Taking on the Champ
How Maryland playwright Bruce Thomas trained for his title match.
by Diana Beechener, Bay Weekly staff writer
You don’t step into the ring without training. You hone your skills, quicken your mind and study your opponent long before the bell rings; then you come out swinging.
That’s how Brooklyn Park resident Bruce Thomas prepared to take on the role of Muhammad Ali in a one-man play. Taking on “The Baddest Man on the Planet” is a title match for Thomas. He could garner rave reviews, or end up KO’d on the stage. As a prizefighter’s son, a karate black belt and a former Ali bodyguard, Thomas has been training for this match for most of his life.
Training Camp: Learning the Ropes
Genetically, Bruce Thomas was ahead of the curve for his role as Muhammad Ali.
“I was like 10 or 11 years old and one of the neighborhood kids and I were riding bikes,” Thomas remembers “He said, ‘you looked like Cassius Clay when you did that!’ From there, I just heard it more.” Thomas’ close-cropped hair, strong jaw and solid build make for a striking resemblance to the icon, who changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammed Ali after his conversion to Islam. That’s the conflict-rich chapter of Ali’s life Thomas has taken for his subject.
Thomas’ prizefighter father, Ralph Thomas, could have given him the further advantage of early boxing lessons and advice if not for his mother.
“She went to a fight, saw my dad get knocked out,” Thomas recalls. “She said that Dad couldn’t box anymore, and she forbade him to teach any of his sons fighting. There’s three boys in the family, and he never taught one of us to throw a single punch.”
Moving from Frederick to District Heights, a D.C. suburb, Thomas wanted self-defense skills. He took up karate and tae kwon do, though his father wrote off the classes as impractical. Throughout high school, he perfected the martial arts, eventually winning his father’s admiration.
“He came to one of my belt awards, and he saw me fight three guys at one time. I could see the new respect he had for it.”
Martial arts didn’t quite substitute for American boxing. Thomas senior encouraged his son’s interest by taking him to see Muhammad Ali at his D.C. training camp. For two years, Thomas and his father stood with the crowds, trying to catch a glimpse of The Greatest leaving camp for the day. During the second year of the father and son’s vigil, Ali’s staff took an interest in the high school senior who looked like a miniature of the man himself.
“That’s when I got in a lot closer with his trainers. They were giving me hand wraps and a bag and stuff like that,” Thomas says. His aspirations surging, he took up boxing to strengthen his hands for tae kwon do, and perhaps to step into a boxing ring.
“When I switched over and got into boxing, I could see the pride in my father,” Thomas says. But mother did know best. “I wasn’t in it that long,” he explains, “because I have hyper-extended shoulders, and my shoulder kept popping out of its socket.” After a year of rest, Thomas helped pay his University of Maryland tuition by teaching karate and boxing fundamentals to kids at the Montgomery County Recreation Department. He abandoned his dream of prizefighting.
Round One: Sizing-Up
The two high school summers spent at the edge of Ali’s training camp were a distant memory to Thomas when, in the late 1980s, he began his career as a model and actor. Thomas was practicing karate and haunting a D.C. gym to keep in shape, but becoming a bodyguard was not in his career plans.
“That kinda just happened; I mean there wasn’t an application,” he says. In his quest to stay in shape, Thomas took on sparring partners and showed off his keen karate. One of his regular partners, Rowesha L. Burruss, worked for Muhammad Ali.
A few minutes of sparring later, Ali’s bodyguard decided to prove himself. Burruss promised Thomas that the next time Ali came to D.C., Thomas would be an assistant bodyguard. Thomas jumped at the offer of a part-time security job that might bring him close to his idol.
Burruss was as good as his word. In D.C.’s storied Watergate Hotel, Thomas was ushered into a room with the world’s greatest boxing legend.
“He just has this air of nobility about him. I mean, he’s humble, but at the same time proud,” recalls Thomas. After a brief introduction, Thomas began his job by following Muhammad Ali into a limousine. He had no idea of where they were headed.
The limo lurched to a stop in the ghetto, and Thomas went to work. “Within seconds of parking the car and him getting out, there’d be hundreds of people around.” Ali greeted the shocked onlookers, shaking hands and signing pictures. Thomas’ job was keeping overzealous fans in check. “One lady just reached over and yanked his face. I could see it bothered him. So that was my body-guarding. I got to swing into action and said, ‘don’t touch the face!’”
Pulling away the hands of aggressive autograph seekers as Ali toured D.C. ghettos was Thomas’ routine. Ali saw these impromptu visits as an obligation to his fans. “Ali said that he liked to go to bad areas because, to them, he’s just something on TV.” Ali greeted his fans in the streets, in neighborhoods that other celebrities wouldn’t drive through, Thomas believes, because “it lets people know that he’s real, that they can touch him. And it can give them hope that they can elevate themselves from where they are.”
Ali was less encouraging when Thomas remarked on their physical similarities.
“Everywhere we started going, people would ask, ‘Are you related? Is he your father?’” Thomas recalls. Dismissing Thomas’ observation, Ali spent the rest of the day informing fans that Bruce Thomas was not his son, his nephew or his cousin.
The champ consulted one final authority for a ruling. Sitting in a Gaithersburg Red Lobster, Ali asked his wife about the so-called “family resemblance.”
“I don’t think she knew the right thing to say; she didn’t want to make him mad,” Thomas says. The matter it appeared, was a split decision.
