Troy Kinunen didn’t set out to assemble one of the world’s greatest Muhammad Ali collections; far from it. He was once solely a baseball fan, a former Little Leaguer who idolized Ruth, Mantle, Cobb, Gehrig. He coveted their keepsakes, their cards and signatures. But even decades ago, their treasures were out of reach, too expensive for a young man beginning his journey as a collector.
When Kinunen attended a New York sports memorabilia convention in 1988 and bought his first Ali piece – a poster from his Nov. 14, 1966, fight with Cleveland Williams at Houston’s Astrodome – he picked it up only because it was one of the few items he could afford.
“It was colorful, it was cardboard, it was kind of small, and I thought I could display it,” says Kinunen, president and CEO of MEARS Authentications. “And a kind of light bulb went on at that very moment.”
He would spend the next three decades amassing more than 1,600 items tied to the legend of Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali. Things Ali wore and signed during (and often after) his most memorable, immortal and infamous fights –robes, gloves, trunks, even mouthpieces (including the one from The Rumble in the Jungle!) over which he uttered those infinitely quoted taunts and jeers. Every single poster, save for one, displayed in the venues in which those 61 bouts took place. Every ticket and every pass to every bout. And every photo he could find, among them some of the earliest taken of the kid from Kentucky named Cassius.
Here, too, are the seemingly impossible to obtain keepsakes Ali accrued during his sojourn from Golden Gloves great to The Greatest, among them the elaborately embroidered prayer cap gifted to him before 1975’s Thrilla in Manila and the red robe worn before his first fight with Joe Frazier in 1971.
Kinunen’s entire Ali collection is now available to the public for the first time, as this historic assemblage serves as the centerpiece of Heritage Auctions’ July 21-23 Summer Sports Catalog Auction.
“Quite simply, it is the most comprehensive Muhammad Ali collection ever to come to auction,” says Chris Ivy, Director of Sports Auctions at Heritage. “What Troy has done here is tell Ali’s life story with treasures that were present for every bout and every brag and every historic highlight in between. It’s one of the most extraordinary collections we have ever been honored to offer.”
Kinunen will be the first to admit: When he bought that first poster, he knew little about Ali outside of his appearance in ABC’s Wide World of Sports opening sequence and what he’d read in grade-school primers. But in time that flicker grew into an all-consuming flame, beginning with Kinunen’s run-ins with Ali at conventions, where he saw The Champ, slowed by age and Parkinson’s, still interact with fans just as he had decades earlier – posing for photos, sparring and shuffling with the wide-eyed and the awestruck, teasing and taunting everyone like they were Howard Cosell with a mic.
“The lightning bolt hit me, and I was fully dedicated to collecting him,” Kinunen says. “I had never seen anything like that. It was so inspirational, so special, to witness it.”
Soon after Kinunen began taking out classified ads in Louisville, Ken., seeking keepsakes Ali might have given to hometown folks who knew the young Cassius Clay. The result was a goldmine of treasures offered by old friends and acquaintances to whom Ali had given the robe off his back or the gloves off his hands.