“Muhammad Ali and the Pinnacle of Confidence,” by Bob Greene. The Wall Street Journal, 6/6/2016.
I once met Muhammad Ali.
Actually, I only saw him. And I am kind of ashamed of the whole episode. I was not cleaver, not engaging, not witty. Not even hospitable. Only surprised.
My flight had just arrived at the Philadelphia Airport, Terminal B where I always seem to arrive. I walked along the pedestrian bridge over the SEPTA rail lines, down the escalator, dragging my wobbly carry-on, turned right to the baggage claim, and there he was, facing me, just standing there like a cardboard cutout with a faintly amused smile, all alone, not moving, not talking. I was the only one who stopped. Other passengers passed right on by.
What was I to do? Mostly, I just stood back and gawked, looking for the TV crew that wasn’t there. I think I took his hand and shook it, but only briefly so I could end this awkward situation for both of us. Apparently, his Super Fly bodyguard had momentarily left him to check on a limo or something (this was before cell phones) and I could see him returning out of the corner of my eye. He did not look friendly. Muhammad seemed amusingly tolerant, but it was hard to tell since he did not move. As I left, I think I babbled something trite, like, “See ya around, Champ.” My only defense is that I was tired from the flight, thinking of getting home, and was taken totally by surprise.
I had followed Ali for almost his entire career. I remember watching with horror his suicidal taunting of the really, really scary Sonny Liston. When he converted to Islam and changed his name, I thought he was disrespecting his family, but he knew his situation better than I did, so I cut him some slack. Then when he refused to be drafted and go to Vietnam, I thought he went too far. If he didn’t go, someone else would be sent in his place. It took me several years to appreciate his explanation of how civil rights, his conversion to Islam, and Vietnam were all interrelated, but learn I did.
I wish my experience was more like the one described in the WSJ article, but that was by a sports writer sitting beside him on an evening flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C.. Ali was only 36, not yet imprisoned by Parkinson’s. And they were not strangers. Greene was on assignment for Esquire magazine to follow Ali for three days. As they came in over the Virginia suburbs, Ali said:
Look at all those lights on all those houses. . . . Do you know I could walk up to any one of those houses, and knock on the door, and they would know me? It’s a funny feeling to look down on the world and know that every person knows me. Sometimes I think about hitchhiking around the world, with no money, and just knocking on a different door every time I needed a meal or a place to sleep. I could do it.
He probably could. I would invite him in. Outlandish? Yes, but that was Ali. And he was right, always right (mostly), I kid you not.