I once met Muhammad Ali.
We never had a television when I was growing up, but my father—as mild and peaceable and intellectual a gentleman as ever trod on leather—somehow became a big fan of the great Sugar Ray Robinson, with the result that I have a memory of being taken somewhere (my father’s club, a friend’s house, a bar?) to watch Sugar Ray fight. Who would that opponent have been? Based on the timing, it must have been either Jake LaMotta or Rocky Graziano, but time and many years of watching classic old fights on television have conflated many bouts into that one contest watched with my father so long ago.
It doesn’t matter; the damage was done, and I became a boxing fan. Given the constraints of no television and living in Europe for so much of my childhood, all I was really able to follow was the heavyweight division, but I happily read about Joe Louis, Archie Moore (the Mongoose, a compelling nickname to a small boy in love with Rikki-Tikki-Tavi), Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Floyd Patterson, Ingemar Johansson, Sonny Liston…
And then one day a young, handsome Olympic gold medalist burst onto the scene, wild, rebellious, funny, flamboyant, infinitely talented, and like practically everyone else of my generation, I idolized him. I devoured everything I could get my hands on that carried anything about his exploits, primarily the European version of Time, and various newspapers. When we returned to America, I was one of only three boys in my boarding school who listened to the rematch with Sonny Liston, fought up in Lewiston, Maine (Lewiston, Maine?!) and the only one who didn’t chatter mindlessly away during that brief fight.
The thing about Ali was that he fought at a time when there really were giants in the boxing game. If Ali hadn’t ever been born, Sonny Liston, Ernie Shavers, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Henry Cooper, Doug Jones… Anyone of those men might have been dubbed the greatest if Ali had never been born, but he was born, and he beat them all.
I was living on the lower East side in New York, trying to start a career as an actor, in my twenties but looking much younger, when Ali fought The Rumble in Jungle against the clearly unbeatable George Foreman. Think about it: Ali had only recently been beaten by Joe Frazier who had lost in two rounds to the towering and immensely hard-hitting George Foreman; how could Ali possibly hope to beat Foreman? But a friend of mine from acting school, talked me into watching the fight live on big screens in Madison Square Garden. We bought our tickets and settled down in our seats, praying for Ali, but knowing we were praying for the impossible. We were the only white people in our section, and when someone tapped me on the shoulder I turned around and found myself looking at one of the biggest and meanest men I had ever seen in my life.
“White boy,” he said, “Ali loses, you gonna die.”
My heart went into my mouth. “Hey,” I protested, “Come on, I want Ali to win! I’m rooting for him!”
“Don’t matter. He loses, you gonna die.”
It put an extra edge into my prayer. It also inspired me to look for a quick way out when the inevitable occurred.
But the inevitable did not occur. What happened in that ring that night was not so much a display of boxing at its finest, as in the case of the three fights with Joe Frazier, but a display of ring generalship, of psychological warfare, of destroying an opponent mentally as much as physically. Whatever. When it was over, the Garden erupted, all of us screaming and shouting, jumping and whooping, total strangers hugging me. One of them was the mean and threatening giant in the seat behind me. He nearly crushed my ribs and broke my scapulas pounding me on my back in his ecstasy. Then very suddenly his face went back to mean and threatening, he grabbed me by both shoulders and pushed me out to arm’s length away.
“White boy,” he said. “You lucky.”
To this day I’m not entirely sure he was joking, but I remain infinitely grateful to Muhammad Ali.
Fast forward ten or twelve years to Los Angeles. We were filming an episode of Simon & Simon in the exclusive and expensive gated enclave called Freemont Place, within the already exclusive and expensive neighborhood of Hancock Park. I happened to be talking to the location manager and he pointed at a house down the street and said, “Muhammad Ali lives there.”
Wow, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to just see him? But I knew such a thing was unlikely to happen, that he was probably somewhere else, too busy to even appear outside his own house.
I was wrong. Later that day, we were rehearsing a scene right after lunch when someone pointed and yelled, “There’s Ali.”
He was driving a brown convertible Rolls Royce with the top down, with two little girls in the backseat. My normal reaction to the very famous that I greatly admire is to become tongue-tied and awkward, and anything that does make it out of my mouth is vapid and inane, so I have no explanation for what happened next, but without conscious thought or volition I ran across the vast expanse of lawn and down the street after the Rolls, vaguely aware that Mackie was running right behind me.
As the car slowed to turn into the driveway, I yelled, “Hey Champ!”
Immediately the car stopped and Ali got out, looking at me.
“White boy, did you call me ‘tramp’?”
I skidded to a halt.
Fortunately, Mackie was quicker on the uptake than I was. “You don’t see him running do you?”
Ali laughed. He told the little girls to go in the house and turned off the engine of the Rolls, and when he straightened back up he had a fistful of papers in one hand. We shook hands with him and stood chatting as easily and companionably as if the three of us were old friends. What did we talk about? I don’t remember now. I do remember I was stunned at how much bigger he was in person than he looked on television during his boxing career, and I realized his appearance on television was a sort of optical illusion; he was so perfectly proportioned, physically, that many of the men who appeared so much more massive than he were simply just more top-heavy or thick. I remember that at one point he was surprised by some piece of boxing trivia I knew and when I told him I was doing a little boxing myself he immediately squared off as if we were going to spar.
But most of all I remember his niceness. He was funny, he was smart, he charming, he was accessible, but most of all he was just nice. When one of our assistant directors called for us to come back to work, he shifted the papers he held from his right hand to his left, to shake hands with us again and dropped the whole stack. I squatted down to help him gather them up and as we straightened he said, almost apologetically, “These are my girls’ school papers. I save all their school work, save it all in a scrap book.”
And that little comment, spoken with a strange combination of pride and bashfulness, touched me then in ways that I find hard to quantify. It touches me now.
He was the greatest heavyweight at a time when the heavyweight division was filled with greats. He was of course a superlative athlete with matchless speed and reflexes. When Ingmar Johannsen sparred with him while training for the rematch with Floyd Patterson, after one round he told his trainer to get him out of the ring, that he, Johannsen, wanted to spar with someone fast, not with lightening. Ali combined those matchless physical skills with courage, intelligence, and dogged determination, a will to win that sometimes carried him to victory even after his body was spent. Think of the Thriller in Manila.
But what made him so exceptional was that he was able to carry that courage, that intelligence, and that determination outside the ring, to become a hero for so many Americans, black and white, during a troubled period of American history, and later, after his career was over, for so many—in so many ways—suffering from Parkinson’s or poverty.
What made him so exceptional was his niceness.