‘Champions Forever’ Sigs: Real or Fake?

Boxing fans have read and enjoyed Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Ring in American History, and I know this because I get emails from them. Here’s the latest one, which popped into my email box at KevinNelsonWriter.com just the other day:

“Hi, I have been fascinated by your book. I am inquiring about the poster, “Champions Forever,” signed by five boxing greats. I was offered this signed print and wondered about the likelihood of it being genuine or fake? Kind regards [Name withheld by request].”

The boxing greats (seen above in the signed poster) are, clockwise from bottom right:  Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, and Larry Holmes. All of them were, at one time or another, heavyweight boxing champions of the world. Lots of these posters are available online, and when I clicked over to eBay as research for this post, at least one copy signed by all five men was up for auction.

The last chapters of Operation Bullpen focus on the John Olson-Chuck Wepner counterfeit scheme in which Olson forged Muhammad Ali autographs on a variety of Ali merchandise, including photographs of Ali and Wepner, the now-retired, working class New Jersey pug who battled Ali in a memorable 1975 brawl that may or may not have been the inspiration for the first “Rocky” movie. (Wepner claims it was; Sly Stallone says he created the character from lots of sources.) In any case, Wepner sold forgeries in partnership with Olson, and in 2002 the FBI busted them both. Each received probation for their crimes.

One of the most popular items they scammed people with was the “Champions Forever” poster, which was based on a 1989 video of the same name. Olson, who became a master Ali forger and whose phony Ali sigs are still being sold today as authentic (one of his fakes is below), forged all five of the boxers onto stacks of posters that he printed (he was also a printer, by trade). Then, with Wepner serving as front man and capitalizing on his own real-life boxing cred, they sold hundreds and hundreds of them and made wads of money. When he saw the posters Larry Holmes’s manager said his client’s signature was a clear fake, and Ali’s people were so certain that Wepner was peddling fakes they contacted the FBI to see if they could help bring him down.

So, are the autographs on this “Champions Forever” poster fake or genuine? Well, I’m not an autograph expert and cannot say for certain. But I think you can guess from my response what my opinion is.

Kevin Nelson’s latest writing on forgery, Husband, Father, Forger: The True Story of a Bookselling Scam and How It Saved—and Nearly Ruined—One Man’s Life, will be released this fall.

Ali Forgeries: A Painful Truth

BY KEVIN NELSON
March 3, 2010

The other day I was looking into Muhammad Ali forgeries, and I had a surprising and disturbing revelation. Here is a photo of an authentic Ali signature sent to me by my friend Travis Roste, who runs joeheavyweight.com and wrote the article, “Heavyweight Autographs” in the latest issue of Autograph.

Now, here is a fake Ali signature sent to me by another friend of mine, John Olson, who was the man who forged it. Actually, it might be stretching things a bit to call Olson a friend, although we did speak many times when I was writing Operation Bullpen and I liked him and felt that he was telling me the truth.

Until the FBI busted him, Olson was one of the best and most productive of the Ali forgers, and his work is still available for sale on eBay and the Internet. Of course, other people not connected to Olson are doing the selling now; he left the racket long ago after changing his life. He received probation and cooperated fully with investigators. Anyhow, here is the picture:

Comparing the two, Olson’s Ali is bigger, bolder, and more clearly his name—more representative, in a way, of the larger than life persona of Ali himself. In the real sig, the a of his last name is so small it is almost invisible.

So if you’re an unsuspecting buyer shopping on the Internet, which photo would you choose? Both come with certificates of authenticity, after all, and the fake Ali is almost certainly cheaper too. Apart from issues of authenticity, in terms of the signature and the signature alone, the painful truth is that the forgery is a better consumer product.

If you are curious about the full story of John Olson’s criminal partnership with ex-heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner, and how they went to town forging Ali photos, check out the last chapters of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. You can contact me here.