It was in the summer of 1966 when a star-struck 17-year-old set out to interview his idol: Muhammad Ali. Twenty miles from the South Side of Chicago, in Glencoe, Ill., Michael Aisner was calling repeatedly to the gym where the boxing champ was training. Finally, a man named Mr. Shabazz — Jeremiah Shabazz, perhaps? The man who introduced Ali to Islam? — picked up.
"Where are you from?" Shabazz asked the boy.
"I’m from WNTH, a high school radio station," Aisner said.
"The champ doesn’t have time to talk," he told him.
Aisner called back two days later. And then two days after that.
"Can I interview the champ?" he asked again.
Finally, Shabazz relented.
"Ok," he said. "The champ will meet you."
Later that week, with a suitcase-sized tape recorder in a back seat, Aisner and his best friend Pat were driving from the the tree-lined suburbs to inner-city Chicago, where Ali’s fan club was headquartered. It was two years after Ali had trash-talked his way into a victory over Sonny Liston; a year before he would refuse to go Vietnam. At the time, many black Muslims, led by Malcolm X, were advocating for “total separation” of the races. And so, for a scrawny white boy from the suburbs, heading to the heart of Chicago’s gritty South Side was no small thing.
"We parked as close as we could to the building," Aisner, now 63, laughs. "White Jewish boys from the suburbs did not go to the south side of Chicago."
The Muhammad Ali fan club was housed in a small brick building with a gold-foil sign out front. Next door was Muhammad Speaks, the black Muslim newspaper. From inside the club, Aisner and his friend watched out the window as Ali screetched up in a red Cadillac convertible, parked in front of a fire hydrant, and jumped over the car door.
For the next 20 minutes, Ali talked boxing, footwork, why he wanted to fight — and launched into an epic riff about traveling to Mars and fighting for the intergalactic boxing title. All went smoothly — until Aisner realized he’d forgot to record the Mars bit.
"I was mortified," he says. "I said, ‘Champ, do you think you could do that again?’"
The champ obliged.
The interview aired a few weeks later, in the first of what would become a lifetime of radio work for Aisner. And for nearly five decades, Aisner kept the original reel-to-reel recording of that interview with Ali, as well as a signed copy of the champ’s poetry album.
"There were two huge loves of my life at the time: astronauts and Muhammad Ali," says Aisner, from his home in Boulder, Colorado. "So here is Ali doing a routine that has to do with him going to Mars — there wasn’t anything that could have been cooler."
Last month, Aisner heeded a call for lost interviews and loaned the tape to Blank on Blank, a newly-launched nonprofit that brings lost interviews back to life. Now digitized for the first time, we are proud to present this joint production between Blank on Blank and Tumblr Storyboard.
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