Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Greatest

Happy 70th Birthday to Muhammed Ali.  Here's an excerpt from from a memoir project I've been working on with my Dad.  Interestingly, he's had several encounters with Mr Clay / Ali.

....On one such business trip, my manager and I were traveling in first class and our seats happened to be right behind a very familiar face - the great boxer Muhammad Ali.  I'd always assumed that most celebrities fly first class to be left alone.  However, only a few minutes after we were airborne, "The Greatest" turned around and asked us if we wanted to hear some of his poems - a hilarious question from a guy that was known to everyone!  Here was the former heavyweight champion on his way to recapturing his title and suddenly was kneeling on his seat to face us, reciting his poetry.  He entertained us for a long time with all kinds of other crazy stuff - more poems, predictions of greatness to come, and exactly how he was going to knock out his opponents to regain his heavyweight crown.  Eventually, he moved to the tourist class behind us where he did the same thing for the passengers there. 

Interestingly, this was not my first run-in with the boxer.  A few years earlier, when he was not yet champion and still went by Cassius Clay, I had seen his big bus outside a restaurant/bar in Sacramento.  Naturally, I wanted to see him, and needed to make a visit to the restroom anyway.  Once inside the restaurant, I did not see any sign of him and assumed he had left.  But on the way into the men's room I literally crashed into him as he was leaving.  He was huge and all muscle, and knocked the wind out of me.  He gently apologized for the inadvertent collision and went back to entertaining the bar patrons. 

I was to see Ali one more time, many years past his boxing prime. He had been secretly chosen to be the torch bearer to light the Olympic flame at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games of 1996 in Atlanta.  He stood just thirty feet from our section and my wife, Evelyn and I watched as this now weakened and ill athlete struggled to control his shaking hands to lift the torch that would light the massive Olympic flame.  The occasion was so sad, but also strangely encouraging and undoubtedly unforgettable for the eighty-thousand people there to witness it, along with millions watching around the globe.