LEWISTON — Bill Johnson was sitting with Rick Tonoli and John Campbell before the start of a banquet celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fight in Lewiston when they wondered, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get Ali to visit Tom Callahan at his home?”

Callahan, a close friend and a huge boxing fan, had Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“We thought if we could get to Ali and actually talk to him, he would consider doing this for Tom,” Johnson said.

They approached Lewiston Mayor John Jenkins and asked for his help.

The year was 1995 and Ali was back in Lewiston for the celebration of his first-round knockout of Liston. Lewiston was the unlikely location of Ali’s first title defense of his heavyweight boxing championship. He had returned, in part, to thank the city for hosting the fight, Jenkins said.

Jenkins, who was Ali’s guide that night, told Johnson to stay close to them after the banquet. Next thing Johnson knew, he was in Ali’s hotel suite at the Ramada Inn with the boxing legend, a couple of attendants and the mayor.

Ali had returned to his room to rest before attending an ESPN boxing card later that night at the Colisee.

“He sat down and talked to us,” Johnson said. “He did magic tricks for us. We didn’t know what to say. We just sat there in awe.”

Johnson and Jenkins finally asked if such a visit was possible. Ali didn’t hesitate, Jenkins said, despite a “deluge of rain” that night, which would have made it easy for the former three-time champion to decline.

“He was able to adjust his schedule,” Jenkins said. “He told his driver, ‘we’re going to follow the mayor and go visit this person.’ He was more than gracious.”

While everyone was waiting near the limo at the hotel, former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, who was also a guest at the banquet, came out and asked where everyone was going, Johnson said. When told of the side trip to the Callahan home before the fights at the Colisee, Patterson asked, “Can I come, too?”

Callahan was not expecting any visitors that night when the caravan arrived at the Franklin Street home.

“Floyd Patterson walked in and Mr. Callahan kind of sat up and smiled,” Jenkins said. “But when Ali walked in, he almost jumped out of his chair. He was really struggling to catch his breath. They both cried. They hugged each other and cried and stayed with each other for at least 15-20 minutes.”

“It was a very emotional scene,” Johnson said.

“This was humbling to me,” Jenkins added. “He doesn’t have to do any of this stuff, yet he is more than willing and glad to lift the spirit of others.”

Jenkins referred to Ali as a people’s champion who connected with people all over the world. He freely gave of his time. He loved performing magic tricks for visitors, Jenkins said, recalling how he entertained children at McMahon Elementary School during his visit to Lewiston.

When Ali returned to Lewiston in 1995, he was in the midst of his battle with Parkinson’s disease after he retired from boxing in 1981. His movements were slow and he sometimes spoke in a feint voice, but his mind was still crisp.

“His wit was just the same,” Jenkins said. “His ability to translate his wit was a little slow, but his wit was just as stinging and sharp and on target as always.”

That 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. “He 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 up here to Maine for this pin.’ He was holding this little pin in his very large hand. Everyone broke out laughing.”

Trying to recover, Jenkins apologized with a smile and then said the city did not give out keys because keys indicate locked doors, which got Ali laughing.

There were few blacks living in Lewiston and Auburn when Ali fought Liston in 1965. Ali was surprised when he returned 30 years later and discovered that Lewiston had a black mayor.

“He kept asking me, ‘Are you really the mayor?’ I reassured him that I was the mayor and he said, ‘How is that possible?'” Jenkins said with a laugh.

The two developed an instant rapport during the one-day visit. Ali was fascinated with Jenkins’ notoriety in martial arts. They discussed the anchor punch that knocked out Liston. Some have referred to it as the “phantom punch,” but Jenkins calls it a martial arts punch. They both demonstrated how the punch was thrown, and Ali said, “same thing,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins has thought a lot about the 1995 visit since hearing of Ali’s death last week.

“He didn’t have to come back,” Jenkins said. “He didn’t owe us anything, but he felt he wanted to give back. He couldn’t give back enough, and he felt saying thank you was one way to kind of give back, especially to our little community. It mattered to him a big deal that Lewiston gave him a shot. 

“I’m just blessed I had this opportunity. I’m just thankful the citizens of Lewiston gave me the distinction and the privilege of serving as their mayor, and just by coincidence, the two things came together at the same time.”

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.