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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Some Assembly Required: The Story Behind Mego’s Muhammad Ali Action Figure

Some Assembly Required: The Story Behind Mego’s Muhammad Ali Action Figure

How many of you remember this toy from the 1970s?
Publish Date: 06/05/2021
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

“Pretend you’re having a championship fight. Squeeze the trigger to make them box,” prompts the narrator of a 1976 television commercial advertising the Mego Corporation’s brand new, officially licensed boxing ring playset. Two young boys engage their respective action figures in fisticuffs while their friends look on, no doubt anxiously awaiting their turn. “Pretend you’re in the champ’s corner. You can control all the boxing action. Imagine it’s a knockout and Muhammad Ali’s still the champ!”

For a globally recognized personality who always put himself across as larger than life, and was perceived as being exactly that, seeing Muhammad Ali reduced down to a nine-inch representation made of rubber and plastic resin might have seemed somehow lacking in the appropriate degree of splendor or integrity. And yet, toy visionary Marty Abrams and the talented team at Mego pulled out all the stops with their finely sculpted and fully articulated action figure. As to the toy line’s success, that would be left up to the whims and wallets of the general public.

It has been rightfully pointed out time and again that one of the great things about Ali is that you don’t even need to be a boxing fan to know and appreciate who he is. That’s no less true today than it was back in the mid-1970s when the recently re-crowned heavyweight champion was in the process of transcending the status of sporting legend to become not just a cultural icon, but a name brand. Needless to say, when it came to endorsement opportunities, the results were predictably hit and miss. 

1975 saw the publication of his bestselling memoir called, appropriately enough, The Greatest, and three years later he lent his likeness to DC Comics where he was faithfully rendered by writer and artist extraordinaire Neal Adams in a 72-page one-shot called Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. Contrary to what the title would have you believe, the heavyweight champion and the Man of Steel teamed up to save planet Earth from a hostile alien invasion. It was at this same exact time that Ali’s image adorned aluminum cans filled with the ill-fated Mr. Champ’s Soda (which was available during its short shelf life in orange, grape, papaya, watermelon, and red raspberry flavors) and memorably appeared as a pitchman for D-Con roach repellent. 

In between then, he had invested a reported $12 million in Don King’s misguided attempt at launching a record label and watched his Chicago novelty restaurant Ali’s Trolley—located in the Hyde Park neighborhood, it was shaped and decorated like a railway dining car—go under after only eighteen underwhelming months. This was his second unprofitable venture into the food business, the first being a fleeting affiliation with the Miami-based Champ Burger in 1968.

Not quite five months removed from outlasting his nemesis Smokin’ Joe Frazier in their hellish ‘Thrilla in Manila,’ Ali was sent to San Juan, Puerto Rico where he dispatched battle-tested Belgian Jean Pierre Coopman inside of five rounds. Just three days later, on February 23 to be precise, the globetrotting heavyweight champion found himself in midtown Manhattan. Dressed in a suit and tie, Ali stood behind a podium at the Fifth Avenue Club to conduct a press conference held during a special breakfast sponsored by the Mego Corporation kicking off that day’s festivities at the 1976 New York Toy Fair.

An entrepreneurial couple from Long Island, David and Madeline Abrams established a grassroots toy company in 1954 that they originally called Martin-Howard Corp. after their two sons. The Abrams’ initial goal was no more ambitious than producing “lure” merchandise designed to catch the eye and inspire impulse buys at five and dime stores. However, the Mom and Pop operation gradually began to expand along with the advertising boom and burgeoning toy industry, necessitating a family affair in which the company’s namesakes joined their parents in the manufacturing trenches. 

Marty, as he was and still is known affectionately, graduated business school in 1971 and was handed the keys to the kingdom that had been rechristened Mego in the company’s early days. He pioneered an aggressive and consumer-friendly campaign which would not just rejuvenate but totally restructure Mego while revolutionizing the entire toy business in the process. So much so that he was later bestowed the title of “the father of the modern action figure.”  

