The Greatest lives up to his title
Jim Murphy has worked at General Mills for 24 years. But his one day spent with Muhammad Ali when Ali was chosen to appear on the Wheaties box in 1999 was definitely one of the highlights of his career.
“Of all the things I’ve done here and people I’ve met, Ali was probably the person I was most in awe of,” says Jim, now president of our Cereal business unit but who was then a marketing manager on the Wheaties brand.
Jim and the media team had arranged to get Ali – who died last Friday and is being remembered in a processional and memorial service in Louisville today – onto The Today Show on Feb. 4, 1999, to announce the unveiling of the box, followed by a press conference in Madison Square Garden in New York City.
He met Ali in The Today Show’s green room.
“His wife told him who I was and he got this big smile on his face,” recalls Jim. “I think we had treated him pretty well and sought him out. He was super excited about being on the Wheaties box – really interested. He thought it was going to be fun.”
At the time Ali was in the early stages of Parkinson’s, a degenerative neurological disease.
“But the most special part was when he started shadow boxing with me for about 30 seconds. To be honest, I didn’t quite know what to do. I wasn’t going to shadow box with him. I probably just stood there like a doof.”
Greg Zimprich was the senior PR manager for Big G Cereals at the time and was with Jim for the events with Ali in 1999.
“We chose Madison Square Garden for the press conference because it was the site of Ali’s 1971 ‘Fight of the Century’ with Joe Frazier,” Greg says. “Our emcee, the legendary sports reporter Dick Schaap, asked Ali what he thought about seeing his image on the Wheaties box after it was unveiled. The soft-spoken and courageous champ, without even pausing, said ‘Man, I’m still pretty.’ That sound bite was used by media outlets coast-to-coast, in one of the biggest PR campaigns Wheaties has ever seen.”
Greg remembers sitting at a table with Ali, watching him autograph several boxes.
Both Greg and Jim received one of the Ali-signed Wheaties boxes. Jim says his is in a prominent spot in his home, and over the weekend he shared with his children how he had met the fighter who was known as “The Greatest.”
By 1999 at the age of 57, Ali had been retired from boxing for nearly 20 years and some of his more controversial views – like his opposition to the Vietnam War and conversion to Islam – had faded into the background.
“He had evolved into this worldwide hero,” says Jim. “He was so inspiring to so many people around the world.”
It was Wheaties 75th anniversary in 1999 and the team wanted to include some of the great athletes who had not appeared on the box, including golfing legend Arnold Palmer.
“I can only speculate that he was too controversial” to be considered for the front of the box in 1960s, 70s and 80s, says Jim. “We just felt that by 1999, it was time for Ali – although it was still kind of controversial.”
For a time, Ali was one of the most famous people in the world. Jim and the Wheaties team experienced that first hand when Ali slipped out the back door after his appearance on The Today Show.
“By the time we got off the set and went out the back door, there were hundreds of people waiting for him. He greeted everyone and drove around the corner. But traffic was at a dead stop. They made a turn but they couldn’t go anywhere. So then Ali got out of the car.”
Jim says it was a scene he’ll never forget.
“In no more than a minute there were thousands of people cheering for him. It was like a party in the middle of Manhattan because Muhammad Ali was there. The cabbies were stopping and honking. It was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen.”
Editor’s note: Ali also was featured on the Wheaties box in 2012.
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