sat on the corner of a block. It was hard to tell. When we pulled up, the place was surrounded with people trying to sneak a peek inside. I saw kids on shoulders, others were pogoing to steal a look. A boy ran up to our car to tell us that "The Champ" was inside. He was excitedly waving his arms  and pointing to the front door which wasn't easy to find.

The crowd let us pass and we went inside. Sure enough, sitting in a barber's chair with a big gold apron pulled up to his chin was the great Ali. "I'm the guy you talked to on the phone" I said. "Glad you could make it" he answered.  Deep down I remember thinking..."Damn..this is the kind of stuff that happens in Cincinnati. No one ever came to Davenport Iowa to get a haircut."

I was a huge fan of Ali. My two brothers and I sat around the radio in our living room in Struthers, Ohio when young Cassius Clay first faced champion Sonny Liston in 1964. We agonized over every call, trying to interpret from the blow-by-blow if Clay had any chance. He seemed doomed when liniment from Liston's gloves blinded him during the fifth round. We blew the roof off the house when Howard Cosell shouted at the start of  Round 7 that "Liston is not coming out, Sonny Liston is not coming out." My dad, who had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to start the boiler at the local dry cleaners, was not pleased. Partially because we interrupted his sleep but more so because Cassius Clay had won. Dad wasn't a fan. "Big Mouth" he called him.

My generation was different. We marveled at his talents and chuckled at his talk. My first couple of years at Ohio U, I had a poster of Ali on the wall in my dorm room. It was the famous Neil Leifer shot of Ali towering over the beaten Liston in their second fight in 1965.

So now years later, I was in the presence of greatness. One man simply getting his haircut had drawn a big eager crowd. And I recall that he was okay with that, very comfortable in fact. I could see flecks of grey in Ali's hair. It was obvious he wasn't in training. He looked heavy under that apron. He had announced his retirement the month before.

I wish I could tell you what I asked him and what he told me that day. I was clearly intimidated by the man and the crowd. I was lucky I knew my name.

I remember asking him why he came to Cincinnati to get a haircut. "They do a good job here, you ought to try it" he said, and everyone in the room laughed. Of course Stag's was a black barber shop and my photographer and I were the only white guys in the room. But he didn't say it to ridicule me. He was just having fun.

I asked him if he was serious about retirement and he said he was. I recall that the crowd inside the barber shop groaned when he said he was done in the ring.

For the record, he did come out of retirement the following year, but after losing two bouts, he quit the fight game for good.

If my memory is correct, a crew from Channel 12 showed up a few minutes later, so I finished my interview and let them have their turn. And that was it. No video was saved of the interview. I doubt it broke any new ground in television journalism but I sure would have liked to have it.

The two pictures that accompany this story were provided by a young man who stopped by Channel 9 several years ago who said he was cleaning out his inventory and happened upon these pictures. "Would I like to have them?" You bet I would. I wish I could tell you this guy's name because he did me a great favor. Thanks again to him.

I saw Ali a few times after that. In the early '80s he came to the grand opening of a restaurant his brother Rudolph was operating. I believe it was in Pleasant Ridge. I reminded him of the night at the barber shop. He said he remembered.

Several years later I was at an airport waiting for a plane. He was doing the same thing at a nearby gate. He still had the same presence, but it appeared his movements were slow and unsteady. Still he was posing for pictures, signing autographs, faking punches and making young and old very happy. Giving them a memory.

Just like he gave me. And many others that July night, 37 summers ago.

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