My Memories of “The Champ” Muhammad Ali — The Greatest of All Time
VIRGINIA BEACH, VA — For a week now, I have had several occasions to think about this man, whom I had met through one of his business partners and who was a very unlikely friend to me. My recollections of Ali were wrapped up in his relationship with an attorney named Richard Hirshfeld, who was a self-promoting and very notorious man, whose past and present at the time were checkered to say the least.
I was a homebuilder in Virginia Beach, when I received a phone call from a person who said his name was Richard Hirshfeld and that he was calling me from California. He had purchased a house in the Little Neck area of the city and wanted some modifications made before he arrived to move in.
I was cautious about him because he had a reputation that was quite controversial, to say the least. However, I decided to perform the upgrades and take my chances. Later, when Richard arrived to move into the house, I met with him and I gave him an invoice. We walked down the street and he paid me in cash — with no questions asked. When we got back to his house, we were standing on the front porch when his wife Loretta came to the door and told him Muhammad Ali was holding on the phone.
I visited with Richard from time to time over a period of months. Then one day, Richard called me and asked if my wife Joanna and I wanted to go to dinner at his expense at the Isle of Capri Restaurant, which was owned by Eddie Garcia. At the time, Garcia was a notable builder and businessman. Some alleged that he had ties to the mob — charges that were never proven.
When we arrived at the Capri, we took our seats where we were told and completed our dinner. But, before we departed, Richard entered the restaurant with an entourage that included Eddie Garcia. The two men sat between us and the exit, so that we had to walk past his table. As we did, we stopped to talk.
I was introduced to a man who gave me his card with his name and a bank in New York with which he was affiliated. Then Richard asked me about a man who lived in Hawaii whose office was in Panama and who traveled the world making loans on behalf of the United Arab Emirates. He asked me who this person was.
I was caught by surprise! Richard had been the person who originally introduced me to the UAE representative — whose name was Robert Chastain. I identified Mr. Chastain as the person we were speaking about. The next day it was announced in the Virginian Pilot that financing had been arranged for the purchase and construction of a project that would become the Virginia Beach Pavilion and Conference Center.
Clearly I was used to validate the existence of Mr. Chastain who apparently provided the financing for this project.
Later, Richard threw a lavish party described as Gatsby-esque at a ritzy hotel known as Cavalier on the Hill, which had Muhammed Ali as the headliner. The purpose of the party was to introduce Ali to the local politicians and dignitaries as a partner with Richard and some others in the Pavilion project. Every person in politics and business in the Hampton Roads who ‘was anyone’ attended.
I was the only nobody in attendance.
As I entered the receiving line, I observed “The Champ” standing there. I was intimidated to say the least. His stature was immense yet he seemed calm. I prepared to shake his hand and thought about his public persona. I wanted to shake his hand firmly, as I did not want to embarrass myself. But when I took his hand, my hand was lost in his — despite the fact that I also have large hands.
Instead of a firm handshake, I was welcomed by a very gentle man who had nothing to prove. He was after all the Heavyweight Champion of the World. We spoke briefly and again contrary to his persona, he spoke to me for a few moments in a very soft voice. Then we moved on. For the rest of the evening, he was surrounded by a crowd and we had no further opportunity to speak to one another.
I have no doubt that if I had asked Richard to get me a private audience, I probably could have done so. But I saw no reason for that. What I have remembered about these events and my encounter with Ali was he was a mild mannered man who was the World Champ, but never saw the reason to become in private, the person that he was in public. He was friendly and engaging. He was willing to lend his celebrity status to projects that would gain him and his family an income. But he had courage and conviction in and out of the ring and he never portrayed himself as better than the average man.
Everyone knows about his public persona, but behind that persona was a kind and gentle man whom I was proud to meet and whom I will never forget.
Richard had met Ali in California in 1980, and at one time they lived together on a 100-acre farm in western Virginia. They had a bond, which was rare and much unexpected. Ali had friendship with notables such as U.S. Sen. Orin Hatch. At one point Ali and Hirschfeld traveled to the Middle East in an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate the release of some Iranian Hostages.
Richard had relationships with the Shah of Iran, the United Arab Emirates and numerous Hollywood celebrities. He also had a relationship with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, whom Hirshfeld and Chastain tape-recorded stating Marcos’ intent to return to the Philippines. They turned the tape over to U.S. authorities.
Richard drove Ali around in a Rolls Royce and other exotic vehicles, including a limousine that reportedly had been owned by Elvis Presley. They lived a life that few could imagine. But they had a falling out over the publication rights to Ali’s life. I was very surprised that Ali refused Richard’s request. But Richard was a notorious personality, who would use any means to get his way. At one point, Richard imitated the voice of Muhammed Ali to promote these objectives and when he was caught, that was the end of their relationship. Ali obviously had principles and Richard did not.
Richard engaged in many other similar deceptions in dealings with banks and others, which led to his being indicted on federal Racketeering charges. Richard was on the lam when he was arrested, cowering in the closet of a Fort Lauderdale home. In fact, it was his wife Loretta who led the FBI to her husband’s hiding place. He was jailed and eventually took his own life in ederal prison.
Muhammad Ali has just died as we all know. His life has been replete with accolades from every corner of our society. But for just one moment in time, a small time businessman from Virginia Beach was in the presence of the “Greatest.” I have not forgotten my friend Richard. To others he was notorious but to me he was my friend. I certainly will never forget meeting “The Champ” — Muhammad Ali, the best there ever was as a boxer and as a man of faith.