The Inaugural Showdown: Muhammad Ali’s First Pro Fight Against Tunney Hunsaker and Their Enduring Connection


In fact, it’s so difficult, so inconceivable, to accept that Muhammad Ali will celebrate his 50th birthday Friday that some of us will simply refuse to do so. This, because we look at Ali, who is nothing if not a breathing timepiece, and we see ourselves. Forever childlike, forever a tease, and still floating like a butterfly in our minds, Ali has gone through half a hundred calendars. So how old does that make the rest of us?

“Sixty-two,” Tunney Hunsaker said Monday evening. “Sixty-two next month.”

Once, though, he wasn’t even half of that.

“I was 30 the night I fought him,” Hunsaker recalled. “I gave him a hard time. Later, he said he almost lost the hamburger he’d eaten for dinner when I gave him some good chops to the stomach in the second and third rounds.

“But I was too old to be fighting an 18-year-old fella. ‘Specially an 18-year-old like him. He had these long arms, and he could hit you from anywhere and from any angle. And he’d never blink an eye.”

Tunney Hunsaker? He may be professional boxing’s Wally Pipp, because just as Pipp’s headache allowed Lou Gehrig to introduce himself to America, Hunsaker’s chin turned out to be Ali’s entree to the world.

Sinatra sang his first song in some nowhere joint, didn’t he? And Brando delivered his initial lines on some dusty stage, right? Well, Ali needed to start somewhere, too. And that start was Tunney Hunsaker, then and now the chief of police of Fayetteville — a sneeze along the New River in southern West Virginia with an official population of 2,366, not counting dogs and cats.


“I remember him driving up in a brand-new, pink Cadillac,” Hunsaker said of that October evening in 1960. “Oh, it was a beauty. He was stepping high that night, all right. And when he came into the ring with all of his followers? I remember being pretty impressed by that.”

The bout, a six-rounder won by Ali on a unanimous decision, took place in Louisville, then the home of the youthful Cassius Marcellus Clay, who’d earlier in the year won an Olympic gold medal in Rome.

Within three years, though, Ali would be fighting in England. And soon thereafter, he’d be throwing hands in Sweden and in Scotland and in West Germany and in Switzerland and in Ireland and in other exotic ports of call. There would be visits to South America and to Asia and to Africa; there would be matches on islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean.

Ultimately, Ali would climb in with Frazier and Liston and Foreman and Patterson and Moore and Holmes and Foster and Norton and Shavers. And anybody else — a Mildenberger, an Evangelista, a Lubbers — who happened along.

But it all began with Tunney Hunsaker, the police chief of Fayetteville, W.Va., since 1954 who, on Monday, was like the rest of us.

“Muhammad Ali was only 18 when I fought him,” he said. “That was 32 years ago. It’s hard to believe all that time has passed.”

Time. The Russians call it the greatest of all tyrants. And it is that because of its unrelenting thievery of youth. We waste it as kids, then we lament its passing once our hair begins to thin and our bottoms start to widen. We turn around at some point in our lives, and suddenly we see the swath it has cut. And, sure enough, we wonder where we were when all of that happened.


Muhammad Ali turns 50 this week, a groggy 50 because of the 30,000 punches, give or take, he has calculated he absorbed during his run as the world’s imp. And, too, because of the Parkinson’s Syndrome with which he lives, to our sorrow, every day.

And while we want so much for this man to recite some poetry . . . and to do his Ali Shuffle . . . and to again make the speed bag sing, we know it’s not going to happen. Not anymore.

Tunney Hunsaker remembers Ali’s pink Caddy, his flicking fists and his wide eyes; the rest of us have our own recollections. But we must understand that Ali was born in 1942 when FDR was waging wars across both oceans, when Hedy Lamarr was radiant on the big screen, and when a buck got a couple into Drumlins for four hours of dancing to live music on a Friday night.

So, Ali isn’t Ali anymore. And that’s unsettling, isn’t it? This, because we understand that time did not visit him and leave the rest of us alone.

Anyway . . .

Tunney Hunsaker — who was named after Gene Tunney, the heavyweight champion in the late ’20s — is planning to soon retire from the Fayetteville police force. He said on Monday that a man could find part-time work in the security business down there in West Virginia, and that he would look into that. He also said he will be gardening quite a bit out back.

And, yeah, it was clear that he’ll almost certainly be pulling out the films of Muhammad Ali’s first professional bout more often now and relive a time when the world was younger.

“He didn’t mean anything to me,” Hunsaker said. “I’d never heard of Cassius Clay. It was just another fight. When they told me he’d won the gold medal, it didn’t mean a thing.

“But I remember the man who is our circuit court judge now. He was the city attorney then. After the fight, he called me into his office and said, ‘Chief, what do you think of Clay’s future?’ And I said right then and there, that he would become the world champion as soon as he got the opportunity.”

Tunney Hunsaker knew, all right. He recognized grandeur before nearly anyone else. Ali wasn’t as tough a fighter as Shotgun Sheldon, who’d once punched Tunney into a nine-day coma, no. But Ali, even then, was what Ali would come to believe of himself. He was the greatest.

“And to think,” Tunney Hunsaker said over the telephone, “that a little fella like me from Fayetteville, W.Va., fought him first.”

Thirty-two years ago. Or when Muhammad Ali, who turns 50 on Friday, was 18. If you’re feeling older now, it’s only because you are.


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