Collecting Cards and Autographs of "The Greatest"
by Kevin Glew
Muhammad Ali once said, "Don't count the days; Make the days count."
It's one of his more underrated quotes, and as we come to grips with his passing, it's a reflection that bears repeating. From his birth in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942, to his last breath in a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, on June 3, 2016, Muhammad Ali made his "days count" like no other athlete before him or any likely to follow.
Widely hailed as the greatest heavyweight boxer in history, Ali was equally gifted outside the ring, as an inspirational voice for social issues, civil rights and peace. And for the past 32 years, he served as a brave face for Parkinson's disease. So it seems fitting that one of the most common adjectives used to describe him in the countless tributes since his death has been "courageous."
On top of fearlessly facing the likes of Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Joe Frazier in the ring, Ali demonstrated courage in his stances against racism and the Vietnam War. In his post-boxing career, he refused to let the disease that was rendering him a shell of his powerful and charismatic former self, turn him into a recluse.
"What I admired about him the most was how he took a stand for what he believed in, and he didn't waver from those beliefs no matter what the consequences were, especially with all that he had to lose - like his freedom and his boxing career," said Brandon Stokley, the former NFL wide receiver who owns the No. 2 and No. 4 Current Finest Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) Master sets on the PSA Set Registry. "You wouldn't see a professional athlete take those kinds of stands nowadays."
And Ali's courage undoubtedly helped him transcend his sport and be named Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Century" in 1999.
"I think he was the most recognizable athlete of all time," said Adam Warshaw, author of America's Great Boxing Cards. "I think he was the greatest celebrity fighter of all time. Everyone who came along after him owes him."
Marc Perna, a long-time boxing card collector and dealer, shares a similar opinion.
"I think you'd probably have to say he's the greatest heavyweight fighter of modern day boxing," he said.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942, he was introduced to boxing when he was 12 years old by a police officer named Joe Martin, who doubled as a trainer. By 1960, he had won gold in the light-heavyweight division at the Olympics in Rome, and less than two months after returning from the Olympics, he defeated Tunney Hunsaker in his first professional fight.
In the ring, Clay became known for his dazzling speed. Outside the ring, he charmed with his wit and rhyming boasts and thrived on playing mind games with his opponents. But it wasn't until February 25, 1964, when a 22-year-old Clay defeated the heavily favored Sonny Liston in six rounds to capture the world heavyweight title, that he truly became a star.
The day after the fight, Clay announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and was rejecting his slave name of "Clay." On March 6, 1964, he revealed that his new name would be Muhammad Ali.
An electrifying figure inside and outside the ring, Ali successfully defended his title against Liston in a rematch on May 25, 1965. The following year, Ali filed for "conscientious objector" status, citing his religious beliefs, and refused to serve for the U.S. military in Vietnam. In April 1967, the U.S. government denied his "conscientious objector" status and he was drafted into the Army. When Ali declined to enlist, he was stripped of his heavyweight title and his boxing license was suspended. He was later convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison, which he would appeal.
His stance on the war made him a divisive figure, but he was steadfast in his position and willing to go to jail for it. Finally, after losing three-and-a-half years in the prime of his boxing career, Ali's boxing license was reinstated on January 27, 1970, and his draft evasion conviction was overturned in July 1971.
Ali was 29 years old when he fought heavyweight champion Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, in what's now known as the "Fight of the Century." Frazier knocked Ali down in the fight, and although Ali did get up, he eventually lost on points. It was Ali's first professional loss.
More than three years later, on October 30, 1974, Ali had another shot at regaining the heavyweight title when he fought the undefeated George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, in the "Rumble in the Jungle" event. Employing a "rope-a-dope" strategy, Ali succeeded in tiring Foreman before he knocked him out in the eighth round to become the world heavyweight champion for a second time.
The ensuing year, Ali fought Frazier again in a bout that has become known as the "Thrilla in Manila." In one of the most brutal and grueling matches in history, the boxers went toe-to-toe for 14 rounds until Frazier couldn't come out of his corner for the 15th round, allowing Ali to retain his title.
