Local writer/filmmaker recalls a day with the Champ
photo/ Dan Huth’s personal collection
Muhammad Ali shoots a commercial for Vitalis Hair Tonic, at Miami Beach's 5th Street Gym. The boxing great was in training for his upcoming 1971 title fight with Joe Frazier. The author is on the ladder holding a microphone.
By Dan Chandler Huth
Spring had come to Miami Beach. The air was balmier, the breezes softer, the Cadillacs from New York were replaced by Buicks from Michigan.
Trudge up a narrow stairway to the Dundee’s Fifth Street Gym and you emerged to the sound of leather hitting canvas and the pungent smell of decades of sweat. Boxers of all sizes, speeds and colors were hard at work in every corner.
But there was no mistaking the alpha dog. The main sparring ring was surrounded by reporters, photographers and fight fans. Inside the ropes, a lean, fluid Muhammed Ali shadow danced as we set up our video cameras.
The match had finally been made: After coming off a three-year suspension for refusing to fight in Viet Nam, Ali had signed to meet Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden on March 8th. Frazier was the undisputed heavyweight champion, and brash young Ali wanted to take his crown. Each fighter would earn two and a half million dollars, the biggest fighter’s payday in history.
But there was even more money to be made. The advertising agency for Vitalis Hair Tonic dreamed up a commercial using a split-screen to show the combatants taunting each other in a live phone call. Our videotape company got the contract to shoot the Miami Beach side of the shout-out.
As Executive Producer of Miami Tele-Productions, my job was to lug the cameras, cable, lighting and sound equipment up that narrow stairway, put it all together and run the cables out the window to our mobile truck below. Then the Executive Producer got to hold the slate before each take. And then the Executive Producer got to climb a stepladder and hold a microphone just out of sight above Ali’s head.
He was tall. Because he was so perfectly proportioned, you didn’t have an accurate impression of how tall Ali was. And like most non-performers he grew restless over the constant re-takes for lighting, sound and camera adjustments. He had a comment after every “Cut!”
“That one was good,” he’d mutter to himself. “Why don’t they just keep that one? It was pretty,” he insisted.
As his impatience grew, I struggled for a way to explain the tight tolerances we were fighting. We had to shoot him in exactly one half of the screen, leaving room for the Frazier image on the other side. “The problem is, you’re weaving over the invisible line,” I explained. “It’s body awareness. You need to know exactly where your body is.”
“Slate,” called the director. I held the slate up and called out “Scene two, take six,” and snapped the clapper shut. But I felt—rather, sensed — something like a hummingbird buzz past my ear. I turned and my nose bumped into a boxing glove. Ali had been delivering his thunderous left jab to a point about one-half inch short of my ear.
“How’s that for body awareness?” he asked.
Oh, for the record, he delivered his poetic jab at Joe Frazier flawlessly. Scowling at the telephone, he sang out “I say this to you, and I say it with no malice. When I’m finished with your head…you gonna need some Vitalis.”
You can see it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jqzi7e-eqCs
[Dan Chandler Huth, a Bent Tree resident, wrote about this experience for a book he is working on Uncommon Encounters in a Common Life.