The world lost Muhammad Ali on June 3 when the former boxing champion died at age 74. Dr. Stuart Kirschenbaum lost a longtime and dear friend.“We knew each other for 38 years. I called him, ‘Champ.’ He called me, the ‘Great White Dope,’ but with affection and a twinkle in his eye,” said Kirschenbaum, the Michigan boxing commissioner from 1981-1992 and boxing commissioner emeritus and special adviser to the governor on boxing affairs since 2013.
Kirschenbaum couldn’t make it to Ali’s funeral June 10 in Louisville, Ky., because he underwent vascular surgery the previous day. But he was there in spirit.
“I did some radio and TV interviews about Muhammad. They gave me some closure,” he said. “I received condolences from across the country because so many friends and patients knew about my relationship with the Champ. That made my heart feel warm. Almost like the feeling I would get receiving one of the Champ’s hugs.”
Kirschenbaum said Ali was his inspiration to enter the New York Golden Gloves competition in 1967. They met 11 years later in Detroit after Kirschenbaum had opened a podiatry practice in the Motor City and was judging boxing matches.
The meeting was suggested by one of Kirschenbaum’s patients, who was Ali’s personal cook. The cook thought the two would hit it off because each had a great sense of humor.
Kirschenbaum has many stories to tell about his friendship with Ali. All show their close bond.
It’s 1984. Kirschenbaum was attending a news conference with Ali in Detroit when he noticed Ali was hobbling because he had fractured his big toe at the Los Angeles airport.
Kirschenbaum met Ali in Ali’s room in the Hotel Ponchartrain in Detroit and treated the injury. From that day, Kirschenbaum was known as Ali’s foot doctor.
More importantly, Kirschenbaum said, Ali asked that day if he could put Kirschenbaum’s name and phone number in his address book.
“Back then, we had to write down people’s names and phone numbers,” Kirschenbaum said. “The Champ wrote my name in his little black book with loose papers that was secured by a rubber band.”
Ali came to town in February 1989 to meet with Kirschenbaum and others about establishing a world boxing hall of fame. After spending a day with Ali talking in Ali’s room at the Radisson Hotel in Southfield and holding a news conference about the hall of fame the next day at Ginopolis restaurant in Farmington Hills, Kirschenbaum told Ali he was going to watch his son Storm play hockey at the Southfield Ice Arena the following morning.
Ali came to the arena, sat on teams’ benches, did magic tricks for players in locker rooms and left three hours later.
“That was the Champ. He made everyone he met feel important, at ease and as though you knew him forever,” Kirschenbaum said.
Ali often traveled to Detroit for boxing shows and sat with Kirschenbaum. They were joined by people like Mayor Coleman Young, Leon Spinks, Thomas Hearns and Aretha Franklin.
In fall 2002, the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation presented Ali with its “Book of Life Award” through Kirschenbaum at Ali’s home in Berrien Springs, Mich.
“Muhammad and his wife, Lonnie, were thrilled to accept an award from a Jewish organization to a Muslim following the 9-11 tragedy,” Kirschenbaum said.
After the serious business was completed, Kirschenbaum and Ali playfully sparred in a boxing ring at the home.
“We were a couple of kids,” Kirschenbaum said.
Kirschenbaum’s office at the New Center One building in Detroit features the Muhammad Ali Conference Room.
There are four original Andy Warhol paintings of Ali in the room, and Ali’s famous saying, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” is inscribed on a wall. *
By Steve Stein | Contributing Writer
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