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Local man was Ali’s sparring partner, now battles Alzheimer’s

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The USS Lexington, a World War II aircraft carrier docked in Pensacola, Florida, was packed with a crowd that had come to see the featured boxing match between two heavyweights. Among those in the audience was boxing promoter Don King and other celebrities. The boxers touched gloves, and the fight was on. Round after round, they pummeled each other. The judges reached a decision.

Larry Holmes would remain the champion in a victory over Thomas Prater. This fight, on Jan. 16, 1977, would be one of the 19 losses Prater would endure during his career as a heavyweight boxer and sparring partner to boxing great Muhammad Ali.

Among Prater’s most memorable matches were the bouts he faced in the ring with Ali helping him prepare for fights.

“He used to make me so mad, saying what he would say. But I really liked him,” said Prater, who lives at Harrison Terrace, an American Senior Communities facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Prater battled in nearly 60 professional fights and championship matches. His greatest legacy, however, is probably the influence he had in Indianapolis on young boys he taught to box at St. Rita’s Police Athletic League. The program was operated by Colion “Champ” Chaney, who was also a professional boxer and Indianapolis Police Department officer for nearly 40 years. Chaney was Prater’s first boxing trainer.

“I always wanted to fight,” said Prater. “He’s the one who got me fighting.”

Today, Prater is 64. Whether his memory disability has to do with boxing, like Ali’s Parkinson’s disease, is debatable. But what is certain is Prater gave youth a sense of direction.

Born in Georgia and reared in Belle Glade, Florida, where his family members were migrant workers, Prater moved to Indianapolis, where he met Chaney and Johnnie, the woman who would become his wife. They had four children — two sons and two daughters.

His interest in boxing was shared by his younger cousin, Indianapolis resident J.B. Williamson, who won the world light heavyweight title in 1985 but lost a fight against George Foreman in 1989.

Prater’s stepfather arranged a meeting between him and Angelo Dundee, one of the most noted trainers in boxing who lived in Miami Beach, Florida. Prater was signed on in the early 1970s by Dundee, who was also Ali’s trainer. His fights were promoted by Chris Dundee, Angelo’s brother. While in Miami Beach, Prater lived in the Dundee’s hotel, where other boxers lived.

To train, Prater often ran along the beach, and he frequently swam. “I was always a good swimmer. I loved swimming,” he said.

He traveled around the world to fight, with bouts in South Africa; Columbia, South America; London and many other locations.

He maintained a job outside of the ring, working in the sugar cane fields of Florida. In Indianapolis, he worked for the old American Fletcher National Bank as a custodian. “You had to keep a job to keep money coming in,” he said. “Sometimes you would go awhile without fighting, and I had a wife and kids.”

Sparring with Ali also paid dividends, not just in income but also in boxing technique. “Every time I got into the ring with (Ali), it was a fight. He talked crazy. Boy, he used to make me so mad, but I loved to spar with him,” Prater said.

Prater’s deadly weapon was his right upper cut, he said. “I used to take their heads off with that one.”

Prater ended his career with 39 wins, 19 losses (one of the losses to boxing great Gerry Cooney) and one draw.

Back in Indianapolis, he went to work as a boxing coach at St. Rita’s Police Athletic Club Boxing Program, working with Chaney. Numerous young men participated in the program and came under Prater’s and Chaney’s tutelage.

In Indy, he sparred with light heavyweight champion Marvin Johnson and he helped train his cousin, Williamson.

“Champ Chaney took youth from the inner city, gave them direction and guidance through his boxing program and I was there helping him,” said Prater.

Today, he struggles with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease but maintains an upbeat, positive attitude in life at Harrison Terrace. He lights up when the conversation is about boxing. He looks into the distance and sighs. “I gave it all I had.”

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