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Family Lore Fact-Check: Finding The Teen Muhammad Ali 'Boxed Along The Way'

Miriam Colvin's podcast "<a href="https://soundcloud.com/miriam-colvin/competition-with-the-best">Competition With The Best</a>" was one of two grand prize winners in the college edition of NPR's Student Podcast Challenge. [Elissa Nadworny / NPR]
Miriam Colvin's podcast "Competition With The Best" was one of two grand prize winners in the college edition of NPR's Student Podcast Challenge.

Every family has that story you've heard a thousand times. It's swapped at family reunions, over holidays or at birthday parties. Sometimes the edges change, or details get added, but the shape of the story is always there — that one persistent detail that always gets the reaction.

For Miriam Colvin, the story was about a boxing match: A young farm boy from Indiana facing off against a 14-year-old kid from Kentucky. There was a broken three-legged stool. The farm boy was wearing swim trunks and a tank top. Or was it tights and military boots? The details weren't the point. The point was that the scrawny 14-year-old — who beat the farm boy to a pulp — was named Cassius Clay.

"I didn't know if it was just some big joke or something," says Colvin, a freshman at Penn State University. She's heard this story dozens of times from her grandfather, usually sitting around the kitchen table at Christmas dinners. "You hear about Muhammad Ali. You don't hear about all these crazy people that he's boxed along the way." She was intent on finding out if the story was indeed true.

So begins Colvin's podcast " Competition With The Best," one of two grand prize winners in NPR's Student Podcast Challenge.

First on Colvin's agenda: fact-checking. She says she used Cassius Clay's age in the story (14) to figure out that the match would have taken place in the mid-1950s. Then she found archival documents that confirmed Clay participated in amateur fights around that time.

Next, Colvin conducted a few interviews. Her grandfather, Larry Paris, was her original source for the story. He knew the story from hearing it so many times over the years — but he didn't actually see the fight. He got the story from his good friend Carl Huber, who was there on the day of the match. Colvin interviewed them both, and she had a million questions.

How old were you? Who drove to the match? What happened there? What was the competition called? How did it all start?

Here's the story she got:

Her grandfather was best friends with Huber and his brother, who both lived on their family farm in Starlight, Ind. Growing up, Paris and the brothers would throw parties, and get into trouble around their small town. They passed the time playing basketball in the Hubers' barn, using peach baskets as hoops. One day, basketball wasn't exciting enough, so they turned the barn into a local boxing ring. It wasn't much, but week after week one kid kept winning. His name was Crummy Lynch.

"He was the tough guy, you know, he'd always beat the heck out of everybody," Colvin's grandfather says in the podcast.

This emergence of Crummy Lynch — or Crum, as they called him — as the story's main character came as a surprise to Covlin. "We always thought that our grandpa was the one that fought,"she explains. "And then we found out, no, it was this guy named Crum."

Back in the 1950s and '60s, the NBC affiliate in Louisville, Ky., WAVE, produced a show that aired on Saturday nights called Tomorrow's Champions, where future boxing stars could get their start. The show was open to amateur boxers from all over the U.S. Back in Indiana, the Huber brothers and their friends felt they had a star in Crummy Lynch — and what better way to start his career than to get him on TV.

So the brothers loaded Crum into their pick-up truck and headed for Kentucky. At that point in his career, Crum had beat every guy in Starlight. The promise of a professional career lay ahead. When they found out he was fighting a 14-year-old, the group assumed Crum had the match in the bag.

"Our game plan was not to take him out in the first round or two," explains Carl Huber, one of the brothers who was there for the fight. "We should take him out in the third round because we need to get air time, we want to be on TV!"

Both fighters entered the ring. In Crum's corner, the Huber brothers huddled around their fighter's three-legged stool. In the other, Crum's teenage opponent, sporting a hooded cloak, paced back and forth. When the announcer said Crum's name, there were just a handful of claps. And then he announced the name of that scrawny teen: Cassius Clay. And the place erupted.

Of course, the match didn't go as planned, although Crum did get some hits in. And that three-legged stool? During an early round, one of the legs broke when Crum sat in it. Carl Huber spent the rest of the match holding the stool up.

Ultimately the outcome was always the way Colvin had heard it: Crum got crushed.

Clay would go on to change his name to Muhammad Ali and become " the greatest" athlete of the boxing world. Crum would leave the building with his face looking like "a bag of doorknobs," as Carl Huber put it.

Colvin had heard this story in pieces over the years, but she says hearing the story in full solidified it in a new way. Still, in her interviews, done over video chat, Colvin's grandfather and Carl Huber disagreed over some details. The big contention: What was Crummy Lynch wearing?

Her grandfather, Larry Paris, remembers swim trunks and a tank top. Carl Huber swears it was tights and military boots.

When Colvin interviewed Huber, her grandfather was listening in. "He kept being like, 'Carl, that was wrong!' " Colvin says. "I was kind of like, 'Hey, guys, stop fighting. Let's keep it cool.' I loved hearing them bicker back and forth about what was the true story when one of them was actually there and one of them wasn't. But I think Carl trumped whatever [my grandfather] tried to argue with because Carl was there. He gets the final say."

In many ways, Colvin's podcast is an oral history. Her grandfather is getting older, and so is Carl Huber. By recording the family story, it can live on for many other families.

The podcast even made it to a long forgotten friend: the farm boy fighter from Indiana, Crummy Lynch. Turns out, Crummy Lynch is alive.

Colvin plans to interview him next.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.