When Senior Reporter Paula Phelps was a child in Pittsburgh, she had a friend named Chuck Zivic, whose father, Fritzie, had been welterweight boxing champion of the world. After Zivic's victories, he and Chuck would be driven around town in an open convertible—and Paula would be beside them, or, rather, on the floor beside them.
Paula was a bit shy then, but she's changed. Last week, for example, she sat ringside at the Pipino Cuevas-Thomas Hearns title fight in Detroit (page 46), completely at home amid the crowd and the glitter.
Phelps, who was just 10 when she began attending fights with her father, came to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 1963, three years after she had met the most interesting boxer of her generation, a young man named Cassius Clay. She was at the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville and Clay was telling the crowd how great he was, how he would win a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics and become world champion.
Paula's brother Tony told her, "That guy's going to be someone."
Those Phelpses always did know boxing.
In 1965, after Clay (by then known as Muhammad Ali) had defended the heavyweight title with a one-round knockout of Sonny Liston, Phelps went to interview Liston at his home in Denver, and suddenly found herself the recipient of his famous glare. Phelps was terrified. But then they started talking, and, she says, "He was a pussycat."
Phelps became our regular boxing reporter soon after that. She has met most of the great fighters of the last decade and has sat ringside at more than 200 title fights, including the three in Detroit Saturday night. She also is our specialist in motor sports, as at home in the pits at Indy as she is at ringside.
But even now there are times when it all seems strange to her. She is a lover of the ballet and has an M.A. in English literature from the University of Pittsburgh. When Phelps finished school, what she really wanted to do was write poetry. But a friend arranged an interview with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S chief of reporters at the time, Honor Fitzpatrick, and as Phelps recalls, "I didn't have anything to do that day and I was broke, so I went."
It seemed a strange combination, Phelps and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. She had spent 16 years studying classical piano. But there were sporting and competitive undertones.
Phelps was a good high school basketball player, a 5'2" forward. They called her Pee Wee. During breaks from undergraduate studies at the University of Edinburgh, she rumbled around Europe and North Africa on a motorcycle. Moreover, Phelps has had a lifetime romance with flying; she had her first ride, in a single-engine Cessna, when she was seven, and she got her private pilot's license in 1969. In that same year Paula flew a light plane around the perimeter of the continental U.S. and Alaska.
Three weeks ago Phelps researched the story on ultralight airplanes that appeared in our July 21 issue, but she never did get to pilot one of the ultralights. Seems ol' Pee Wee couldn't reach the foot bar.
UNSHY IN THE PITS, ON THE KEYS, AT RINGSIDE