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DISCOVERIES

Where have you gone, Mr. Robinson?

Ali opponent's elusive signature would crown fan's collection

HOOKSETT, N.H. -- And here's to you, Jimmy Robinson. Stephen Singer wants you more than you will know. Wo wo wo.

 

Just a simple signature will do. A signed 3-by-5-inch card. Something. Anything. But alas, "it's a cold trail," Singer laments. "I feel incomplete."

Four years ago the task seemed formidable but not impossible. Singer, the 55-year-old president of a successful family-owned southern New Hampshire auto dealership and a serious collector of Muhammad Ali memorabilia, decided he would acquire the autographs of all 50 professional opponents (in 61 fights) of the three-time world heavyweight champion and international icon. His quest for this one-of-a-kind stash led him to boxers, managers, historians, authors, doctors, and hangers-on. He hired, among others, a professional researcher, a private detective, and a South American rabbi. He paid for a signature on a passport, on a fight program, and on a swatch taken from a pair of boxing trunks. He places his total cost for all this at about $35,000.

Singer has now amassed 49 autographs and is currently having them mounted inside two 6-by-4-foot frames that will become the centerpiece of his "Ali Shrine," an area of Merchants Automotive Group accessible only via

combination lock. But he does not have the 50th signature. He does not have "Sweet" Jim Robinson. "I feel incomplete," he says again, sighing.

Ah, Sweet Jim. Let the record show that he was the fourth opponent of then-Cassius Clay when the two boxers met on Feb. 7, 1961, in Convention Hall in Miami Beach. That he was a last-minute substitute for one Willie Gulatt and was fighting in his second professional bout that night. That Clay knocked him out in the first round. That Robinson fought for seven more years while compiling a record of five wins and 23 losses. That he was knocked out 16 times.

And that he and any trace of him have evaporated.

"I guess he was a man of limited skills and education, and that when his boxing career was over he just kind of disappeared into the sunset," Singer theorizes. "He was like hundreds of fighters who look to boxing for the American dream, and when they fall there's no net to catch them. There are lots of Jimmy Robinsons."

Singer initially thought it wouldn't be particularly difficult to find the Alfredo Evangelistas (opponent No. 46), the Tony Espertis (No. 3), and the Rudi Lubberses (No. 39) of Ali's life, or at least to acquire their signatures. Actually, it wasn't difficult for a while. Like many collectors with the financial means, he initially hired someone to acquire the fighters' autographs for him. But even Steve Jackson, a well-known New Jersey dealer in Ali memorabilia, hit a wall at 40 autographs and 2 1/2 years, despite such finds as the signature of Sonny Banks (No. 11) on the fighter's application for a boxing license and a Cleveland Williams (No. 25) autograph on those silver boxing trunks.

"At first, Steve thought the project would be easy," Jackson recalls. "But after a while, he started to get antsy. He finally said, `Let me try myself.' I told him to go ahead. I think now he appreciates what's involved."

For the past 18 months, the hard-driving and competitive Singer has been working the phone, the Internet, and the word processor from what he invariably refers to as the Booming Metropolis of Hookset, N.H. "Boxing is a fraternity," he says, "and I found I had to talk to people in the fraternity." That meant finding and gleaning clues from folks such as Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, his fight doctor, Ferdi Pacheco, and perhaps his most respected biographer, Thomas Hauser.

It also meant tracking down Alvin "Blue" Lewis (No. 35) through a former Michigan boxing commissioner and paying $300 for a signed photo of the poster of the Detroit native's 1972 fight with Ali in Ireland. It meant unearthing a Lubbers signature on a postcard that was owned by a boxing fan in the Netherlands who requested payment of only a Rocky Marciano US postage stamp. It meant finding the late Esperti's daughter in Miami, who, in return for $500, provided Singer with a notarized letter that had been signed by her father.

And especially it meant finding out about Alejandro Lavorante (No. 15), an Argentine who was knocked out by Ali in 1962 and died the following year of injuries sustained in his next fight. After poring over newspaper clippings and even hiring an online researcher, Singer located Lavorante's sister in Argentina, whereupon negotiations for the late boxer's passport eventually involved hiring a rabbi to fly 500 miles to consummate the deal because neither party quite trusted the other. The price: $2,500, the most Singer has paid for a single autograph. He does not feel he overspent. "The passport even includes Lavorante's thumbprint," he marvels.

Meanwhile, Singer refuses to abandon his hunt for Robinson, even though a private investigator has come up dry. Indeed, his display of his 49 autographs will contain a space for the 50th. At one point he was about to close a deal to purchase a Jim Robinson signature in Philadelphia for $300, only to discover that the fighter was "Slim" Jim Robinson, not "Sweet" Jim Robinson.

Despite missing his target, Singer -- who admires Ali for his boxing skills, his humanitarianism, and his convictions, and has met him twice -- says he doesn't regret taking his shot. "I've met and talked to a lot of very interesting people along the way," he muses. Everybody, of course, except Sweet Jim.

"Discoveries" appears on alternate Saturdays. Ideas for subject matter -- unusual people, places, events, etc. -- are welcome. Nathan Cobb can be reached at cobb@globe.com or 617-929-7266.

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