Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Recalling my encounters with Ali

In my nearly four decades as a sports scribe, I’ve been privileged to have met and interviewed the biggest names in sports. Icons such as Mantle and Mays, Unitas and Montana, Chamberlain and Jordan, Howe and Gretzky. But I can honestly say that I’ve never met anyone as charismatic as Muhammad Ali. Whether it was the streets of Sydney, Australia or a packed locker room at Aquinas Institute in Rochester, N.Y., people gravitated to him like paper clips to a magnet.

And during each of my encounters with him, I witnessed his kindness first-hand, particularly here in RahChaCha. It’s difficult to see the way Parkinson’s has ravaged him and it’s hard to fathom that Ali is now – egads – 70 years old.
But his magnetic hold on people endures. As do his acts of kindness.

In honor of his birthday yesterday, I offer an essay I wrote to mark a previous milestone day for him five years ago.


Muhammad Ali motioned for me to join him in the middle of the room. I did so reluctantly, knowing full well he was a prankster and I might be fodder for one of his trademark practical jokes.

The former boxing great had me make a fist with my right hand and place my knuckles against his left cheek as if I had just connected with a knockout punch.

As a photographer was about to snap our picture, Ali feigned fear, acting as if I was Smokin' Joe Frazier. We all started laughing. With that one little gesture, Ali had made me feel like I was the greatest. I discovered that was a feeling Ali engenders in almost everyone he meets.

During that unforgettable night eight years ago in Sydney, Australia, Ali entertained us with magic tricks, levitation acts, poetry and a discussion about religion. Parkinson's syndrome from too many punches to the noggin had quieted his once bombastic voice. But he hadn't lost his ability to communicate. His mind remained sharp, his smile was still infectious, his spirit still playful.

Today, as Ali celebrates his 65th birthday, I can't help but think back to that special night at the 2000 Summer Olympics, as well as the several other nights I was in his presence. I continue to be amazed by the magnetic pull he has on people. It has been fascinating to witness his transformation from pugilist to humanitarian. A quarter century after his last fight, he continues to KO people with kindness.

Rochester is among the places worldwide that have been touched by his big heart.

Who can forget how he saved the Rochester Press-Radio Club's Day of Champions children's charity dinner eight years ago? Remember how then-Yankees pitcher David Wells was supposed to be the headliner, but begged out at the last minute for mysterious personal reasons?

With the dinner ready to thud against the canvas, a la one of Ali's knocked-out opponents, the boxer's longtime friend and photographer, Howard Bingham, put in a call. Ali boarded Kodak's private jet and flew to Rochester to save the day.
His surprise appearance evoked chants of "Ali! Ali! Ali!" from the throng of nearly 1,300 dinner-goers. He donated two autographed boxing gloves that fetched $11,000.

Most headliners charge an arm and a leg to attend the dinner. Not Ali. Not only did he come on extremely short notice, he appeared for free, meaning local charities benefited much more than they would have had Wells shown up.

I saw similar kindness from Ali a few years earlier when he attended the Rochester Boxing Hall of Fame Dinner to raise money for former Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo, who had lost his wife and son to drug overdoses and had fallen on hard emotional and financial times.

And Ali was just as gracious when he came here back in 1994 for the annual Aquinas Institute Mission Bouts.

Though his movements were affected by his condition, the boxing icon still managed to dazzle the kids with his fancy footwork, performing the "Ali Shuffle" in the locker room before the opening bell.

Whether it was Rochester, Australia or Atlanta for the lighting of the 1996 Olympic caldron, he drew crowds and elicited smiles. His charisma was undeniable. He walked into a room and became it. People gravitated to him. The love was palpable and two-way.

I know there are those who don't like him, those who think he was a draft dodger and created a culture of trash talking and disrespect.

But the Ali I've witnessed has been incredibly kind-hearted and giving.

He may no longer float like a butterfly or sting like a bee, but he still knows how to lift spirits. It's been a privilege to experience his kindness first-hand. Happy birthday, Champ.


Max said...

Nice moosetache!

Muhammad Ali said...

You are lucky that he didn't punched you back :)