It all started with Action Jackson, Mego’s answer to G.I. Joe, the military-themed Hasbro figure that made it socially acceptable for boys to play with “dolls.” The company’s first celebrity figure happened to be a real-life Joe. New York Jets Superbowl-winning quarterback Joe Namath, that is. 

Marty Abrams had gained traction and currency enough by 1974 to outbid upstart competitors Azrak Hamway International at the zero hour for the exclusive rights to manufacture officially licensed Planet of the Apes action figures. This was a very big deal, owing to the popularity of the five feature films (which, by this time were being aired on networks across the country) and the live action television series then in production. This arrangement didn’t legally preclude AHI from making Apes rack toys, nor did it keep them from releasing a line of knock-off Action Apeman figures, a clear violation which called for a cease and desist order from Mego’s copyright lawyers. Planet of the Apes was such a hot commodity that United Manufacturing got in on the simian action behind Mego’s back as well with their bootleg Astro-Apes figures.

Interestingly, when Azrak Hamway won the Universal Monsters property and produced figures of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Creature from the Black Lagoon, Mego repaid the favor for their Apes infraction by putting out a series they called Mad Monsters that included their own alternate versions of all AHI’s creatures but the Gill-Man. Marty was not a toy man to be trifled with. 

Acquiring the Star Trek license for the paltry sum of $5,000 was another massive triumph for Mego in 1974, just as the show was enjoying a revival in acclaim thanks to nationwide syndication and fan conventions after having been unceremoniously canceled after only three seasons. Kids of the 70s like myself not only enjoyed daily accessibility to the series itself, we could recreate scenes from the program in our very own living rooms courtesy of Mego action figures depicting Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, and a Klingon, of course. 

Mego’s bread and butter was unquestionably their World’s Greatest Superheroes line  which was initiated in 1973 and included good guys and villains from both the Marvel and DC universes. To feature the Caped Crusader and his Boy Wonder, Superman and Shazam alongside Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and the Fantastic Four was an ambitious endeavor which seems nearly incomprehensible by today’s standards whereby the two comic book publishing titans can rarely, if ever, be persuaded to play nice together. 

The authentic cloth outfits (even the big, goofy-looking gloves on Batman, Robin, and Aquaman that resembled plastic oven mitts) and cool accessories (such as phasers, communicators, and tricorders for the Star Trek characters, for example) played a great part in the appeal of the Mego figures. As revealed to more than 700 industry insiders and potential buyers at Toy Fair’s 1976 Mego breakfast—in addition to Don King, who has never been known to shy away from a profitable photo opportunity—their Muhammad Ali figure would benefit from the same deluxe treatment, if not better. 

Using a painted and repurposed body left over from their Big Jim toy (a generic Space Leader and Star Commander), Mego’s Ali action figure would come packaged on a clamshelled blister card complete with Everlast trunks, robe, boxing gloves, and sparring headgear. Also included was a trigger mechanism which would clamp around the figure’s waist and snap into its back, allowing the user to activate the champ’s punches.   

In the same way that Mego produced diorama-like environments and playsets that greatly enhanced the sense of enthusiastic make-believe for children dreaming up classic or completely imaginary scenarios in which to place their Batman, Mad Monster, Planet of the Apes and Star Trek figures, consumers could similarly purchase a boxing ring for Muhammad Ali to compete in against a foe which was included at no extra cost, but was also sold separately. 

Identified simply as Opponent, the ancillary figure bore a purposefully uncanny resemblance to Ken Norton. Ali was seven months away, as of Toy Fair, from confronting his two-time adversary at Yankee Stadium in the rubber match of their pugilistic trilogy. Norton had broken Ali’s jaw en route to pounding out a split decision victory in their second bout in 1973 during George Foreman’s reign as heavyweight champion of the world. The following year, Ali rope-a-doped his way to liberating the title from the heavily-favored Foreman in spectacular fashion in the eighth round of their ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire. Mego’s boxing ring playset also came equipped with accessories like stools, water bottles, and spit buckets. “Some assembly required,” the TV commercial gently cautioned kids and adults alike.   

