A chance meeting with two champs

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

— Muhammad  Ali

Some three decades ago, during the formative years of my newspaper career in the Ann Arbor area, I met Faz Husain, a pizza entrepreneur who in many respects was every bit the equal of a more famous pizza magnate with similar Ypsilanti business roots.

Faz, unlike his pizza counterpart at Domino’s, would never build a franchise empire, nor would he own a professional baseball team. His sights, it seemed, were trained on even loftier goals – enriching the lives of others.

A native of India, Faz immigrated to the United States at the age of 14 when his father was recruited for a job at Eastern Michigan University. In short order, Faz immersed himself in the American way of life, developing a fascination with the pizza business and those who lived in the limelight.

When our paths first crossed, he was in the process of building a name for himself in the pizza biz, operating a store in Ypsilanti and later another in Ann Arbor. As a regular advertiser, he was a weekly visitor to the newspaper office, often bringing along samples of his latest prized creation while also treating us to a look at his ever-growing celebrity photo collection.

Over the years, Faz posed alongside the likes of Mother Teresa, Jack Kevorkian, and Hulk Hogan. It’s unlikely that the three notables have ever been mentioned in the same sentence before.

He shared smiles with First Lady Barbara Bush, sportscaster Howard Cosell, filmmaker Spike Lee, auto pioneer Lee Iacocca, and civil rights legend Rosa Parks.

Then, there were photos of him with such sports greats as Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Pete Rose, Mickey Mantle, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and a broad-smiling O.J. Simpson.

He even waded into political, diplomatic and military waters, striking a pose with Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, William Westmoreland, and Oliver North.

Faz was so good at cozying up to famous people that he planned to write a book about it before lung disease cut short his life some 10 years ago at age 54.

Perhaps I would have been a footnote in a chapter about a “close encounter of a very special kind” with Muhammad Ali, unquestionably the most celebrated boxer of all time.

Faz, reportedly the first Muslim in Michigan elected to public office when he won a seat on the Ypsilanti City Council in 1979, had a special fascination for Ali, the former heavyweight and Olympic boxing champ who converted to Islam in the mid-’60s.

In the late ’80s, long after Ali had retired from the ring, Faz had somehow struck up a friendship with perhaps the most famous man on earth at the time. Their ties, according to Faz, were cemented by a mutual desire to help others, offering helping hands when most needed and least expected.

Ali, of course, possessed an international profile, lending his name and his resources to a host of worthwhile causes. Faz, in turn, concentrated his efforts on the local level, boosting the fortunes of youth groups, student organizations, the homeless, and others down on their luck.

Of such spirit, a friendship was born, enticing Ali to accept an invitation from Faz to preside over a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a store opening in Ypsilanti one evening.

I was there to photograph the occasion, furnishing pictorial proof of the champ’s presence at the gala event. As Ali and his entourage entered the room, I started snapping away, clicking photos at such a rapid rate that my camera could no longer keep pace, jamming at a most inopportune time.

Suddenly, the lone photographer in attendance unexpectedly became the focal point of the unfolding story, wrestling with a high-priced camera that refused to cooperate. In boxing terminology, it looked like I would be the victim of a TKO, otherwise known as a “Technical Knockout.”

But just as panic began to set in, my fervent prayers for a photographic reprieve were answered, mysteriously unlocking a camera shutter that moments earlier had delivered a nasty one-two punch to my solar plexus.

As I gladly stepped out of the spotlight, Ali neatly returned to the forefront, flashing a wink at the cameraman that I’ll remember longer than any of his boxing conquests.

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