“Salaam ’alaikum brother Michael! I’m comin’ to see you in Bardstown. I want you to make dinner for me in your home.”
I easily recognized the husky voice on the phone; it was Muhammad Ali, whom I’d gotten to know around a month before. It was two in the afternoon. “I’ll be there at five,” he declared. “I want you to invite all the children of the city to meet me in your yard.”
Bardstown, my hometown of 6,000 inhabitants, is around 45 minutes south of the Louisville, Kentucky, home of Ali’s mother, Odessa Clay, where he was staying.
I ran to the street and accosted three boys on bikes. “Tell all your friends that Muhammad Ali will be in my yard at five!” I commanded them. They did their job; within a couple of hours close to 300 children were milling around my house, spilling into the side street next to it.
On schedule, Ali’s ivory-colored Winnebago appeared in the distance. Behind the wheel and accompanied by his younger brother Rahman, Ali pulled up to the curb as the children shirked away, awed as if expecting a divine apparition.
Ali stepped out, smiled, and immediately did a few of his magic tricks, making a handkerchief appear, disappear, and change colors. The ice was broken, and the Champ spent the next hour and a half standing in the sea of children, laughing and mock-boxing with them, signing autographs, and doing his favorite magic tricks.
While Ali was still with the children, a young woman walked up and breathlessly announced, “The mayor would like to offer you the keys to the city!”
Ali politely asked, “Is your boss a black man?” When she responded negatively, Ali demurred: “I don’t mean any disrespect, but I came here to see my friend and his friends, and meet the children of your beautiful city. But when you elect an African-American mayor, I will come back.”
We had met a few weeks earlier, thanks to an introduction from Louisville radio legend Milton Metz, when I was seeking the Champ’s endorsement for a project I had founded to promote a better image of Africa, a continent we both loved.
Like many Kentuckians, I had followed his career from the very beginning, as “the Louisville Lip” metamorphosed from a Golden Gloves and Olympic champion into the controversial figure who brashly boasted how he would batter his opponents, embraced the Nation of Islam and refused to be inducted into the military. I had listened to almost every one of his fights on live radio. Like the children in my yard, I was awed before meeting him.
And yet, Ali was not a celebrity who created barriers. He told me, “Anyone who knocks at my door is my brother or sister.” Over the next weeks, he and I saw each other on numerous occasions. We took morning walks, rode around town in his Winnebago, talked about life and Africa, and went on little adventures.
For me, it was a privileged moment; the outside world seemed to be ignoring him while he was visiting his mother Odessa inside her unpretentious working-class bungalow. It was far enough removed from his boxing career for the luster to have faded, and it was before the ravages of Parkinson’s made it excruciating for him to speak—during which time the world grew more affectionate towards him, and his entourage more shielding.
Other than Rahman, whom I rarely saw, there was no entourage during those weeks I knew Ali best. There were few visiting dignitaries or fans. Everywhere we went together, it was only him and me—although he graciously accepted the few times I brought a friend over to meet him, and offered boisterous rides in his beloved Winnebago to my two children.
Our conversations were often about Africa. He expressed a deep affection for its people, and held the conviction that they, not leaders, would lift the continent into the developed world.
“Let’s call an African!” became a little game we played. He would ask me to phone one of my African friends—“just the everyday folk,” he requested. The first was a secretary in Ivory Coast who I knew spoke English. “Are you my fan in Africa?” asked Ali, chuckling. Dumbfounded, she replied, “Oh yes, we all are!” They had an exchange punctuated with laughter. Putting down the phone, Ali looked up at me and shook his head: “Wow, she’s all the way in Africa!”
As with his impromptu visit to Bardstown, Ali enjoyed spontaneity. One evening, he had to pick up his daughter Laila at the downtown Greyhound Bus Station, and asked me to tag along. “Let’s see how long it takes before people recognize me,” he said mischievously.
Parking his Winnebago out of sight, we walked into the stark, smoky hall and stood in line together at the cafeteria. Surely no one there expected the arrival of such a celebrity, because none of the food servers even blinked an eye! Ali seemed gleeful with his ruse, and together we sat down to eat at a corner table. It took around ten more minutes before someone approached me, to ask, “Is that Muhammad Ali?” Ali stood up, bit down on his lower lip as if fuming, and playfully raised his fists. Soon he was signing autographs for anyone who approached.
Several times Ali and I took morning walks together; it was during these moments that we had the deepest conversations.
What still amazes me today is how he took his physical decline in stride. Contrary to lamenting his condition, he accepted it gracefully. On our first walk, he mused poetically, “I used to run 10 miles to train, and it caused me pain. Now I can only walk a mile, and it gives me a smile.”
Islam was a favorite topic during these walks. On returning home he would tell Odessa, “Allah has blessed me to have such a mother!” Mrs. Clay later confided to me, “Indeed he is blessed. Who else would have washed his underwear for him all these years?!”
Ali enjoyed taking me into a white van parked near his home, where he maintained a stock of pamphlets that he handed out to teach people about his faith. “Brother Michael,” he said, “Allah created all things, so I believe he created our differences. There’s truth in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, all religions. But I believe Islam is the way for the oppressed.”
On one walk we spoke about boxing. He seemed happy enough to talk about it, but it appeared to me that he had put that part of his life into the past. Ali, as he had in his youth, thrived in the present moment.
I asked him if he still felt he was the “greatest of all time.” He replied that he wasn’t sure how he would fare against Mike Tyson. “Mike’s a murderer in the ring,” he said.
I asked him about his contentious behavior before fights, when he would often belittle his opponents. “Lots of show to hook the audience. Lots of me talking to me. And lots of me tellin’ the truth so everybody gets it,” he responded wryly.
In early April I instigated what I believe was Muhammad Ali’s last fight inside the ring—more than six years after his last professional fight.
This particular day, Ali invited me to accompany him to a fundraising event for the proposed Muhammad Ali Museum in downtown Louisville. Inside the museum, dotted with totem-like trophies and self-congratulatory dignitaries who for the most part seemed unsure of how to approach Ali, stood a brand new full-size boxing ring in need of a cheering crowd that would initiate it.
A young man full of hubris, from the University of Louisville boxing team, wouldn’t stop hectoring Ali: “You ain’t so tough, get into that ring and I’ll whup ya up!” he taunted. Upset at this insulting behavior, I turned to Ali and said, “Do you think you could teach this ass a lesson?” Ali responded, “Let’s find some gloves.”
A few minutes later the card was set. We recruited a retired referee from the crowd. Ali removed his shirt and stepped into the ring. His adversary was beginning to look a little sheepish.
To the delight of the onlookers, Ali shuffled his feet once and donned his gloves. Over the next two minutes the youngster tried to land several punches and Ali parried them all. Then he threw his only punch, a right hand to the young man’s stomach. The kid looked stunned and raised his hands in defeat.
Exiting between the ropes, Ali pulled me aside, whispering smugly, “That young fool couldn’t touch me.” Then, more reflectively, “I’ll never step into the ring again. It’s another life.”
There was no note of regret, only the understanding that he had moved on. I felt he was totally at peace with that declaration.
As spring turned to summer, my singular moments with Ali ended almost as quickly as they had begun, when he left to rejoin his wife Lonnie and his entourage. Although I met him at later points, it was never again under such intimate circumstances. However, wherever I travelled thereafter, even in the furthest reaches of deserts and jungles, people wanted to hear my simple stories about him. Not only was he the most famous person in the world, he was the most beloved.
This Friday my friend will be laid to rest; the flags of Kentucky will be at half-mast. I hope many places follow suit; if there was ever a true citizen of the world, it was Muhammad Ali.