Damon Brooks Jr. | USA TODAY Sports
Troy Kinunen has been collecting memorabilia his entire life. He’s owned Babe Ruth baseball bats, Michael Jordan jerseys and shoes as well as autographs from other legendary athletes.
Kinunen began accumulating items for boxing legend Muhammad Ali during his first year at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1988 because they were less expensive than some of the other memorabilia. Kinunen has garnered some memorable pieces of Ali, including worn clothing from notable fights to religious paraphernalia used in his illustrious career.
Kinunen’s historic collection will be part of an online sports memorabilia auction hosted by Texas-based Heritage Auctions. Bidding ends Saturday.
Kinunen, 52, spoke with USA TODAY Sports about the stories behind his Ali collection.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
QUESTION: What was the first memorabilia item in your collection?
ANSWER: “So I wanted to collect Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth, but when I went to card shows back then or looked in trade publications for things to buy, that stuff was outside of my price range. It was too expensive. I went to an East Coast National in New York and I was walking on the floor of the shore. I saw the 1966 Muhammad Ali vs. Cleveland Williams poster and I said, hey, that’s kind of interesting. I read about him in school and I knew a little bit about him after reading Sports Illustrated. The poster caught my eye with its nice color and side. The more I looked at it, I said, yeah, I think I want to buy that. So I bought it for $40. After I bought it, I said Muhammad Ali’s kind of a big name and I started doing some research and found some books on him. The more I read and the more I researched him, the more I kind of decided I wanted to collect his items.
Q: You mentioned that Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth’s collection was more expensive than Ali’s. What’s the difference in prices?
A: “The first Muhammad Ali poster I bought was the 1966 one vs. Cleveland Williams, I paid $30 for it. And Mickey Mantle’s rookie card at the time was $2,500. And a baseball was a couple $100. Mickey Mantle’s jersey was probably $80,000. Back then, his robe might cost $5,000. So there was a big discrepancy in pricing.”
Q: What are the items you have from Ali’s legendary boxing career?
A: “We have two very significant pairs of fight worn gloves. The first pair is from 1963 when he fought Henry Cooper. He [Cooper] was bleeding all over the place and left both pairs of gloves soaked. They have blood splatter all over the gloves, and I also have Cooper’s gloves. It’s the only matching set where I have Ali’s gloves and the opponents’. Another pair, which is more recent, is the pair of gloves that Muhammad Ali fought Ken Norton in 1976 at Yankee Stadium. It was their third match, in which Ali won. It was the last heavyweight championship fight they fought at Yankee Stadium.”
Q: One of Ali’s notable fights is the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974. What are some items that you have from that fight?
A: “The citizens of Africa had an ancient tribal practice and it was called the Kuba cloth. It’s sort of a spiritual process where they would make tapestries and the women would weave these wool from the sheep. Then they would dye it in a special way and put African tribal patterns on it. They would make tapestries that represented George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. The garments are very traditional, and they would make long gowns for the men and women. The gowns would feature images of boxers and their boxing gloves. I have two of those that were gifted to members of Muhammad Ali’s entourage. The other piece that I have is a Kuba and they would use that tapestry to create an image of Ali versus Foreman. I have the actual mouth guard that Ali wore for the fight.”
Q: Which are some of your memorable pieces that are in your collection?
A: “One is the red robe that he wore in 1971 at Madison Square Garden when he fought Joe Frazier. That was kind of a really significant piece because he lost that fight. Instead of giving up, he trained harder and beat Frazier in the rematch. Another piece I have which is really significant is his Muslim prayer cap. It’s not boxing memorabilia, but it was gifted to him by the residents of the Philippines when he fought Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila (in 1974). It’s very intricate. It’s hand-beaded and has his name on it. It’s a religious artifact, so it transcends sports. Muhammad Ali was a spiritual leader for millions of people and the cap represents his faith.”
Q: Have you collected any items regarding his controversial religious conversion?
A: “I have one of the greatest pieces ever that punctuates everything. He is known for having two names: Muhammad Ali and Cassius Clay. But there’s a third name that he changed to for a two-week window in 1964. He changed his names to Cassius X. There was kind of a fight between him on whether he was going to go with Malcolm X’s version of Islam or Elijah Muhammad’s. So for the two weeks when he’s hanging out with Malcolm X, he took the name (Cassius X). I have a wired original photograph of the two together, Cassius X standing next to Malcolm X. It’s the only known original photograph of him when he went by the name Cassius X.”
Q: Do you have any items that people may not have seen before?
A: “I have a collection of social justice posters. I have a 1965 antiwar poster, a 1967 Black Musical Festival Poster, 1967 Champions of Peace, and a 1967 Our Fight Is Here rally poster.”
Q: Have you ever had any memorable interactions with the late Muhammad Ali?
A: “Yes, I have. There was a car show in Chicago and they had brought in a whole bunch of signers, and Mickey Mantle was there, Joe DiMaggio was there, and Muhammad Ali was there. When I got to Muhammad Ali’s table, he got up, he pointed, and he teased my buddy that was with me. He asked me to come down at the table to take a picture, did the Ali shuffle, shadow boxed with me, and he was just so engaging and wanted to give back to the fans. It was a real special experience. It kind of turned a light bulb on for me and made me start researching and collecting things related to his career.”
Q: What do you want viewers to take away from your collection?
A: “I always collect the authentic stuff, try to get it right from the source, and try to pick something that matters. You should try to pick someone that when you spend your time and money on it, that you’ll be proud of the person you chose. Muhammad Ali was definitely somebody that I was proud to share with fans and other collectors.”
Why are you auctioning these items now?
A: “I’ve collected this stuff for over 30 years. I was in college and I lived in the dorm, so I had to put the stuff in storage. Then I was starting my professional career and I had small apartments that weren’t capable of displaying my stuff. So I kept everything in storage and 30 years went by and I’m trying to get my career off of the ground. I finally bought a house and when I tried to put it in my house, I realized that I had too much. I couldn’t do the collection any justice. Meantime, Muhammad Ali passed away and his status as an icon grew even more than just as a boxer. I realized that I wasn’t worthy to keep the collection. So I thought it was best to share it with other fans and other museums and others that will be able to give it the right home.”