The day Muhammad Ali visited Sarnia

A 'repost' worth sharing in light of the legendary boxer's recent passing

Editor’s note: The following story was originally posted on November 13, 2011, just about a year after Lambton Shield was first “rebirthed” (having been started in 1852 by a young Alexander Mackenzie, who went on to become Canada’s second prime minister). Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley sent the link following the recent passing of Muhammad Ali with the suggestion that it would be “a great story to repost.” We agree.

Our recent interview with George Heath was intended as a “where are they now.” And that’s how it started.

But the stories just kept coming, Great stories. Too many for just one article in Way too many.

They started flowing when Heath, retired as the sports director and play-by-play commentator for the Sarnia Sting at CHOK, pulled out a binder of photos, flipping through each page to ask me (or identify for me) who the various sports legends with whom he was standing.

We’ll talk about the rest in later “installments” of the George Heath interview, but first, the story of how boxing legend Muhammad Ali visited Sarnia.

To “set up the story,” we’ll need to talk about a service club that’s no longer–the Sertoma (short for SERvice TO MAnkind–which went it was in existence served children (notably through the centre that’s now the St. Clair Child & Youth Services organization).

Annually the club raised funds through its Sportsmen’s Dinner, which was a big deal. One key player was John Lampkin, a local real estate agent who died of brain cancer Oct. 18, 2010 at the age of 70. He and Heath were instrumental in the planning of these events, typically bringing in a famous sports personality to be the “draw” to fill the venue.

In 1974, Miami Dolphin Fullback Larry Csonka was scheduled to speak. Whether his signing that year to what would be the short-lived World Football League had anything to do with it, Csonka’s agent called the day of his scheduled appearance before the Sertoma event. “Your headliner isn’t going to show up,” Heath recalls the agent saying.

Clearly a problem for the organizers, the agent told Heath and Lampkin to “give me a few hours” to see what he could do.

“That was about 10 o’clock in the morning the day of the dinner,” recalls Heath. “We were obviously in big trouble because we’d sold all these tickets on the basis of Csonka being there.”

Heath and Lampkin sat by the phone and waited.

About noon, the telephone rang. The caller, in a gruff voice, asked to speak to the man who was running the dinner.

Heath, who had answered the call, handed the phone to Lampkin.

“This is Muhammad. I hear you’re all in trouble there.”

Yes, it was Muhammad Ali calling. The famed boxer was in Chicago, getting ready to head to Zaire for his “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman (who he would ultimately defeat). Ali had beat Ken Norton a year earlier after Norton in 1972 broke Ali’s jaw in the early rounds of the fight. This year (1974) he would face Foreman in a fight promoted by Don King.

But this particular day, he was available and that was the day he would visit Sarnia.

There were some “conditions” as anyone who knows Ali might surmise.

The boxer would fly from Chicago to Detroit (with his “entourage”) and the Sertoma dinner organizers would pick him up in a white Cadillac (one of the imposed conditions).

Heath recalls pulling into the Canada Customs area, where the officer asked for names. “I’m Muhammad Ali,” he boxer told the officer. “Right,” said the officer. “And I’m God.”

Ali and his entourage were let into the country, but not before agreeing to sign an autograph for the Customs officer.

Too late to visit the Children’s Centre, Ali and the group with him proceeded to the Drawbridge Inn and was at the Best Western for the dinner at 5 p.m.

“He was swarmed in the parking lot,” says Heath. “Everyone was there for photographs.”

Inside was another guest of the Sertoma Club–George Chuvalo–who had been beaten by Ali on March 29, 1966. Chuvalo didn’t know Ali was there and Ali didn’t know about Chuvalo, but the two were great friends who hugged one another when they met.

The speech, Heath recalls, was not what he would call spectacular. “He wasn’t a good speaker at all,” says the veteran broadcaster.

But John Lampkin may have saved the day when he came to the lectern to thank Ali for appearing. Mentioning the fight he was to have with Foreman, Ali then came alive in his legendary manner, saying at one point that he would send Foreman “into space as a ‘coloured satellite.’”

The next day, Heath took Ali back to the Drawbridge and would make sure he got back to Detroit the next day.

“He said to me then, ‘you were trying to interview me, weren’t you?’ I said ‘yeah.’ Well, come up to my room and I’ll give you a good interview.”

Heath talked to Ali, but really wasn’t happy with what he was getting from the interview. Until he said to Ali that he (Heath) wasn’t convinced he was going to beat Foreman.

That resulted in some “quotable quips” from Ali that Heath was able to use in the kind of radio interviews he was used to.

When he finished with Ali, Heath told him he was now convinced he would beat Foreman.

Ali’s retort: “You’re not as stupid as you look.”

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