"There were two Alis as a boxer: the pre-suspension and the post-suspension," noted Warshaw. "The pre-suspension Ali was just speed. He could move. They always said he had the feet of a welterweight and the hand speed of a lightweight. He could hit you five times before you knew it. The latter [post-suspension] Ali was great at psyching people out, and he also found out, unfortunately for him, that he could take a punch. So his strategy became more about psychological games before the fight and outlasting the other guy in the ring."
The "Thrilla in Manila" would prove to be Ali's last classic performance. In February 1978, he lost his title to Leon Spinks, only to regain it in a rematch six months later. On July 27, 1979, Ali announced his retirement, but he was convinced to come back to face Larry Holmes. Ali, who had already begun to exhibit symptoms of Parkinson's disease, was dominated by Holmes and would later lose to Trevor Berbick in his final fight on December 11, 1981.
Ali remained in the spotlight in his post-boxing career, appearing at countless charitable and humanitarian events. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, but that didn't stop him from appearing in public even after he lost his ability to speak.
Like so many others, Warshaw respected Ali's efforts outside the ring.
"Ali was a very intelligent guy, and I think he turned out to be a much more decent guy than he came off as originally," he said. "But he felt that he had a definite mission in life. It was to live a good life and spread peace, if you will, by being Ali and being nice to his fans. That's why he signed everything and anything all the time."
Because Ali was so accommodating, his autographs are relatively plentiful, but the demand for them still outweighs the supply. On the other hand, surprisingly few American trading cards of Ali were manufactured during his boxing career. Warshaw says this could be because his stance on the Vietnam War and his strong religious beliefs made him a controversial figure in his home country.
Most of Ali's earliest cards were produced in Europe and were issued as promotional items. This has made it difficult for collectors to pinpoint what card should be considered his rookie, and both Stokley and Greg Mosakewicz, owner of the No. 9 Current Finest Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) Master Set on the PSA Set Registry, believe this has likely hindered the value of Ali's cards.
"It's not as defined, so that's why there is such a debate as to what his rookie card truly is," explains Stokley. "When you don't have that one true staple of a rookie card ... it turns the average collector away."
There are, however, still some rare and notable Ali cards that have been produced in and outside the United States. Here's a rundown of 10 of them:
1960 Hemmets Journal Hand Cut #23
Featuring a head-and-shoulders shot of a young Clay, this was part of a four-photo panel that also includes Olympians John Ljunggren, Wilma Rudolph and Harald Nielsen that could have been plucked from a Swedish publication. There are two holes on the left side of the panel so that it could be inserted into a custom binder. The photos flaunt biographical information on their backs. Collectors must cut the Ali photo out of the panel if they want an individual card. PSA grades both the hand cut singles and full panels.
Of the 83 hand cut Clay singles submitted, there have been two PSA MINT 9s and five PSA NM-MT 8s. A PSA NM 7 sold for $1,425 on eBay in February 2016. The highest grade a full panel has received is a PSA EX-MT 6. A PSA GOOD 2 panel fetched $280.99 on eBay in May 2016.
1962 Swedish Rekord Journal Hand-Cut
Part of a two-card panel that also highlights handballer Kjell Jarlenius, this is another tough issue from a Swedish publication. The front features a headshot of a smiling Clay against a blue background, while the back boasts biographical information and room for an autograph.
"There were two cards on the cover of each magazine," noted Warshaw. "They have a dotted line around them to cut them out. They have a bio on the back and they're meant to be cut out. They're strip cards basically."
Of the 48 hand cut Clay cards evaluated, there are four PSA 9s and eight PSA 8s. One PSA 9 commanded $850 on eBay in May 2014. The full panels generally garner a premium. A PSA 8 panel sold for $1,500 on eBay in June 2016.
1964 Chocolates Simon #87
Some rank this Spanish issue as Clay/Ali's rookie card because it's his first factory cut card and it was part of a multi-sport, numbered issue. Inserted with chocolates, it showcases an image of Clay with his mouth open and his right boxing glove raised. Just 10 have been evaluated and the PSA 6 example represents the highest graded copy. A PSA VG 3 sold for $231.28 on eBay in April 2015.