Thomas took a new image of his idol with him to New York when he moved to continue his acting career. In front of the cameras, posturing and rhyming, Ali was a consummate showman. When the cameras shut down, Ali stayed and spoke to the people. Thomas learned how seriously Ali viewed his job as a role model. “He was one of the people that, after working with him, and on a close level, what I experienced surpassed what his media persona is. He’s a genuinely nice guy.”
Round Two: The Title Match
Bruce Thomas had to fight his way up the rankings in the New York acting circuit. Standing in for Isaac Hayes and playing the inquisitive extra on movie sets paid the bills but didn’t offer a creative challenge. A friend suggested that his insight into Muhammad Ali and experiences with the boxer would be excellent material for a showcase piece. Thomas enrolled in a play-writing class. But before the bell rang, he had to train.
“I took the next two or three years to research. I was traveling up and down the highway,” Thomas says. “I watched all of his fights. Anything I could get my hands on about him.”
When he began to write, Thomas sought a way to show Ali’s vulnerability without seeming presumptive.
“I wanted it to be authentic: his words,” explains Thomas. “It was basically a matter of piecing it together like a puzzle.” His strategy in place, Thomas wrote the play as a one-man show, using Ali’s words during the tumultuous 1960s when he was stripped of his heavyweight championship because he refused to enter military service after his conversion to the Nation of Islam.
“It’s just a little section of his life, and you really get into depth with that. And that’s what this play does, it gets microscopic,” Thomas says.
With the financial backers in place and the material committed to memory, Thomas was in fighting shape. He now asked the champ if he wanted to witness the match or even sponsor the show.
His postcard of inquiry was returned. “Someone wrote on the postcard, ‘NO,’ Thomas says. But then I could see someone else wrote ‘not interested at this time.’ It was nicer, and I could tell that was him.”
A month before the show opened in 1993, Thomas found a way to see Ali. At a New York book signing, Thomas waited in line with fans, as he had in high school, holding the promotional poster for his production. Thomas wasn’t disappointed; Ali seemed excited by his bodyguard’s venture.
“I showed him this poster, and he started saying, ‘let me see you do this, let me see you do this,’” Thomas recalls. Ali spent a few moments running his former hired muscle through boxing forms before signing his poster.
Thomas has framed the poster. In the top corner, a halting cursive declares: To Thomas, from Muhammad Ali. The real one.
The play’s inaugural run received good reviews and generated more interest from The Greatest. Ali’s media team considered using the play. For a year and a half, Thomas and Ali’s staff discussed plans. Maddeningly close to victory, a surprise jab knocked Thomas down.
“In 1995, they told me 20th Century Fox wanted to do a movie on Ali,” Thomas says. Losing his connection to Ali for the second time, Thomas put the play down for the count.
Round Three: The Comeback
Thomas had long since hung up those gloves when he moved to Brooklyn Park. His daughter helped bring Thomas back into the ring. The young singing student at Chesapeake Arts Center needed to miss a class, and Thomas stopped by to inform executive director David Jones.
“A spark in me said, tell him about the play,” Thomas recalls. Jones offered Thomas a rematch at the northern Anne Arundel County arts center.
Thomas called on his old trainer, Baltimore-born director Pietro Piccinini, to get him into fighting shape. They studied tapes of old performances and reworked parts of the production.
“The play has been revised since I first performed it, and I took five percent artistic license, just to make it cohesive,” Thomas says.
The ringside fills on opening night, the audiences filing in to see how Thomas will fair against The Greatest. The house lights dim, and the play begins with a wallop, as the distinct sound of glove meeting heavy bag rings out from the darkness. A top light strikes, and a silhouetted boxer works the bag, landing loud, punishing blows. Thomas, floating like a butterfly, dances into the ring. Will he sting like a bee?
He holds the stage with ease, performing a series of vignettes of turning points in Ali’s life. The audience follows the boxer’s ascent from washing floors to international stardom; then his tumble into infamy for refusing, as a Muslim, to fight in Vietnam.
Thomas inhabits the role of Ali with gusto. Beyond resembling the icon, Thomas displays the ferocity and the insecurities of the fighter. Thomas fluctuates his voice brilliantly, making Ali’s trademark drawl softer and higher pitched during moments when the cameras are off. He infuses Ali with such charm and tenacity that it is sickening to watch his relationships erode as his life crumbles.
Thomas also has a creative stage crew in his corner. The meager set is decorated to full potential. The back of the stage is roped off, literally giving a ringside seat to the audience. Lighting designer Lauren Kolstad cleverly uses flashes of stage lights to create the illusion of cameras at press conferences.
During the press conferences Thomas shines brightest, rhyming and taunting with glee. The play features plenty of politically incorrect language, racial slurs and some cussing. But the play’s themes are smart, and its examination of religious intolerance toward Islam is prescient.
Both Ali and Thomas emerge from the play as victors. Thomas’ heartfelt performance honors his boyhood hero. But the play lacks Ali’s approval, which would have made it a knockout. In the end, the audience is left with the satisfaction of watching an equally matched and exciting bout even if it ends in a split decision.
Rumble Young Man, Rumble: By Bruce Thomas. Directed by Pietro Piccinini. Stage manager: Gary Adamsen. Lighting designer: Lauren Kolstad. Playing thru Oct. 7, 8pm FSa; 3pm Su @ Studio
Theatre, Chesapeake Arts Center, 194 Hammonds Ln., Brooklyn Park. $15: 410-636-6597; www.chesapeakearts.org.