Two weeks ago they visited the doctor to see if it was safe for him to travel to the Rose Bowl to watch Ohio State and a very special young woman – their daughter, Ali.
Tom “Ruff House” Fischer, the celebrated Dayton heavyweight boxer of the 1970s and ‘80s – a guy who fought champions Leon Spinks and Michael Dokes and top contenders James “Quick” Tillis, Jimmy Young, Ron Stander and Marvis Frazier among others – has been battling serious heart issues the past three years.
After several procedures to cauterize and electro shock his heart to deal with atrial fibrillation, Fischer – whose heart is now working at just 34 percent – is looking at another surgery in a couple of weeks.
“The nurse said, ‘Reading what I just read, I wouldn’t dare get on a plane!’” Sherrie Fischer, Tom’s wife, said the other day as the couple sat in their Miamisburg home where a bulky Ohio State Cotton Bowl championship ring and a treasured gold pants pin from a Buckeyes’ win over Michigan were displayed on the table in front of them.
“But then the nurse handed the phone to the doctor and he said, ‘How’s he doing Sherrie?’ I said, ‘He gets shortness of breath and tired and it occasionally drags him down, but Tom’s got a theory: “I’m not sitting in a chair. As long as I have options, I’m taking them.’
“That’s the way he’s been his whole life and it’s especially the case when it comes to Ali. With all her successes, the way she makes him feel, he wants to be there for her. That keeps him going.
“And the doctor goes, ‘The way he’s dealing with it, I’m impressed. You know what? Tell Tom to get on that plane and live.’”
Tom wouldn’t have it any other way.
“My heart ain’t gonna stop me,” he said with a boxing-thickened voice that is brightened by his sparking blue eyes that always seem filled with mirth. “With Ali I just feel so proud.”
Ali Fischer is a student athletic trainer for the Ohio State football team and she’s making some history with the Buckeyes who play Washington in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
It’s the first time in the history of the program that OSU has sent just two female student trainers – Ali and Samantha “Sam” Schipfer — to care for the team. In the past it’s usually been two guys or, more recently, a guy and a girl or a collection of people.
But the Buckeyes are not doing this to make some kind of social comment or gender milestone.
Ali has earned her way.
Since coming to Ohio State out of West Carrollton High School, Ali – now a 22-year-old senior – has been on the Dean’s List every semester. She‘s tended to OSU football players for four years – swimmers and track athletes at times, too – and last year she was chosen to give the team one of its final pep talks before it romped over USC in the Cotton Bowl.
With the help of OSU, she also spent last summer – and a regular season game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium – as an intern athletic trainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Along with OSU football, she’s now working with sports teams at Grove City High School, too, and after her May graduation, she’ll head to the University of Oklahoma on a full ride to get her master’s degree while working with Sooners football players.
When he considers all that, Tom said that sense of pride and wonderment he feels as a dad tops anything he experienced during his days under the ring lights in bouts around the world, from South Africa, Las Vegas, Chicago and Detroit to right here at Hara Arena and the Dayton Convention Center.
And while he could stay home and watch the game on TV, it wouldn’t be the same.
“She’s 5-1 ½ and those guys are monsters,” Sherrie said. “All you can see is the ponytail on top of her head. People will text me all the time and say, ‘We just saw Ali. We saw her ponytail!’”
Her height comes as no surprise: Sherrie is 5-2 and Tom is a compact 5-foot-9.
As for their daughter’s first name, that’s left open to interpretation.
“Well, my mom said there was an actress, Ali MacGraw, that’s where she got the name,” Ali said by phone after the Buckeyes’ practice a couple of evenings ago at the StubHub Center just south of Los Angeles. “But my grandmother’s name is Alice and she says it’s from that, too.”
Sherrie said that connection is a natural: “My mother was a nurse in the army and the medical director at General Motors. Ali’s always been intrigued by her, She says, ‘My gosh, Grandma achieved everything she wanted to.’”
But with her dad, Ali said the name has just one meaning:
“In his eyes, it’s Muhammad Ali. He always admired Ali and to this day when he sees me for the first time, he always goes, ‘Ali Boma Ye! …Ali Boma Ye!’”
That was the stirring chant – the most famous one in Ali’s career – that the African people made the high-decibel backdrop to the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle fight between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire.
Strictly translated, “Ali Boma Ye” means “Ali Kill Him”, but in the broader sense it was a chorus of adoration and pride.
It was the African people – like so many others around the world – telling Ali they loved him.
And that’s what it means to Ruff House when he greets his daughter:
“Ali Boma Ye!”
‘A teddy bear’
When she was laid off from her job at Frigidaire in the late ‘80s, Sherrie took a temporary job tending bar at a place in West Carrollton.
“A bunch of guys who knew Tom came in to watch one of his fights in TV,” she said. “When Tom crawled in the ring, I said ‘Gosh, he looks like a mean guy. I wouldn’t want to (tick) that guy off.’ I never dreamed one day we’d be connected.”
As she’d later find out, it was a case of the old saw: You can’t always judge a book by its cover.
There’s no denying Tom – with his shaved head, dark soul patch and muscled, fireplug body — was a menacing, hard-nosed figure. And he backed it up.
Just ask Baker Tinsley, Charlie Johnson, Clyde Mudgett and the 19 others he knocked out in his 36-11 fight career.
And it’s not just his record that tells you that. His face does, too. The scar that creeps up out of his right eyebrow came from a Dokes’ left hook when they brawled on the undercard of the Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes title fight at Caesars Palace in October of 1980.
