I’m not sure where to begin this story. Maybe in a little country town in New Zealand where a nine-year-old boy receives the cup for “most scientific boxer” in the provincial competition. The dissonant combination of “science” and “boxing” seems weird to him even at that age, all he wants to achieve with the bobbing and the weaving and the left jab is escape to the final bell without harm. The grandfather is chairman of the boxing council and will be until Sonny Banks dies in the ring and even he can’t stand it anymore, it’s a family tradition, more of the baggage that came on the boat with them from Ireland. There is no ducking the obligation to climb in over the ropes and fight like a man no matter how the guts inside rotate from the fear of it, just you and the other skinny kid together but alone in the fight, while the family hoots and hollers ringside, the mother in the big hat, the parish priest the loudest.
Or maybe it begins 10 years later when class at the Catholic boarding school is suspended for the afternoon and radios are suspended by their power cords from dormitory windows so the boys can sit together in the sun on the quad and listen to the commentary beamed in from a town called Lewiston at the other end of the world as Cassius Clay beats the odds and whups a “big ugly bear” called Sonny Liston. The sound of the spectacle confirms that America is a distant fairyland, a magical place you first discovered in the National Geographic at the dentist’s surgery, a place where people sit on their lawnmowers while they cut the grass, where red trucks with wooden sides are crammed with laughing, waving families, where women look as beautiful and elegant in their flowing dresses as the Queen of England herself, a place where black giants become the best boxers in the world.
Or maybe it begins another 10 years later when he strides with unnecessary haste and purpose through Heathrow and enters the TWA business class lounge and drops his briefcase, leather, square, gold clips, on an empty seat by the window and goes to pour himself a bloody mary and find a phone to call the office in Chicago for no real reason other than he gets the same thrill from calling international that he gets watching the earth unfold below from the window seat that his secretary knows now always to get for him. He has become the big man, the man going places, going places fast, and he is completely smitten — with himself. He returns to his seat and takes the Telegraph from the briefcase and sits down and has another sip and suddenly notices that there, right there, Jesus, it’s unbelievable, sitting right opposite him, is the one and only, The Greatest, the heavenly incarnation of the Butterfly and the Bee, Muhammad Ali himself.
I say “good morning” and immediately regret the faux pas, this is the business class lounge, the point is never to acknowledge anybody, even the best-known face on the planet, we are all the same here in our special sanctuary, content and connected and to be left alone please.
“How you doin?” asks Muhammad.
“Great. Thanks. Where you going?”
Huh, I’m on the same flight.”
I go back to the paper. This is a conversation beyond me and I am choking on suppressed platitudes. “I love to watch you fight.” “How will you handle Foreman when they let you fight again?” “That Vietnam thing. That’s impressive.” I will talk too much, too quickly, mainly in the interrogative. I am nervous beyond words. The discrepancy between politeness and prurience is the certain test of good manners, but a chasm stands between the platitudes and a more meaningful exchange and I can’t figure out how to bridge it.
Two enormous, silent killers dressed in impeccable suits stand on either side of him. Kerchiefs and sunglasses and unmistakable attitude. It strikes me as strange that the best boxer of all time might need bodyguards. Then I see why. He is the castle, sure enough and they are the moat and the drawbridge, but they exist not to shield him from danger, but to shield him from admiration.
It is endless, the parade to pay homage. And every time somebody approaches, the bodyguards move forward, just a little, in unison and Muhammad, still sitting, extends a hand, says ‘how you doin?’ and ‘thank you,’ and the encounter is brought to a close. Endless.
“Mr Ali, you’re welcome to board now sir, would you like to come with me?” “Why mam, you’re the prettiest thing in the whole dang airport, I’ll follow you anywhere, let’s go.” He gets up. His bodyguards are taller, bigger, they would diminish him except of course that he’s The Greatest That Has Even Been. I take up position behind him as he makes his way down the corridor in that slow, measured, watchful way of his outside the ring, the suited killers just a step in front. I am perfectly positioned to see what happens what a mother sends her son to him clutching a pencil and a piece of paper for an autograph. The boy is no more than five or six years old but he has recognized Muhammad, for Muhammad is an intergalactic superhero.
Superman snatches the paper and puts it in his pocket. Then he breaks the pencil, hands one half back to the boy and puts the other in his pocket too. He moves on again, expression unchanged, towards the gate. He leaves the boy bewildered, red-faced, close to tears.
“What an asshole,” says a voice beside me. “Can you believe this?” The mother kneels to comfort her son. Our worst fears have been confirmed. All along we’d wondered at the act, laughing along with him despite our doubts as he tormented “that bum Liston” and teased the noble Patterson, calling him “Rabbit,” we even forgave him when he tied up Ernie Terrell in verbal knots then cruelly pulverized him without a trace of mercy. He is an asshole after all. He’d been an asshole all along.
The passage of reaction and mental adjustment is just ending when Muhammad turns around. He is now twenty or thirty feet away from the little boy, to whom he beckons. The boy shakes his head. He beckons again and starts to slowly walk back towards him, taking the piece of paper from his pocket and holding it out to him. With an encouraging pat from his mother the boy, hopeful again, runs forward to him. He reaches up carefully for the paper.
Muhammad whips it away quickly and then slowly offers it again. The boy looks up at him warily but he cannot help himself and reaches up for it again. Muhammad quickly pulls it away and offers it a third time. He has a big grin on his face. The boy tried to snatch it but he’s still not quick enough. Muhammad folds the paper carefully and tucks it into his pocket. Then he crouches down and puts his dukes up. The little boy puts up his dukes, too.
They say that with boxing gloves on, Muhammad’s clenched fists were each a foot wide, and he could flick a jab and return it faster than you could blink an eye. Those fists are now whisking over and around the little boy’s head. Muhammad is in top form, floating like a butterfly, moving, always moving. A huge crowd has formed an impromptu ring, jostling to get a glimpse of the rumble.
After a minute or so Muhammad stops suddenly and gazes up. The boy puts his fists down and follows his gaze. Duped. He is immediately picked up and carried back to his mother. Then he gets his autograph, but by now of course, it doesn’t matter. Now that boy is over 50 years old, and you know he’s still dining out on the story of how he went toe to toe with The Greatest one day long ago in London.
The following Saturday night I’m at the Rosemont in Chicago to watch Marvelous Marvin Hagler defend his world middleweight crown against Mustafa Hamsho. It’s the second round and it’s a heck of a bout, much better than anyone expected. Hagler is clearly surprised by the speed of his opponent and backpedaling furiously, fighting for his life. Suddenly, there is a loud commotion up high in the stadium. The crowd turns from the fight to see what is happening. An impromptu chant begins to rise. “Ali. Ali. Ali.” There stands The Greatest, framed in the light of the doorway as if a godly apparition, arms extended and hands up high in triumphant blessing. Not even Hagler in his prime could compete with a vision like that.
I’m still not sure where to begin this story but I know how to end it. It ends several lifetimes later, in an Atlanta bookstore. Muhammad, now enfeebled by Parkinson’s, is in town promoting his new book. He hasn’t fought a fight for 20 years, but the line to get an autographed copy goes out the door and hundreds of yards down the street. It starts to rain, a doozy of a southern storm, but not one person leaves despite the soaking. I have brought my son and daughter with me. As I finally get to shake his hand I introduce him to the kids and thank him for all he has given me, and I tell him I had the privilege to see him fight what I think was his greatest fight ever, better even than the Thriller in Manila, a grand epic against a little boy one morning a very long time ago at Heathrow Airport.
He gestures that he wants to stand and the killers help him to his feet. And then he hugs us.