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Remembering the greatest of all time

When news broke earlier this month of the death of Muhammad Ali, it came as a shock to Jim and Jan Rossing. They found out the morning after it had happened, along with the rest of the world. But to them, the loss hit close to home.

“Subconsciously, I figured someday we’d see him again,” Jim said.

The Rossings developed a bond with the legendary boxer, and it all started with a lead crystal boxing glove. The couple owns Rossing’s Art and Frame in Hastings. Around the year 2000, they got a call from a company that was looking on behalf of a client for a very specific product: a lead crystal boxing glove. If they could find one, they were told they would get $500. They started looking and eventually found a manufacturer in Austria who makes them. Still not knowing who was behind the request, they sent back as much information as they could.

Later, the Hastings shop got a phone call from Kim Vidt on behalf of Muhammad Ali. When Jim listened to the voice message, he said, there were a couple regulars in the shop at the time who insisted it was all a big joke. When Jim called back and Vidt thanked them for the information they had provided, he knew it was real. It created a ruckus of excitement and media attention.

“With all the excitement we never took the $500,” Jim said.

The connection became the first of many. Ali would go on to order the crystal boxing gloves through Rossing’s Art and Frame, having them create custom etched gifts for his friends and acquaintances. The Rossings recalled etching gifts for Will Smith, Eddie Murphy and more, each with a personal message etched onto a crystal base holding the crystal boxing glove.

And, as the orders continued to come in, Jim found himself talking on the phone with Ali, often bantering back and forth “like brothers do,” Jan said.

“We got into it every two to six weeks for two years,” Jim said.

What they learned was that the “Greatest Of All Time” was more than just a celebrity and great athlete.

“He was an incredible human being,” Jim said. “... Of all the people I’ve met in 45 years of retail, I’ve never met anyone like him.”

He was a person who stood up for whatever he believed in, no matter what, Jim said. He was a star who put himself on a pedestal but then was the first one to jump down from it. He had a deep sense of humor, respected the people around him and had a mind that could outwit anyone.

“He was just a fun guy to be with,” Jim recalled.

The Rossings got to meet Ali in person once, in June of 2001. They had decided to make a custom gift for him, a crystal base etched with the famous photo of Ali standing over Sonny Liston in the ring, Ali’s quote “I shook up the world,” his signature and a crystal globe that spins on a pedestal. A friend convinced them to package the gift in a custom wooden box, which they did. Special Tees in Hastings made a cloth embroidered with “G.O.A.T.” (Greatest Of All Time) to wrap the crystal in and Trophies Plus made up engraved metal plates to go on the box. There are only two such creations in the world: the one they made for Ali and a duplicate that they made for themselves.

When the Rossings called Vidt about sending the piece to Ali, she insisted they bring it in person. They set up a meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Rossings packed up their gift and started driving. Along the way, they read a number of biographical books cover to cover in preparation for meeting the boxing great. When they arrived, they met Ali in the hotel where he was staying. As soon as they walked into the room, Vidt took the digital camera they brought with and gathered the Rossings and Ali together for a photo.

“It was non-stop fun after that,” Jim recalled.

They were greeted with hugs, and Ali performed magic tricks for them. He spent more than 30 minutes convincing them he could levitate, only to lift himself up onto his toes for a few seconds. They talked about Elvis Presley.

“That’s the Muhammad Ali we got to know,” Jim said.

Billy Idol stopped in for a visit, and Ali asked the Rossings permission before inviting the musician up as well.

“This is the time we set aside for you,” is what Jim recalls Ali telling them.

When they finally got around to presenting their gift, Ali told his assistant that he wanted the piece given prime visibility in his museum – in the same spot where his boxing gloves were displayed. The Rossings found out later that the gift found a prominent spot at his home, on a table filled with his favorite objects.

Although they only met Ali once, the Rossings considered him a friend.

“We got to know him extremely well,” Jim said. I miss him.”

Their correspondence ended years ago, but the connection still stood. The way they see it, they’re happy just to have had a chance to get to know Ali.

“There are so many people that he communicates with that we are lucky to have our turn,” Jim said.

To this day, they treasure the gifts he gave them – both those that were physical and the memories he left behind.