1964 Heinz VEB Eggs Boxing #23
Part of a 25-card Australian issue, this single was unveiled prior to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. This card boasts a horizontal image of Clay in his 1960 Olympics semi-finals match against Australian Tony Madigan. The front of the card says "23. Boxing" rather than Clay's name. The vertical back describes the history of Olympic boxing, as well as Clay's triumphant performance in 1960. The text also encourages collectors to submit a Heinz label to receive an album to glue their cards into. As a result, many of these cards were likely glued into albums. Just nine have been graded by PSA, and the sole PSA 8 represents the highest graded example.
1964 Mac Robertson's Olympic Quiz Card
This was released by Australian confectionary company, Mac Robertson's, as part of a series of 12 promotional trivia cards picturing Olympians from various sports. Measuring 2-1/2" by 3-1/4", the red-bordered front displays the set name at the top above a black-and-white photo of Clay and a trivia question. The back offers the answer to the question, as well as two additional trivia questions and their answers. Stokley owns the sole PSA GEM-MT 10 example, and he ranks it as one of his favorite cards in his collection
"As time goes by, it's going to be harder and harder to find this card in high grade," noted Stokley. "Grading has become so popular now that if you have anything close [to being a high grade], people are getting their cards graded. So if nothing has surfaced yet, you'd think it would be almost impossible to find another PSA 10."
Of the 25 evaluated, there have been one PSA 10 and one PSA 9. A PSA 7 sold for $450 on eBay in February 2016.
1965 Collezioni Lampo I Grandi Campioni #154
This Italian issue is reported to be Clay's first pack-issued, numbered card. The white-bordered front flaunts a photo of Clay against a bright blue background with his Olympic gold medal around his neck. An American shield is positioned on the bottom left while his name, sport and country are indicated on the bottom right. The back is off-white and mostly blank. It offers only the set name, card number and company information. Of the 24 submitted, one PSA 7 and three PSA 6s have been graded. A PSA EX 5 sold for $629 on eBay in October 2014.
1966 Panini Campioni Dello Sport #377
This is from a multi-sport issue that offers 420 stickers from a wide range of sports. The white-bordered front showcases the same photo as his 1965 Collezioni Lampo I Grandi Campioni single surrounded by a thin black frame, with the card number and his name (still Cassius Clay) at the bottom. The back boasts red-and-black text on a white background. These were not peel-off sticker backs, but collectors were encouraged to glue them into albums.
Mosakewicz classifies this as Ali's true rookie card. He says the classic definition of a rookie card has been for it to come from a mainstream issue from a well-known company in a set with other athletes from that same sport and era.
"In my opinion, the  Panini series is the only card that fits those categories," said Mosakewicz. "If you want to have a traditional rookie card, the Panini is the one because it's a company that's still in existence today and has distributed cards for most of the last 40 or 50 years. Plus, he was in that set along with other boxers, track stars and soccer players."
Mosakewicz says there are a number of condition issues with this sticker.
"It's a very flimsy, sticker stock, so they're very prone to bends and creases," he said. "And centering and print dots are also a problem."
Of the 73 submitted, there have been nine PSA 9s and 22 PSA 8s. One PSA 9 sold for $3,875 on eBay in February 2014.
There's also a rarer "Valida" back variation of the Ali. This was a promotional sticker that was reportedly randomly inserted into packs and was designed to be redeemed for prizes. This makes it much rarer than his regular Panini issue.
"They didn't make a lot of the Valida cards to begin with and then some percentage of them were sent back, so they didn't end up staying around in people's collections," explained Mosakewicz. "It's an unknown market for that sticker, but from a scarcity standpoint, they're really, really uncommon."
Just 11 of these have been submitted, and Mosakewicz owns the highest graded example, which is a PSA 7.
1969 Shindana Toys Afro-American History Mystery
Warshaw notes that this is the earliest American Ali card that PSA grades for the Master set. The card comes with rounded corners, and it features a profile headshot of Ali on an off-white background with biographical text and its game value below it.
"It was issued as part of a game set called Afro-American History Mystery," explained Warshaw. "The interesting thing is that the Clay card is a short print."
Warshaw notes that these were issued in a pack "like a traditional deck of cards."
"It was a game pack; it was a quiz," explained Warshaw. "And they were issued before Ali returned to the ring and had his boxing license reinstated."
