The year was 1995, the 30th anniversary of the Muhammad Ali—Sonny Liston World Heavyweight Boxing Championship in Lewiston, Maine. And yes, you read that correctly, Lewiston, Maine, where Ali dropped Liston less than two minutes into the first round at the Lewiston Armory. The “mystery punch” became part of boxing lore and John Jenkins, Lewiston’s popular Black mayor, with an eye for favorable publicity for his adopted home town, invited Ali back to the scene of the title fight. There would be a dinner celebration and later, Ali would attend a boxing match at the Armory. Unexpectedly, Muhammad Ali accepted.
According to a New York Times article, when Jenkins tried to convince Ali to come to Lewiston for the 30th anniversary of the 1965 fight, he may have exaggerated when he said, “Here came Ali, at the dawn of the civil rights era, a different kind of Black man, who wouldn’t let others define him and who was threatening to a whole lot of White folks. It was Lewiston that gave him a chance to defend his title and go from there to become the most famous person in the world.”
Never mind that Ali had been roundly booed when he entered the ring against Liston in 1965, or that the Lewiston Sun had referred to him as Cassius Clay rather than his adopted Muslim name of Muhammed Ali; it was Lewiston that agreed to put on the match when the rest of the country refused to sanction the fight.
Even after Ali had agreed to come to Lewiston for the 30th anniversary of his famous fight, the plans for the event nearly came crashing down. Days before Ali’s arrival, the money for Ali’s appearance fee was frustratingly short. Jenkins turned to his friend, Billy Johnson, a Lewiston real estate developer and fight fan. The two turned to friends in the community and the money poured in. Jenkins was extraordinarily popular and Billy Johnson’s connections averted a major embarrassment for the city.
The next afternoon, Ali’s entourage arrived in a white limousine. Floyd Patterson, another former heavyweight champ, was there. So was a security contingent, a nurse, and Ali’s brother to smooth out the details. When Ali was introduced to Mayor John Jenkins, he took one look at Jenkins’ ebony skin color and cracked, “How the hell did you get here?”
Reporter Steve Cherlock, in his Lewiston Sun Journal article described what came next. Ali’s wit was on display during the banquet. Lewiston did not have a Key to the city to hand out to dignitaries. The best Jenkins could find was a city lapel pin. “I handed him the pin,” Jenkins said. “Ali looked at the pin. He looked at me. Then he looked at the audience.” In true Ali fashion—the timing was perfect—he said, ‘I came all the way here to Maine for this pin?’ Everyone broke out laughing.” Trying to recover, Jenkins apologized with a smile and then said the city did not give out keys because keys symbolized locked doors, which got Ali laughing.
Following the dinner, Ali—who was already in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease—retired to his hotel room to rest before his entrance as the celebrity guest for the fight at the Armory. Billy Johnson realized that this was his chance to meet Ali and asked Jenkins if he could help him see the Champ. The two took the elevator to Ali’s floor and were met immediately by several members of the security detail. They remembered Mayor Jenkins, (who could forget John Jenkins?), but the little white guy? Who the hell was he?
There was an awkward silence before Jenkins said, “This is my bodyguard.”
The two security guards scrutinized Billy Johnson—who was significantly shorter than Jenkins—and then turned their attention back to Jenkins. “Your bodyguard?”
“My bodyguard.” Jenkins repeated with a straight face. Billy Johnson stared straight ahead, this close to meeting his childhood hero.
One guard looked at his watch. “The Champ must be getting up about now. Let me go check.”
He disappeared into a suite down the hall and a moment later motioned Jenkins and Johnson inside. Muhammed Ali sat on the couch, his nurse hovering nearby, and he motioned the two to take a seat. Ali chatted with Jenkins for a few minutes before Jenkins said, “This is Billy Johnson. He has a favor to ask you.” Ali shifted his attention to Johnson.
“We have a good friend, Tom Callahan who’s dying of ALS,” Johnson began. “He’s weak as a kitten and getting close to the end. His wife is fighting to keep him at home. Big fight fan. You’re his hero. His house is on the way to the Armory; we have time to stop there on our way to the fight.” Billy paused, “Will you go? It would mean the world to him.”
Ali nodded he would go and extended his hand to Billy. It was well past dark by then. Johnson and Jenkins drove one car and the white limo, filled with Ali’s people, followed close behind. Billy Johnson pulled into a side-street near the Armory. The champ led the group up the front steps of a modest house, an umbrella shielding him from the steady drizzle. Inside the living room was Callahan resting in his favorite brown leather easy chair, a tracheotomy tube coursing out of his neck and connecting to an oxygen tank on the side table. ALS had advanced to the point where he barely had strength enough to breathe. His arms and legs were atrophied and weak. If you looked closely at his forearms, you would see fasciculations—a worm-like quivering of the muscles—where the nerve connections to the muscles were barely functional. In a few more months, Tommy Callahan would be gone.
The pictures Billy Johnson took during the brief visit tell it all: Callahan’s absolute shock at seeing Muhammed Ali quietly entering his living room, the grace of Ali as he extended his massive hand to greet Callahan, Ali lifting up Callahan to a standing position like a rag doll and posing for a group photo with Tom and Mrs. Callahan, and former Champ Floyd Patterson. It was Patterson who once said, “They said I was the fighter who got knocked down the most, but I also got up the most.”
In the final photo, John Jenkins is in the foreground, his eyes sparkling, a smile of pure delight spreading across his face. Callahan is barely standing, one arm around his wife, the other behind the back of Ali. Billy Johnson, who took the photo, remembers that Ali, whose left arm is hidden behind Callahan, was actually holding him up by his belt. Moments later, Callahan collapsed back into his easy chair like he’d gone ten rounds. With practiced hands, Tommy’s wife connected the oxygen tube back to the tracheostomy. It was time to leave.
Later that night, the Armory was packed for the heavyweight bout. The national press picked up the story of Lewiston’s first African American mayor and Muhammed Ali sitting together at ringside, looking over photos of the 1965 fight. The success of the 1995 celebration paved the way for another commemoration in 2015 on the 50th anniversary of the bout. Lewiston native, Charlie Hewitt, produced the documentary, “Raising Ali,” as a metaphor for the city’s ongoing fight for economic and social progress. Hewitt described the film as “a…portrait of a struggling old factory town that was visited by greatness.” Like boxer Floyd Patterson, the city of Lewiston had been knocked down. The key to its rebirth was that it kept getting back up.
But on that rainy night in the living room of Tommy Callahan was where the real magic happened; a moment of pure, loving humanity between Blacks and Whites, when Lewiston opened itself to the gathering forces of American social change embodied by Muhammed Ali. And mayor John Jenkins, as a Black mayor in a largely white state, was the symbol of that change.