Muhammad Ali's Broken Jaw X-Ray
Hooksett, New Hampshire
Most sports memorabilia looks woefully alike. The colors and names on uniforms change, but otherwise the equipment has to be identical to be fair, which makes everything look, well, the same. To the non-sports fan, it doesn't seem possible anyone could get really excited looking at fifty examples of the same baseball bat. Unless one of them is a giant bat.
Sometimes, however, a person transcends a sport -- such as the boxer Muhammad Ali. His personal flair lends itself to offbeat artifacts. And when you put those artifacts in an unexpected place -- like, say, a car dealership -- then you have something worth visiting.
The mini-museum of Muhammad Ali is the personal collection of Stephen Singer, the president of one of New England's largest used car dealerships, a proud recipient of (no joke) New Hampshire's 2004 "Not Your Typical Business Award." It's here that Stephen displays his mementoes, winding along the hallways leading between the offices and spilling into Stephen's office as well. Anyone can visit, which makes you wonder how many salespeople have wearily endured Ali-inspired proposals ("I want a minivan for a knockout price!") from customers who've seen the collection.
The star of the exhibit, for us, is an actual x-ray of Muhammad Ali's broken jaw (Ali is one of the few people -- like Elvis -- who are so famous that you get to see their bones). Referred to by its own sign as "the prized x-ray," it's thoughtfully mounted in a backlit display so that you can get a really good look at the damage. "The break in Ali's jaw is visible just above his autograph signature on the right." Not only is the x-ray signed by Ali, it's also signed by the fighter who broke the jaw, Ken Norton. Six months later he and Ali fought a rematch, and Ali won.
How does one get an autographed memento like this? Stephen wouldn't say, except that he "had access to someone who had access to Ali's training camp at the time."
Adjacent to the x-ray is a full-size, full-color statue, personally commissioned by Stephen, of Ali in a small boxing ring, ready to wallop a punching bag. Hand-painted on the bag is a reproduction of the cover of the DC comic book Superman vs. Muhammad Ali -- although in this version the names have been reversed to read Muhammad Ali vs. Superman. Stephen told us that he ordered the statue to be made one-inch larger than life size because, "Ali is bigger than life."
Other art lines the walls. There's a metal "Ali Kinetic Neon Sculpture" of a 2-D boxing match, and a framed reproduction of an automaton titled "The Magic of Ali" that features Ali as a magician (he reportedly loves magic) and rival Smokin' Joe Frazier as the girl being sawed in half. It was built for a charity auction, but Ali liked it so much that he kept it.
One artwork, "Let My People Go," was drawn by Ali himself for a 1979 postage stamp that demanded a "free and independent Namibia." This minimalist work consists of a kidney-shaped outline of Africa, three tiny palm trees, three tiny pyramids, a Sphinx, a glittery pile labeled "gold," and a black man in ragged pants shackled to a ball and chain. As far as we know there are no pyramids or Sphinxes in Namibia, and not all that much gold, either, but the drawing must have done some good because Namibia is now a free nation.
There are autographed photos of Ali and a bleary-eyed Elvis in Las Vegas (titled "The King meets The Greatest") and of Ali in a boxing ring with the Beatles, who lie flat on their backs -- John and George praying -- while Ali beats his chest and howls victoriously.
There's a Limited Edition Muhammad Ali cigar humidor, autographed by Ali even though its sign notes that, "As a devoted Muslim, Ali does not smoke or drink." On a small table, off to the side, easy to miss among the flashier exhibits, are Muhammad Ali's famous fists, reproduced in bronze.
Stephen's most obsessive work is the "Ali Opponents Signature Project," which displays the autographs of 49 of the 50 men that Ali fought professionally. Stephen has spent many, many thousands of dollars and over ten years tracking down these signatures. The project may ultimately remain unfinished, as the 50th man, Jim Robinson, disappeared soon after Ali knocked him out in 1961, and no one's been able to find him since.
Why does Stephen display Muhammad Ali artifacts at his car dealership? "He has a similar philosophy of life to what we do," Stephen explained. "We both take our original success and use that as a platform to make the world a better place." Melissa the receptionist had a less grand but probably just as valid response. "Steve," she said with pride. "He's such a collector!"