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Former reporter recalls Ali interview

It was a January night in 1969 and a blizzard was whipping through the Fargo-Moorhead area. But Dan Nelson was OK; he was safe and sound at home in Fargo. No way was he going out in that stuff. Until he got a phone call from his boss, that is. It...

It was a January night in 1969 and a blizzard was whipping through the Fargo-Moorhead area.

But Dan Nelson was OK; he was safe and sound at home in Fargo. No way was he going out in that stuff.

Until he got a phone call from his boss, that is. It was Forum Sports Editor Ed Kolpack, who told Dan to get over to the Great Northern Depot pronto. Why? Because heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali was there, and Ed wanted Dan to interview him.

Done in at D.L.

Dan, now of Bismarck, is the editor of Delta Waterfowl magazine. But in 1969 he was a cub sports reporter for The Forum, and the call from Ed sent him out the door on a run.

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"I got stuck several times and had to dig my way out," Dan says, "but I would have pushed that car to the depot for a chance to interview Ali."

A recent Neighbors column told of Ali's unplanned visit to Fargo and of WDAY's Boyd Christenson's interview with him. But some of the background of the story was unknown. Now Dan is able to fill in the blanks.

As Dan recalls it, Ali, his wife and their chauffeur were driving to the West Coast, where Ali had a speaking engagement. But when they were in the Detroit Lakes, Minn., area in the storm, their car went into the ditch.

Somehow Ali got to Fargo to catch a train; Dan isn't sure how, nor what happened to Ali's wife and chauffeur. At any rate, Dan ran into the depot to find just two people: Ali and a railroad porter.

"Ali must have recognized me as a reporter," Dan says, "because he did the 'Ali Shuffle' across the old wooden floor, then threw a punch that stopped inches short of my nose. I swear the air snapped when he pulled that punch.

"We sat down on an old wooden bench and visited for at least half an hour. It was magical.

"He told me how he got the idea of being 'the Mouth of the South' by watching pro wrestler Gorgeous George. It was all an act, he said.

"When I asked him if British fighter Henry Cooper, who knocked him down, had hurt him, he leaned forward, his face just inches from mine, and showed me a scar hidden by his eyebrow. His face lit up and he told me that was the hardest he was ever hit by anyone.

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"He was an incredibly charismatic personality, very open and friendly."

Dan remembers Boyd getting his interview, too. But Dan says information that KXJB-TV's Jim Adelson was scooped was wrong; Jim did get an interview.

"Jim blew into the depot with his usual panache," Dan says. "I can still him yelling, 'Hey, Champ, Jim Adelson, CBS.'

"By the time Jimmy got there, a crowd had formed. After the Adelson interview, Ali pushed through the crowd and shook my hand before getting on the train.

"It was," Dan says, "quite a day." And he wrote about it for the paper.

But looking back, he speculates about the person who brought Ali into Fargo.

"Can you imagine," Dan ponders, "someone pulling off a snowy road to pick up a hitchhiker in a blizzard and finding out it was Muhammad Ali?"

It probably would be enough to make you want to do the Ali Shuffle.

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If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, N.D. 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or

e-mail blind@forumcomm.com

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