My unforgettable meeting with Muhammad Ali
The boxer with the famous face, knockout punch and nonstop banter nodded to the seat next to his in a Boise restaurant. I excitedly plopped down.
Muhammad Ali then reached out his hand.
And I shook the hand that knocked George Foreman to the canvass to win the world heavyweight championship as a jubilant crowd in Zaire chanted “Ali! Ali! Ali!”
Twenty-five years ago, I was in Boise covering a state high-school track meet as a sportswriter for the newspaper in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Paul Brown, the son of Bundini Brown, brought the boxing legend to Boise to promote a fight.
What followed was an amazing visit with one of the most famous faces (and mouth's) in sports.
Ali, dressed in black slacks and a loose-fitting white sports shirt, was finishing a late breakfast. I had hoped for a hello and maybe a quick quote or two. Instead, to my delight, I was treated to a 40-minute talk with “The Greatest.”
The ego that once sent him prancing around the ring, arms lifted above his head, shouting, “I'm the greatest!” couldn't refuse an interview with a reporter, even one from a small-town newspaper.
His polite manner invited questions, and I fired away.
Only once, when I asked about his lawsuit against the World boxing Association, did he wave a question off.
“Talk to my lawyers about that,” he said, putting his index finger to his lips as if to hush me.
Ali, who was 45 at the time and looked a little heavy but healthy, talked about the rope-a-dope antics that dethroned Foreman, and about how he lost to age, not the pounding jabs of Trevor Berbick. A scar above his right eye was a reminder of that mistake.
“I had to be convinced,” Ali said about his ill-fated comeback fight against Berbick in 1981. “I thought I could do it.”
Ali's hands, once capable of tattooing an opponent's face, shook that day as he signed autographs. Once he talked in taunts. On this day, he talked in a whisper.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1984, three years before we met. But that didn't stop him from performing several magic tricks for me that special day. First, he put a napkin over the shaker, and when he lifted the napkin, the shaker was gone. Then he made a quarter that I had given him disappear.
“Police! Police!” I joked when my quarter evaporated.
Ali laid a playful right to my jaw.
His grand finale was his elevation trick. Excusing himself from the table, Ali slowly walked down the aisle and stopped. With his back to me, the heels of his black shoes rose two inches above the carpet, giving the illusion of floating. My applause brought a smile to his face.
“Magic is my hobby,” he said as he returned to the table.
Ten admirers asked for his autograph while I sat with him. Never refusing a request, he wrote “To,” waited for their name, then scrawled the person's name. He carefully signed his name underneath, adding a smiley face each time.
One young woman walked up to Ali's table, hugged him and planted a big kiss on his cheek.
“You're even better looking than on TV,” she said.
After chatting 20 minutes, Ali invited me back to his hotel room. He opened a briefcase full of pictures, including snapshots of him with celebrities and shots of two of his seven daughters. He also showed me pictures of him handing out books about his Muslim faith.
Ali told me he didn't watch boxing anymore. “I don't follow it much,” he said. “Michelangelo never went around watching other artists paint.”
He smiled at his joke, nudging me with an elbow. I asked him what interested him. He said religion was his new arena.
“I'm challenging Billy Graham. I'm challenging Oral Roberts,” he said. “I'm challenging all the preachers.”
His voice picked up slightly. His hands began to move.
“I'm challenging the Pope. I'm challenging all religion. I'm going to race with them to see who does the most for their God. I'm going to bring more people to my religion. More than any one person.”
Finished with his challenge, he asked me to read it back to him. After hearing it, he nodded contentedly.
“God has made me the most recognized man on earth,” Ali said. “I'm going to use that.”
Later, Ali pulled out a bag of chocolate-chip cookies with his picture and name on the side of the bag. He dipped his hand into the bag.
“I don't like these,” he said, then dipped his hand into the bag for another. “They aren't any good.”
Ali handed me an unopened bag to take with me. I asked him to autograph it. He did, putting a smiley face by his name.
As I left, he put his hand out and shook mine.
“Do good stuff or I'm going to come and get you,” he said.
A look of mock anger darkened his face as he put his fist to my chin. We both laughed.
Then the door closed and a dream meeting with The Champ came to an end.
Gail Wood is a former sportswriter who worked for The Olympian for 23 years. He is now the sports information director at Saint Martin's University in Lacey.
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