19 years ago, Muhammad Ali came to Providence – and got free ice cream

Photos: Remembering Muhammad Ali » (AP Photo/John Rooney)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Talk about right place, right time.

Luis Aponte wasn’t yet a member of the Providence City Council in the summer of 1997 when he dropped by the Providence Market at the corner of Broad and Stanwood Streets, a common hangout for Aponte because he liked talking baseball with the owner.

While Aponte was in the store, another man walked in and tried to purchase an ice cream, but a cashier told him, “you’re money isn’t good here, champ. It’s on the house.”

It took a second for Aponte to realize the cashier was talking to Muhammad Ali, the three-time heavyweight boxing champion whose talent, charisma and willingness to take a stand on controversial issues like the Vietnam War made him the most famous athlete of the 20th century.

Ali died on June 3 following a 30-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 74. His official cause of death was septic shock.

Nineteen years earlier, Ali made what would be his final public trip to Rhode Island, first to Pawtucket to visit Habro to discuss an action figure they were making of him and then to Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, according to a report published in the Providence Journal on July 16, 1997.

“I just shook his hand and called him ‘Champ,’” Aponte, who was elected in 1998 and is now the president of the City Council, recalled Monday. He said Ali told his handlers he wanted to visit the poorest neighborhood in Providence to meet people. Within minutes, Aponte said, dozens of residents lined the streets to greet Ali.

A separate report published in the Providence Journal confirms Aponte’s story. Jose Hernandez, who remains the owner of the market, told the Journal, “This is an unbelievable day for me. I will never forget this.”

It is unclear exactly how many times Ali visited the state during his boxing career and after he retired. A search of the Providence Journal archives shows he appeared at an exhibition at the Providence Civic Center in March 1979. He retired from boxing in 1981.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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