LOUISVILLE — The arena floor was quiet not long after the prayer service ended, a worker pushing equipment up the same tunnel where the legend of Muhammad Ali began.
Across the hall, about 16,000 people had packed into the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center on Thursday for the first event in a two-day sendoff to the iconic fighter and activist; workers hauled away chairs and equipment from an Islamic prayer service. A day later, thousands more were expected to line the city’s streets as Ali, who died last Friday at age 74, makes his way through his home town one last time as part of a processional, followed by a public memorial service at the KFC Yum! Center.
Former President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal and sportscaster Bryant Gumbel, among others, are expected to speak Friday before Ali is laid to rest. It is a fittingly grandiose and inclusive farewell for a fighter known throughout his life as “The People’s Champion.”
On Thursday afternoon, following the Jenazah service at the Expo Center’s north wing, Freedom Hall was silent. It wasn’t almost 56 years ago.
Back then, a West Virginia police chief and part-time boxer swaggered down that tunnel to face an 18-year-old named Cassius Clay, making his professional boxing debut. Tunney Hunsaker was the man’s name, and he figured he was going to win. Who was this kid, anyway, driving into the fairgrounds in a new pink Cadillac?
Hunsaker was 31, a Kentucky native and Air Force veteran who had invited his family to watch from the first rows. He was big and strong, a 192-pound former Golden Gloves fighter ready to pick up his 17th professional win and a cool $1,300.
Sharon Hunsaker was 10 at the time, cheering alongside the rest of the family as her uncle made his way down the tunnel. Then came Clay, who three months earlier had won a gold medal in the Rome Olympics. This would be his first professional bout.
Hunsaker didn’t know it, but the kid was so confident — that persona coming to define him later, polarizing crowds until his later years — he ate a big dinner an hour before the bout. It felt good to Hunsaker in the third round when he finally caught up with Clay, as quick as ever but yet unpolished, delivering a hard blow to the kid’s full belly.
“It was all I could do,” Ali would write later in his autobiography, “The Greatest: My Own Story,” “to keep from vomiting.”
So the young boxer went on defense, avoiding Hunsaker for a while until his stomach calmed down. That was the part that burned up the veteran: He couldn’t catch up with Clay. How could someone so big — he was listed that night at 186 pounds — also be so quick? Hunsaker had sparred with light heavyweights and middleweights, and none of them had that kind of speed. How was there no tradeoff, size usually coming at the expense of speed or vice versa?
Hunsaker kept trying to catch up with the youngster, and he kept missing. “I used every trick in the book,” he would tell the Associated Press in 1992. “The more I’d do, the madder I’d make him and the better he fought.”
By the sixth round, Clay had tagged Hunsaker often enough that the man’s eyes were swollen. Blood from Hunsaker’s nose and eye stained Clay’s trunks, and the future champion himself seemed to have barely broken a sweat. Young Sharon, the veteran boxer’s niece, screamed for the bout to end; that was her first boxing match and, she would say nearly six decades later, her last.
“Very traumatic, seeing your uncle get beat up like that,” Sharon Barber, now 65, said this week by telephone.
Hunsaker refused to hit the canvas, though, and after the final bell, judges tallied their scores: a unanimous decision for young Clay.
“I’m ready to go 10 rounds anytime. The extra weight slowed me down just a little bit, not enough to hurt,” the youngster said, the bravado of the “Louisville Lip” — his first nickname — not yet at championship caliber.
Clay disappeared in his Cadillac; he would go on to win 55 more professional fights, three world heavyweight titles and earn global fame. Hunsaker retreated into the dressing room, embarrassed at the show he had put on in front of his family. He was so upset, his eyes so swollen, he ignored a brother’s pleas to allow someone else to drive him back to the hotel.
Hunsaker, who would retire from the ring less than two years later with an 18-15-1 professional record, went home to West Virginia. As the months and years passed, Ali emerging as a legend, Hunsaker’s embarrassment turned into a kind of pride. He had lost, sure, but he had lost to one of the best boxers of all time.
He decorated his walls with photographs of Ali, cheering the television when the young heavyweight would face off against other legends. Sports writers called the Fayetteville, W.Va., police station sometimes, wanting to ask about that fight on the Louisville fairgrounds, and occasionally he would receive autograph requests. One time he went on the game show “To Tell the Truth,” a kind of living answer to a trivia question.
“My dad’s claim to fame,” as Sally Huffman, Hunsaker’s daughter, called it. “It followed him all of his life.”
For some reason, Ali didn’t forget his first opponent, either. There was something precious to the champ about Louisville, or the fairgrounds, or that police chief who once took him the distance, and so when Ali turned 50, he invited Hunsaker to celebrate with him. Ali later returned the favor: When Huffman walked in to attend her father’s retirement party in West Virginia, there was her dad seated at a table, chuckling and sharing old memories with “The Greatest.”
“He always introduces me as a champion, too,” Hunsaker told the AP in 1992. “He’s a real gentleman.”
Hunsaker died in 2005 at age 75, a little more than a decade before his old opponent would pass away, too. That night in Louisville, along with his boxing career, remained a source of pride until the end, Huffman said; as his mind began to go in the final days of Alzheimer’s disease, tuning the television to a boxing match seemed to get the old man’s attention.
This week, Huffman said, the Hunsakers — some of them still in Kentucky but a few spread across America — looked back on that night in Louisville, where an arena outside of town came to life and so did an iconic career.
“My dad was very, very proud of his boxing career,” Huffman said, “and the fact that he fought him. If you had to lose to someone, it should be the Greatest.”
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