1. It’s Saturday, June 4, 2016.
2. It’s the day after the death of Muhammad Ali.
One of the things I tell my Journalism class is that the obituaries of really famous people are prepared far in advance by major news organizations. Generally, these are people who are key figures in the world, who are either advanced in age or ill or both.
Sadly, ever since Parkinson’s disease took control of his body, newspapers and Web sites have been preparing for this day. They did their job well: I’ve included links to four of the many great stories I’ve read so far this morning: Keith Olbermann on ringer.com, Dave Anderson in The New York Times, David Remnick in The New Yorker and Tim Dahlberg for The Associated Press.
3. I especially wanted to see the AP one because it was thanks to my time at that organization that I actually got to see Ali in person. And because Ali’s death stirs warm memories of people in my life, both here and gone.
When I started working as an AP Broadcast sports writer in 1977, Ali was in decline. He was technically still the heavyweight champion, the most coveted prize in boxing. But his skills were clearly declining and the guys I worked with knew it.
Still, we were all shocked when Leon Spinks beat Ali for the title one night in early 1978. Spinks was nowhere near the fighter Ali had been. That was proven when an even older Ali took the title back from him later that year, then retired.
When I finally saw Ali in person, it was 1981, when he was promoting a comeback fight with Trevor Berbick. Ali sat at a table in the front of a hotel ballroom. I was asked by my friend and mentor, the great Marv Schneider, to put a tape recorder on the table in front of Ali.
And so I did. It was a small task, but I was shaking. I was going up to Muhammad Ali.
I stared at him and he stared back with the glare with which he started any news conference. I fumbled around, of course, because I do that with whatever I do, as I put the cassette recorder on the table.
As I looked at him, he looked sternly at me – except that his eyes seemed to smile. Something made me feel better about being near him, as if he was saying to me don’t take this so seriously. With that, I shuffled back to my seat in the back of the room.
Ali was somewhat animated in the news conference and, being that I was seeing Ali, I was impressed.
But Marv, who once told me there were rooms in his house that he had furnished with just the extra money he earned from recording Ali news conferences, didn’t share my enthusiasm. Marv said Ali looked tired and didn’t have nearly the spark he had for all those years. “He ain’t what he used to be,” I can hear Marv say in a voice that anyone who knew him would recognize instantly.
4. Who Ali used to be, and who he was, was something more than your run-of-the-mill fighter. In the ring, he was an artist. He revolutionized his sport by moving around. The rest of the line in his famous “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” poem is “Your hands can’t hit what your eye can’t see.” In his prime, his shuffle made him impossible for the sport’s big punchers to tag him.
Ali made you understand why boxing can be a sport and not just two guys beating each other up. But what it did to him made you realize that, yeah, it is also just two guys beating each other up, and no matter how good you are at it, there’s a physical price to be paid. I saw what happened to Ali and I haven’t watched a fight in a very long time.
It’s unusual to say that a boxer could be influential outside the ring. Having met so many of them, I can vouch that they are, as a class, remarkably polite and thoughtful people. That’s at odds with what they do. Boxing is how they cope with whatever difficulties confronted them in life.
Ali is their inspiration. He didn’t just fight. He stood on principle when it came to his faith. As a young white American, I didn’t understand that at first, and I was part of the jeering section.
5. But because he was willing to pay a price – in his case, losing more than three years in the prime of his career to fight his draft evasion conviction – he made me realize what it means to be true to what you believe.
He became a goodwill ambassador to the world. He promoted peace. He tried to help those in need. His celebrity, built in part by amazing self-promotion, proved to be selfless in its message of helping.
Ali wasn’t a saint. By all accounts, he treated women fairly cavalierly in his youth. He was cruel to his greatest rival, Joe Frazier, who had helped him when he was down. That cruelty perhaps helped make Ali-Frazier one of the greatest rivalries in the history of sports, but that appears to have been small comfort to the proud, and talented, Frazier.
6. But there’s no doubt of Ali’s inspirational powers. It’s why I was so nervous that day 35 years ago when I actually stood within two feet of the man. It’s why my image of him on this day is of that twinkle in his eye and the idea that maybe, just maybe, he understood my being in awe.
He was, after all, The Greatest of All Time. He said so himself.