But then there’s that faint mark outside his left eye. It’s not a souvenir from that bout with Spinks at Cobo Hall in 1985 or Jimmy Young in Vegas in ‘81.
“No, it happened at a bus stop when I was fifth or sixth grade,” Tom laughed. “I was pestering this girl I went to Ascension with and she hit me with her lunch box. Got me good….
‘That’s when I knew I’m a bleeder.”
Better than almost anyone Ali knows the disparate images of her dad.
“People come up to me and say your dad was a mean guy, a good guy, but one tough guy,” she said. “I hear that and think it’s funny ‘cause I look at him as a teddy bear.”
Sherrie saw the same thing many years before when Tom finally came into the bar to eat a salad after a workout. They talked and three days later she said she got a call from him:
“He said I’d really like to sit and have dinner with you,” she remembered. “He took me to La Comedia. That was our first date. It was 31 years ago and we’ve been together since.”
When they first got together, Tom was at the end of his fight career and she made it a point to look out for his well-being.
“He’d go to the gym and fight five or six guys in one night, just trying to help them with their careers,” she said. “He’d say, ‘Go ahead, hit me. Give me your best.’ But by the time we went home, it was like listening to someone speak Russian. His voice was getting thick. Boxing was taking a toll on him and his health was secondary.”
With Sherrie policing him, Tom turned down a low-paying sparring job with Holmes and a George Foreman comeback fight in Kansas where he was being brought in to be an opponent.
But it’s not that he didn’t make a stand before that. Along the way he refused to sign with then powerful promoter, Don King, who was known for the suffocating contracts he had boxers sign.
So instead of Tom, Gerry Cooney got the big money, white-versus-black fight with Holmes in 1982.
When he worked as a sparring partner for Dokes, Tom said one of his guys asked King: “’Why does Cooney get on TV? Tom’s got a better record.’
“And King goes, ‘Let me tell you this. Cooney’s a tall, good-looking man with his mom sitting ringside. Tom is ugly and short.”
Remembering that assessment, Tom laughed: “I was like, ‘Man, Don, thanks a lot.’”
While other guys had the red carpet rolled out for them, Tom was the guy who installed it.
That was his full-time job while boxing. He laid carpet in the Miami Valley.
Years later that work may have something to do with the two hip replacements he’s had to have.
It was during the preliminary checkups for them that his heart problems were diagnosed.
With various procedures and monitoring, Tom has made it to most OSU home games. Sherrie, more of a social butterfly, is friends with several of the parents of Buckeyes players.
Tracy Matthews, the mother of nose tackle Robert Landers from Wayne High School — and Dayton Flyers’ basketball player Trey Landers — is a nurse.
“She calls all the time and checks in on Tom,” Sherrie said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to her from the hospital. She gives her professional opinion on what’s best for Tom. She really cares.”
Through it all – just as he was in his boxing career – Tom remains low key and doesn’t seek attention, but never backs down from a challenge either.
“My dad has been beat up in his life and physically in the ring and I don’t want to get all cheesy with the metaphors, but he always gets up,” Ali said. “My mom’s my rock, but my dad’s my hero.”
Relentless work ethic
Sherrie and Tom — after losing their first son six months into Sherrie’s pregnancy — have had two kids: Hunter and Ali.
“When we decided to have kids, Tom asked for two things,” Sherrie said. “He’s a strong Catholic and wanted them raised in the Catholic church. He also wanted to be able to teach them where the dollar comes from. He wanted them to have a work ethic.”
Ali learned the lessons well.
When an injury ended her middle school soccer career, she was coaxed by a neighbor who was a high school football coach into becoming an athletic trainer for the West Carrollton team.
She did that all four years of high school and a lot of other things, too. She was on the Homecoming court, was the president of the student body her senior year, and was an Honor Society student.
“For me, academics is the way I get to do my job as a trainer,” she said. “No one wants to go to a medical professional who doesn’t know what he or she’s talking about. They don’t want somebody who just got Cs in high school and college. I’d rather go to a professional who got all As and worked her butt off.
“For me, it’s holding myself accountable for what I preach. For me, it’s important to get the academics, then add all the clinical stuff to get experience.
“If I don’t have the knowledge behind it all, then I’m as fake as they come.”
Head coach Urban Meyer and especially former assistant coach Kerry Coombs, now with the Tennessee Titans, as well as the Buckeyes players, all have been impressed by Ali’s relentless work ethic and her unfettered enthusiasm.
It’s why the players voted her pre-bowl speech the best they heard last year. And why everyone made sure she got a team ring and gold pants and why she was the unanimous choice among all the student trainers to accompany the team to California.
“All the things I get, I give to my parents,” Ali said, “They did so much for me. I want to give it back to them.”
Sherrie and Tom – who were scheduled to leave for California early Saturday morning on a special OSU charter flight – know that.
“She keeps saying, ‘All I want to do is make you guys proud,’” Sherrie said. “I tell her, ‘You made us proud the day you were born.’ It’s the same now. We’re as proud of you as we can be.”
And that’s why, soon after that recent doctor’s visit, Sherrie said Tom serenaded her with an old Al Jolson song:
“He started singing, ‘California, here I come…’”
Tom grinned and shook his head: “It wasn’t that clear. It sounded a little more blurred.”
But the meaning of it – that Tom was Rose Bowl bound – was music to their ears.
It sounded great.