Neil Kublan, Mego’s Vice President of Research and Development at the time, recalled Ali being “one of the most terrific and fascinating persons I ever saw.” When he was done speaking at the press conference, Ali stepped away from the podium and began playing the boxing game with Neil’s eight-year-old son Chris, a memory that will last a lifetime. Especially unforgettable to both Chris and his dad was when the champ informed the media that they would have to wait for him to pose for pictures so that he could give the boy his undivided attention and finish their game. Without question, that’s the Ali we all know and love. “He was on time, professional, a gentleman,” said the elder Kublan. 

Another remarkable feature of the Mego action figures was the attention to detail given to the graphic design elements of the packaging, notably the vibrant and awe-inspiring illustrations on the panels of their superhero, Planet of the Apes and Star Trek blister cards and window boxes. They went for a unique approach when it came to the Ali figure. 

Then-Product Design Manager Vincent Baiera explained the story behind the photo shoot involved in creating a background which would simulate the look of the Ali figure standing in the center of a boxing ring, its right arm raised in apparent victory. “We were all given a half day off and were told to report to the conference room,” Baiera remembers. “They set up the shot with the ropes and the background was stripped in afterwards. It took real talent to do that then before computer graphics and digital imaging. Those were the days.” The Mego employees were situated in such a way as to stand in for the would-be crowd cheering on the champ for his big title fight, and Marty Abrams himself makes a cameo appearance on the package as one of the ringside photographers. 

Riding high on the rollout of their Wizard of Oz line the year before, Abrams divulged during the New York Toy Fair breakfast that the Muhammad Ali figure and playset would be available to retailers by that Bicentennial summer. The other major announcement came in the form of Mego’s Sonny and Cher figures, which prompted the mismatched pair to bring their variety show before an invitation-only gathering at Toy Fair. A subsequent trade ad run by Mego boasted “We’ve Got the Vamp and the Champ” above a picture of the Cher and Ali toys side by side.   

Given Ali’s immense renown and social relevance, it seems inconceivable in hindsight that his action figures would be anything but a huge hit. To everyone’s surprise and regret, it didn’t take long for the Ali figures to wear out their welcome on store shelves. Forlornly dangling from j-pegs unsold, they were subject to drastic price reductions as the holidays approached in a desperate attempt to get them off the racks and into customers’ homes. “I think it had a lot to do with the times,” Neil Kublan offered in a sobering speculation. “White people then did not buy black dolls.” 

Founded in 1968 and operating out of South Central Los Angeles until 1983, the Shindana Toy Company was popular for their line of African American creations, designed specifically for the black community by black toy makers. Shindana offered original action figures such as a secret agent called Slade and an African American business woman known as Career Girl Wanda, baby dolls that had names like Zuri, Little Soft Janie, and Nancy Ponytail, as well as renderings of Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson, Jimmy ‘Dyn-O-Mite’ Walker, ‘Dr. J’ Julius Erving, and O.J. Simpson.

For what it’s worth, Marty Abrams had made a special point of including the Enterprise’s African American Communications Officer, Lt. Nyota Uhura, in Mego’s series of Star Trek figures, not just to capitalize on its Barbie-like marketability but because of what a groundbreaking character Gene Roddenberry had cultivated for Nichelle Nichols to breathe unique life into on the program. Likewise, Mego had previously manufactured an action figured based on Marvel’s black superhero Falcon, who was being given equal billing in a shared monthly title with Captain America at the time.

34-year-old Muhammad Ali successfully defended his world heavyweight championship against Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium that September, albeit by a controversially threadbare decision. In all honesty, it was the opinion of almost everyone watching that Norton had been robbed of certain victory. Nevertheless, hopes were high that repackaging and rereleasing the Mego figure in 1977, as well as throwing a life-size Ali punching bag into the mix, would garner renewed interest. 

Sadly, Abrams’ faith would not be rewarded by consumers, and plans to introduce three new opponents into the Ali toy line were scrapped. Therefore, the only look we will ever get at The Carrot Kid, Battling Ben, or Lightning Lefty is an existing photo teasing the figures’ prototypes which shows the baldheaded Lefty to be none other than Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor in boxing trunks.   

