Grand Rapids man mourns loss of longtime friend Muhammad Ali

Posted at 11:03 PM, Jun 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-04 23:04:05-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The world is mourning the loss of the man simply known as 'The Greatest'.Muhammad Ali lost his 32 year battle with Parkinson's Disease on Friday, but the death of the three-time heavyweight world champion hits a lot closer to home for one West Michigan man.

Tom Niewiek, a Grand Rapids native, said Muhammad Ali was like his 'brother from another mother'. The pair had known each other since they met at an airport in Louisville in 1966 and have been friends ever since.

FOX 17 spoke with Niewiek on Saturday who shared stories about the boxing legend and shed some light on the side of Ali the public didn't get to see.

"I knew it was coming, but it broke my heart" Niewiek said. "It was hard, but I knew it was coming, it wasn't like a car accident."

"I met him at an airport" Niewiek explained. "I just sat down and he was sitting there and we got to talking and I didn't really even recognize him, you know? I talked to him for about 20 minutes and he said 'Do you know who I am?' I said 'Well, no.' We've been good buddies ever since."

Ali would fly Niewiek all over the country to watch him fight.

"I sat in the front row of San Diego when Ken Norton broke his nose" Niewiek said. "He hit him so hard. A normal fighter would've just cringed. Ali knew he was in trouble and what did he do, he laughed at Norton.”

Niewiek, a car salesman, would later sell Ali a black 1956 T-Bird in 1973, despite telling him he wouldn't fit in the car.

"In early 1973 he called me one day and said 'I want a 56 T-Bird.' He'd come up to get it and I said 'Muhammad you're not going to fit in this car, the cars are small', and he said 'I want one and that's that.' He finally got in it and he looked like a Great Dane in a birdcage."

The man known as the greatest boxer of all time, a man who laughed in the face of his opponents, apparently had one weakness.

"I know he didn't like mice" Niewiek said. "He hated mice, he was scared to death of them."

Niewiek says he and Ali would call each other every year on their birthdays to catch up. He last spoke to Ali in January and could tell the athlete's health was rapidly declining.

"I guess we had a relationship because I didn't go 'Wow you're Muhammad Ali' and he didn't go 'Wow you're a car salesman in Michigan.' We were just friends because we were friends, no matter who he was or who I was. He will go down in history and already is known as the greatest fighter ever. Nobody will compare with him or compete with him."