Former Olympic boxing champion “Sugar” Ray Seales and retired city of Tacoma photographer Jerry Timmons don’t know each other and have little in common, but they are connected in a way that might be called mystical.
Each has distinct memories of Muhammad Ali, who died last Friday, as the most impactful athlete of the 20th century.
Seales, who as a child relocated to Tacoma from the Virgin Islands, struck a close friendship with Ali during a 1977 charity event in Chicago, where “The Greatest” took on Scott LeDoux in a five-round exhibition match. Seales participated on the undercard of a bout he won, among the 57 victories accumulated during a 10-year pro career that left him legally blind and broke from the medical bills related to multiple eye surgeries.
Ali appeared at a 1984 fundraiser for Seales at the Tacoma Dome, which included a performance by Sammy Davis Jr. Two years later, Ali was in Portland.
“He was told ‘Sugar Ray Seales would like to see you,’ ” Seales recalled Wednesday. “When I got down there, he joked: ‘You wanted to see me? I thought you were blind from all those punches you took.’ He was supposed to fly out but stayed an extra day, just to spend time with me.
“That’s the kind of friend Ali was. When I think of him, I am reminded of a saying: ‘Service to others is the rent we pay for our room in heaven.’ ”
Timmons never met Ali, but in 1967, as he was completing a three-year Army hitch in Germany, the photographer saw a poster advertising the defending heavyweight champion’s sparring-match workout in preparation for his title fight against Karl Mildenberger.
Timmons paid 10 marks — the equivalent of $2.50 — to watch Ali train for an afternoon.
“It was a typical boxing gym, very casual except for the bright TV lights,” Timmons said Wednesday. “The crew from the ‘Wide World of Sports’ was there to film him.”
As was Timmons, who brought three cameras and went to work.
“He wore a T-shirt and shorts and the first thing I noticed was ... that he looked chiseled out of stone,” said Timmons. “He sparred and shadow boxed and then went to the 180-pound heavy bag. I can still hear the sound his punch made on that thing. ‘Wham!’ It was ear-splitting.
“Toward what I assumed was the end of the workout, his wife came to the gym — she looked concerned — and he put his hand gently on her shoulder as they talked. I got the sense she was asking: ‘When will this be over? We need to get back to the hotel and find someplace for dinner.’
“He trained another hour, all-out, full speed. It showed me that this wasn’t somebody who just showed up in the ring with those fluid moves and punched people in the face.”
When the workout finally concluded, Timmons joined a crowd seeking Ali’s autograph.
“I was toward the back of the line and gave my ticket to be passed up for him to sign,” he said. “What’s amazing is after he signed it, the people in front passed it back to me. I’ve got the ticket in a frame.”
Timmons took three rolls of black-and-white, 35-millimeter photos that day, “nice and crispy” shots depicting Ali in his irrepressible prime before a three-year hiatus from the sport.
“I had no intention of doing anything with them,” he said. “I wanted to give the photos to Ali’s family, and I’ve tried. That turned into a can of worms. How does a guy from Sumner, Washington, get access to the Ali family?’ ”
Timmons, 74, enjoys his part-time job driving a billboard truck, “but money does funny things to people,” he said. “If somebody hands a briefcase full of cash to me, it would be tempting as hell to take it without asking any questions. Still, that’s not the right thing. I want to do the right thing.”
So does Seales, who worked 17 years teaching autistic students at Lincoln High before he and his wife moved to Indianapolis. The lone gold medalist of the 1972 USA Olympic boxing team, Seales remains active as an amateur-club coach.
“Taking kids off the street and showing them how to focus and listen is my way of giving back,” he said. “I learned a lot about giving back from Muhammad Ali.”
Despite the financial crisis he once faced, Ray Seales regards himself as a shrewd investor, determined to stockpile enough savings to rent a room in heaven.