I met Muhammad Ali for about five seconds. I kissed him on the cheek.
In the 1990s, I saw a crowd at the entrance to Chicago’s Palmer House. An orderly group had lined up to shake the hand of Muhammad Ali. In ill health, he was still huge and handsome, but hunched and silent, and his eyes were blank. When my turn came, how could I have only shaken the hand of that beautiful man?
In 2014 the documentary “I Am Ali” was released. It started with the story of a 12-year-old in Louisville, Kentucky who discovered that his bicycle was stolen. He met Joe Martin, a police officer and boxing coach, who told the angry boy that if he wanted to fight the thief, he’d better learn how to fight. Then there was no stopping the 87-pounder, who arrived early and left late every day learning and practicing.
In 1960, Cassius Marcellus Clay won the light heavyweight Olympics in Rome. Returning home, he trained with Angelo Dundee, who worked with him for years. Clay was his own publicity agent, known as the “Louisville Lip.” “I am the greatest…I’m not conceited. I’m just convinced.”
Clay wore a crown to the ring for a fight in England with the popular Henry Cooper, saying, “I’ll beat him in five.” And he did. In 1964 Clay famously went against undefeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. He was the 7 to 1 underdog. He said he’d beat him in eight. He became the new champion — in eight.
Twenty-four hours after the Liston fight, Clay announced that his name was now Muhammad Ali, the name given to him by his leading teacher, the honorable Elijah Muhammad. He will no longer be known as Cassius Clay, his slave name. Ali subsequently refused the draft for Vietnam, claiming exemption as a minister of the Black Muslim faith. He said that this was an unjust and unholy war, and he would not go 10,000 miles to shoot at brown people who had not done anything against us. As a result, Ali lost his heavyweight title, was fined $10,000 and faced a five-year prison sentence.
Ali was invited to lecture at colleges including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania. “I’m very flattered in coming here,” he said, “because you never could have made me believe it years ago when I got out of high school with a D minus average. And they gave me the ‘minus’ because I won the Olympics.”
In April 1968, advertising man George Lois thought of Muhammad Ali as “martyr,” and dreamed up a St. Sebastian-type cover. Since this was a Christian, it was necessary for Lois to talk to Elijah Muhammad, who agreed to the idea. George Lois has said the cover, with the subhead The Passion of Muhammad Ali, had a huge impact.
In 1971 the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s prison conviction by unanimous vote.
In 1974, Ali met George Foreman, heavyweight champion of the world and seven years younger, in Zaire, Africa, to regain his title in “The Rumble in the Jungle.” The undefeated Foreman was said to be wildly strong and a bully. Ali said he’d go down in the eighth round. Ali got the title back, at age 32, in the eighth round.
In 1978, Ali lost the title to 25-year-old Leon Spinks in a 15-round split decision, but won it back seven months back in a unanimous 15-round decision. Despite a 1979 announcement of retiring from boxing, there were two more ill-fated fights. He was beaten by Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Berbick in 1981. Ali’s record is an astounding 56 wins, five losses and 37 knockouts.
In 1984, Ali was revealed to have Parkinson’s disease. The documentary includes recordings of him with his children, telling them the importance of these tapes, because they’ll want to play them when they’re all grown up. How right he was. Ali was married four times and had seven daughters and two sons.
Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016. I never cried at a documentary before.
Rest in peace, Butterfly and Bee.