Brush with Greatness — My Muhammad Ali Story

I saw The Greatest Of All Time in 1992, when he was sitting ringside at a professional boxing show in The Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan. Working for the State of Michigan as a Boxing Inspector, I was assigned to monitor that evening’s competition. On top of organizing the weigh-ins and pre-fight physicals, I was responsible for working one of the corners and keeping a watchful eye over the activities of the boxer and his cornermen between rounds. I sat two seats away from Ali while the rounds were in progress and eventually mustered the courage to ask one of his assistants if he’d ask Ali to sign a Ring Magazine I just “happened” to have with me. The man gladly obliged, took the magazine, leaned over to Muhammad and asked him to autograph it for me. He told him my name was Brian. He reached for the magazine and placed it in his lap. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984, and his condition had slowly but steadily worsened by the time I met him that night. I watched as he signed and his grip on the pen was tight but unsteady. He slowly and methodically worked to write, “To Brian, Muhammad Ali” and it took several minutes for him to finish. As he handed the magazine back to his assistant he and I made eye contact. I smiled and mouthed “Thank You.” He looked at me, face unchanged, eyes unwavering, nodded slightly and then turned back to catch up on the action in the ring.

When the show ended Ali and his three-man entourage began to make their way from ringside to the bowels of the arena where a limousine waited in the loading dock area near the dressing rooms. I walked alongside Muhammad as we waded our way through a crowd of adoring fans who rushed forward to get a look at The Greatest of All Time. I placed my hand gently on his back as we moved through the crowd and I remember thinking, holy shit, I’m touching Muhammad Ali. Between the number of people moving towards him and his slow gait it took about fifteen minutes for us to move from ringside to the back. All the while I watched and studied the faces of the fans who smiled, waved, yelled, shouted, and moved as close as they could to see their hero. It was an amazing sight to behold. I was walking behind Muhammad Ali, the one and only, the greatest boxer who ever lived, and easily one of the most famous men in the world. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. As he climbed into his limo I called my girlfriend Mary Beth from a nearby pay phone (remember those things?) and breathlessly told her I was fifty feet away from Muhammad Ali! Mary Beth doesn’t follow sports, and knows very little about boxing, but she knows who Ali is — there’s very few people on the planet who don’t . She was amused over my excited chatter but she understood. This morning Mary Beth (now my wife of over 20 years) told me she was sorry he died and that she knew he meant a lot to me. That was very kind of her.

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