A Christmas gift to a six-year-old boy in Louisville in 1963 several years later began to take on a life of its own, especially when it was connected to the late Muhammad Ali.
Billy Pfund was surprised that Christmas with two pairs of boxing gloves from his aunt and uncle. But that wasn’t all. One of the gloves had been autographed by Cassius Clay.
“My uncle Cliff worked in the hat department at Levy Brothers department store in downtown Louisville,” Pfund said. “This was before the boxer became Muhammad Ali and before he became the champ.”
Levy Brothers was an upscale department store at Third and Market from 1892 until 1980. The building is now the Spaghetti Factory. As Clay’s professional boxing career began to evolve after his 1960 Olympic gold medal performance, he began to upgrade his wardrobe.
“Hats, especially Dobbs Hats, were popular for men back then,” Pfund continued. “Cassius would come in the store with his dad, and my uncle struck up a friendship with him. He asked him if he brought some boxing gloves to the store would he sign them the next time he came in.”
The story has been told over the years how a young Cassius Clay, growing up in the West End of Louisville, having his bicycle stolen, and a city policeman, Joe Martin, channeling the youngsters frustration toward the city’s youth boxing program.
The boxer, who became known as “The Louisville Lip,” was true to his word. The next time he came to the store he signed one of the gloves. He did it and a little bit more.
“To Billy from Cassius Clay, the next heavyweight champion of the world, 1963.”
Billy Pfund’s mom and dad sweetened the Christmas gift that year with a Joe Palooka stand-up punching bag. As an only child it was something he could do by himself while at the same time burning off some energy.
“With two pairs some of us in the neighborhood would box in the basement or backyard,” Pfund said. “And for the next several years I continued to spar with the autographed gloves.”
Even though he was young, Pfund was well aware of the future “greatest of all time.”
“He was a big deal. Every kid in Louisville knew who he was,” he said. “It was a few years later I realized what I had in my possession.”
The story continues.
In March 1964, soon after he had defeated Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. So never again would Louisville’s greatest celebrity sign the name Cassius Clay.
For years the boxing gloves hung in Pfund’s room, always there, a keepsake from his childhood never to be gotten rid of. By now they had become a part of his family. For the most part, the boxing gloves were out of sight, out of mind, but as he grew older and married, the gloves stayed with him.
“They became a conversation piece,” he offered. “Whenever anyone came to our house they wanted to see them.”
With the gloves, however, something was missing. It was the name Muhammad Ali.
By now it was the mid-90s, and since the early 80s, Ali had been diagnosed with Parkinson disease and his public appearances began to decline. Getting another autograph from the most famous athlete in the world would be difficult, if not impossible.
By chance Billy and his wife Laura found out that Ali was going to be honored at the Louisville Gardens in downtown Louisville.
“It was the mid-90s and we took the gloves, just hoping we could get him to sign them,” Pfund recalled. “By chance we sat near Ali’s brother, Rahman. I showed him the gloves and told him the story.”
Pfund made it a point to let him know he was not there to make money off of the autograph, but only to add to what he already had.
Rahman Ali took the Pfund’s to where his brother was sitting and quickly introduced them while Billy Pfund showed him the boxing gloves he had since 1963. The illness had taken its toll on the champ. Now shaky and walking with a shuffle he graciously signed the other boxing glove, “Muhammad Ali.”
Billy Pfund’s Christmas gift from decades ago was now complete. Although the boxing gloves are not for sale, there has been a curiosity of what they might be worth.
“My dad several years ago took the gloves to the Antique Roadshow that came to Louisville one time,” says Pfund. “I was out of town at the time, so he wanted to do it.”
The Sportcraft junior size, red and tan, lace-up gloves were one of the items selected to be televised in April 2008.
“I don’t remember the exact value they placed on the gloves, but I think it was several thousand dollars,” Pfund said. “But I do know one thing for certain, they are not for sale.”
Over his career the boxer made a habit of predicting his future matches, even to the exact round he would win in. Signing the glove back in 1963 as the “next heavy weight champion” he did not disappoint.
There’s no excuse. Get up, get out, and get going! Gary P. West can be reached at email@example.com