The failure of their Muhammad Ali figure was not the lone disappointment for Mego. In both the figurative and literal sense, the company’s fortunes had begun a slow decline which would only gather momentum in the years ahead. “Star Wars put a dagger in our heart,” related Marty Abrams during the Star Trek episode of the Netflix documentary series The Toys That Made Us which chronicled Mego’s rise and fall.

Because they had established such a harmonious working relationship with 20th Century Fox dating back to the negotiation of their mutually beneficial Planet of the Apes deal, the movie studio gave Mego the rights to first refusal with regard to their new sci-fi offering from the imagination of George Lucas. In a rare moment of shortsightedness that seems astonishing in retrospect, refusal was the exact response that Fox received from Mego. Rather, Abrams and company opted to go all-in on the development and distribution of their Micronauts line.

What began as an in-house interpretation and expansion of the Microman toys from Takara out of Japan, Micronauts proved to be popular with U.S. fans over the next four years for Mego. However, when you contrast the Micronauts modest success against the tens of billions of dollars that Kenner has raked in from the Star Wars franchise (toy sales are believed to be twice the amount of the films’ already staggering box office receipts), you can understand why Marty Abrams finished his earlier thought by lamenting, “We just couldn’t figure out a way to pull the dagger out and heal ourselves.”

If Star Wars was a dagger through Mego’s heart, bankruptcy proceedings and corporate malfeasance were the final nails in its coffin. Declining sales put Mego’s financial books into the red by more than $44 million for the combined years 1980 and ‘81. Worse than that, though, was the disclosure that those very books were being cooked. Charges of misappropriation of funds, defrauding stockholders, and bribery were levied against Marty Abrams, as well as Mego’s former General Counsel, Leonard Siegal.

In September 1982, Abrams was convicted by a jury serving the United States District Court in Manhattan on fifteen counts of wire fraud, one count of obstruction of justice, and one count of filing false federal corporate tax returns. Each count carried a separate five-year maximum sentence. Abrams, who declined to testify on his own behalf, summarily remained free on bail, appealed the decision, had the obstruction charge dropped, and served just four months in prison on the remaining counts.

It took twenty years for Muhammad Ali to reappear in toy stores, this time courtesy of Kenner, Mego’s old Star Wars foil, which produced a series of Ali action figures under its Starting Lineup banner in the late 1990s. A decided improvement over Kenner’s two different four-inch Timeless Legends figures were the pair of window-boxed toys that stood a foot tall. One of these was a great two-pack that had Ali engaged in a side-profile stare down opposite Joe Frazier as the arch rivals touch gloves before going into battle.

Having gone on to invent the Nintendo Power Glove, Abrams managed to amass another small fortune after his abbreviated prison stint and was content to more or less leave his association with the decades-long defunct Mego Corporation in his rearview mirror. That all changed in recent years when a growing number of companies insisted on producing “Mego-like” action figures and brazenly advertising them as such—right down to the eight-inch scale, fourteen points of articulation, and fabric costumes. Some of them came packaged on illustrated blister cards reminiscent of Mego’s glory days. 

This was nothing new, of course, as several fledgling toy manufacturers copied Mego’s recipe for success back in the 70s and 80s. Nevertheless, Marty was persuaded to reclaim his brand and get back into the toy business in partnership with new President Joel Rosenzweig. Hence, in 2018, Mego rose from the dead and re-entered the marketplace with a vengeance.

To those of us now in the autumn of our lives who grew up unwrapping Mego figures on our birthdays and Christmas mornings in the 1970s, this announcement stirred up a tidal wave of nostalgia which swept us off our collective feet. I’m sure I don’t just speak for myself when pondering the fact that merely saying the word “Mego” is more than enough to bring a smile to my face. Holding one of their figures in my hands is pure bliss. The opportunity that we have been given to reconnect with a vital touchstone of our childhoods by way of these weird, wonderful collectibles is something that you can’t put a price tag on. Not that retailers don’t do exactly that, of course.

