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Ali's Mayo visit: 'Me, hurt?'

As the world mourns legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, it’s worth recounting the role Mayo Clinic played in "The Greatest's" career.

ali at kahler.jpg
Ali at Kahler press conference. PB file from July 24, 1980

As the world mourns legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, it's worth recounting the role Mayo Clinic in Rochester played in "The Greatest's" career.

In the summer of 1980, Muhammad Ali was looking to make a comeback. The then 38-year-old had retired two years earlier after defeating Leon Spinks to become the first three-time heavyweight champion in history. Now he was eyeing a return to the ring to fight Larry Holmes. But before the Nevada Athletic Commission would give him a boxing license, he had to undergo a detailed physical.

Ali headed to Rochester, checking in at the clinic on July 23, 1980. The next day, his trademark cocky persona was on display during a press conference at the Kahler Grand Hotel. Former Post-Bulletin sports reporter Jim Thielman still remembers that day vividly. The then-26-year-old reporter was not eager to cover that press conference. He wasn't a boxing fan and he knew he would have only 20 minutes to get a story written on deadline.

But the moment Ali walked in the door, his opinion changed.

"The one specific thing I remember was the guy was luminous," Thielman said. "He came in. I had to look a little bit over my shoulder when he walked in, and he took like four steps and I just went, 'Woah.' I don't know what this guy had."


In his 1980 story, Thielman wrote, "Ali appeared relaxed, almost docile when he opened the press conference."

But that all changed after Thielman asked Ali if he was afraid of getting hurt. The boxer sprang to life and let the reporter have it.

Thielman said Ali responded, "Me, get hurt? Me, get hurt? I'm going to get on an airplane today and fly out of here on that plane. I could get hurt if that plane crashes."

Then Ali said this to Thielman: "What are you, the local Howard Cosell? Howard Cosell gets paid to be an idiot. What's your excuse?"

Thielman said he was thrilled by the verbal pummeling he'd just received. He recognized it for what it was — a fantastic show.

"I didn't take anything personal by it. I was honored to be called the local Howard Cosell even though I didn't like Howard Cosell. I was honored to be called an idiot in the same breath by Muhammad Ali," he said.

Las Vegas Sun reporter Ed Koch wrote in a Feb. 14, 2012 article about an interview he had with Ali on the phone from Rochester after having undergone the exam. He wrote one of Ali's handlers handed the phone to the boxer, "who was relaxing in his suite at the Kahler Grand Hotel in Rochester, reading reports from his many tests, among them a brain scan and urine and blood samples."

Ali told the reporter, "A staff of seven of the world's best doctors gave me the green light today, and that proved all the liars wrong."


The medical report wasn't quite as glowing as Ali made it sound. Dr. Frank Howard, who conducted the neurological exam, concluded that Ali missed slightly while trying to touch his finger to his nose, did not hop on one foot with the expected level of agility and had trouble coordinating the muscles used for speaking. Nonetheless, Howard concluded none of these findings should prevent Ali from fighting.

In the wake of Ali's death, Thielman said he has been thinking about that Rochester press conference. And while he had the chance to interview plenty of sports stars in his day, including Walter Payton, Sandy Koufax and John Wooden, no experience tops his encounter with Ali.

"I have always thought there will be somebody else in my life that comes along like that, but there never has been," he said. "I can't explain what he had, but he was the GOAT — the Greatest of All Time."

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