The text on the card is sympathetic to Ali. One portion reads: "'I am the greatest!' he used to shout. For awhile he was! And then they took his championship away."
"When Ali was reinstated [in 1970], that card became outdated because it just didn't apply anymore," explained Warshaw. "So the first issue of the card, the one that appeared in the [earlier] decks, has a yellow back on it. But when they extended it to a board game with puzzles and a spinner, they reissued the cards with red backs and in a perforated format with no Ali card in it."
Just six of these have been submitted to PSA for grading, with a PSA 9 being the highest example to date.
1983 Topps Greatest Olympians #92
Though it came out after Ali had retired from boxing, this card is significant because it's Ali's first Topps card and it boasts one of the best photos of the champ on a trading card. The horizontal front showcases Ali shouting with his arms raised triumphantly against a sky blue background. The vertical back offers text presented as a newspaper story right after Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) had won gold at the 1960 Olympics. These cards were widely distributed, so they remain relatively affordable even in top grade.
"It's a beautiful card, and it's actually a short print card for that series," noted Mosakewicz. "I opened several cases of the rack packs, which is the only way they came. It's a 99-card set, but the cards are not evenly distributed. There were a handful of cards that were printed less, so if you opened a case, you might get 100 of one card and 40 or 50 of Ali and a few others."
Of the 573 submitted, there have been 21 PSA 10s and 191 PSA 9s. One PSA 10 commanded $110 on eBay in March 2014.
1992 Pro Line Portraits Team NFL Autograph
One of Ali's first certified autograph cards, this unnumbered single was randomly inserted into 1992 NFL Pro Line Football packs. The photo showcases the champ in a Miami Dolphins jacket on the front, while the back contains Ali's autograph situated right over a quote of his. The card also boasts an embossed seal that says "Certified Authentic" with the NFL logo on the bottom right corner. Ali signed a limited number of cards with his birth name "Cassius Clay" and these generate a significant premium. An ungraded card signed "Cassius Clay" commanded $482.77 on eBay in June 2016.
1992 Classic World Class Athletes Autograph #34
This card flaunts an excellent full-length photo of Ali in the ring after delivering a punch. Ali's name, the card company branding and the set name run up the right side of the black-bordered fronts. There are three different versions of this autograph card: a regular version that's not numbered, a second version that's hand numbered out of 2,500 on the card front and a third version that's inscribed "1964 TKO" and is numbered out of 250 on the back. Only the unnumbered autograph version is required for the Master Set.
The backs of the certified autograph cards are white and offer text that reads, "Congratulations! You have just received this extremely Limited Classic Autograph Card."
A PSA/DNA certified example of the regular autographed version sold for $599.99 on eBay in June 2016.
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"The Greatest" and His Autographs - From Clay to Ali
While Muhammad Ali is certainly the more popular name that the cultural icon used during his ascent to glory, there is no doubt that Cassius Clay signatures are clearly the tougher of the two autographs for collectors to obtain. This version of the legend's autograph certainly sells for a premium when it appears in the marketplace. Long after the name change was official, Ali would sign his original name for fans and autograph seekers once in a while, but he preferred to sign "Muhammad Ali" during the 1980s and 1990s.
Early on, prior to being diagnosed with Parkinson's in the mid-1980s, his signature was very stylish and legible. As his condition worsened over time, Ali's ability to sign his name legibly declined. Throughout his physical decline, Ali remained active as a signer and continued to engage with the public, which is one of the former champion's endearing qualities. While others would shy away from the spotlight when dealing with such a debilitating affliction, Ali was unafraid to show people his fragile state. No matter what was happening to him physically, Ali's spirit remained strong.
When Ali kept signing into the 2000s, his signature became more abbreviated and illegible. Fortunately, Ali did participate in a number of witnessed signings during this time. Even though his autograph had grown weaker over time, having these signatures certified "in the presence" gives the buyer peace of mind since Ali autographs that date to this period can be tricky to authenticate compared to his earlier signature. During the post-1990 period, Ali also signed for some nationally-recognized hobby companies such as Upper Deck Authenticated and TRISTAR Productions.
For more information on Muhammad Ali trading cards and autographs, please visit http://www.PSAcard.com/facts.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to Greg Mosakewicz for providing cards for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of June 2016.
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