Figures from recently acquired licenses such as the Universal Monsters, Married With Children, Charmed, The Brady Bunch, and Cheers were introduced to a new generation of toy collectors in the first few waves of Mego’s rebirth. Marty Abrams made sure, however, that obsessive middle-aged nerds like myself were well represented by augmenting these new properties with faces that were fondly familiar. Action Jackson returned, as did Batman, Superman, Fonzie, Spock, Kirk, and KISS, to name a few.

A Legends line was devised that would allow for contemporary celebrity likenesses of old favorites from Mego’s heyday such as Joe Namath and Farrah Fawcett. It goes without saying that no lineup of eight-inch, fully articulated Legends would be complete without what boxing historian, former world title challenger, current trainer of undefeated WBC and IBF light-heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev, and Muhammad Ali superfan John ‘The Iceman’ Scully, refers to as “the greatest action figure of allllllllll times!” And so, Ali was redesigned for distribution by Mego two years after his sad demise.

Although Abrams has recently warmed up to the concept of once again producing vehicles and playsets, to this point of their relaunch Mego has chosen to focus solely on action figures due to modern production costs and the resulting price tag the company would be forced to slap on merchandise in order to turn a profit. With that in mind, there is no boxing ring for the new Ali to shuffle around in and, intuiting that the majority of today’s collectors will opt to keep their toys mint on card as opposed to immediately tearing the blister cards open to liberate the figures from their plastic coffins like we did as kids, gone is the mechanism that triggers the champ’s admittedly mechanical punches.

The 2018 Ali figure does still come with his robe and boxing gloves, in addition to a championship belt fashioned after the Ring magazine strap which is unique to this version. Limited to 10,000 pieces, a gold seal is affixed to the figure’s clamshell that indicates each toy’s numerical order off the assembly line.

It is safe to assume that the poor sales performance of the original Ali in the late 70s accounts for the fact that vintage figures can be found pretty easily and at relatively affordable asking prices on the secondary marketplace these days. You’re likely to pay far more for a first printing of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali in decent condition. Though Mego’s boxing ring and rare Ken Norton “Opponent” figure will cost you a pretty penny, a mint on card Ali will in no way deliver a knockout blow to your bank account. Nevertheless, they remain preciously sought-after reminders of simpler, more carefree times that have long since passed us by. 

Eddie Montalvo, a former amateur fighter who currently serves as executive director of the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame, recalls an Ali Mego figure coming up for auction on the final day of festivities during the 2009 Florida Boxing Hall of Fame inductions. This inspired an animated bidding war between three-division world champion Hector ‘Macho’ Camacho and boxer turned matchmaker Johnny Bos. “Johnny ultimately won, but still gave Macho the Ali figure,” Eddie told me recently. “Long story as to what happened to it afterwards.” 

Isn’t it always? That’s half the fun.  

 

Sources:

Daniel Bates. How Soft Touch Muhammad Ali’s $80 Million Fortune Was Depleted (Daily Mail UK, May 26, 2021)

Marilyn Beck. Muhammad Ali, Inc. (San Francisco Examiner, June 10, 1976)

Chicago Film Archives. Muhammad Ali Restaurant 12/8/10/75 (accessed at http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/collections/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/13248)

Joseph P. Fried. Head of Troubled Mego Is Convicted of Fraud (New York Times, September 2, 1982)

Peter Romeo. Muhammad Ali, Restaurateur (Restaurant Business, June 13, 2016)

Anita Shelton. Toy Makers Aren’t Kidding in Their Marketing Approach (Bradenton Herald, June 6, 1976)

United States of America, Appellee, v. Leonard S. Siegel and Martin B. Abrams, Defendants-appellants, 717 F.2d 9.2d Cir. 1983 (accessed at https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F2/717/9/74734)

1976 Muhammad Ali Toy Commercial (1976, accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hexAqEpaWU)

The Toys That Made Us: Star Trek (Netflix, original airdate May 25, 2018)

boxrec.com

megomuseum.com

twomorrows.com/media/MegoPreview

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