The covers of the slapdash tribute magazines for Muhammad Ali at the supermarket checkout counters all depicted him as a young man. That’s to be expected: It’s a lot more savory to recall Ali as the beautiful dynamo who conquered Sonny Liston than as the aged sentinel humbled by his own hubris.
That said, I’ve always found it potentially more instructive to consider those older years, when he silently dealt with physical and neurological adversity in the most dignified way possible. That was how Ali was when I met him at an autograph show the day after I graduated high school in 1997.
I used to go to a lot of these shows, where for better and worse you get what you pay for: a brief audience with someone you admire while Sharpie-waving grown men circle like sharks. Looking back, it seems out of place for Ali to have ever been part of such an inelegant scene. Still, even sitting on a folding chair under a sign with his name on it — as if anyone didn’t know who he was — his quiet elegance projected that he remained well above the fray.
Ali deserved to be alone on any marquee, but he shared top billing that day with a Dallas Cowboys reunion, featuring players from various generations scattered around a hotel ballroom. Besides meeting Ali, I somehow found myself in a surprisingly contentious disagreement about something or other with Michael Irvin, which should tell you a lot about me as a 17-year-old.
Having reached a truce with Irvin, I got on a long line to meet Ali with my dad and my friend Rob. I just couldn’t stop staring at him — his physical features, like everything else about him, were so iconic — and at some point, Ali took notice. Raising his left hand, he pointed at me menacingly, then made a fist and playfully punched his palm a few times.
Much like Derek Jeter when Ali did basically the same thing to him, I had no idea what to do with myself, settling on nervous laughter. Years later, I’ve come to cherish that momentary connection — it’s not every day that one of the greatest fighters ever pantomimes that he’s going to beat you up — though I wish I’d better understood what was happening at the time.
I also would have liked a better picture with him; Ali looks terrific, but I’m wearing a crooked smile. But then, perhaps this was fitting: When my dad snapped the photo, I was in the middle of letting Ali know how much meeting him meant to me.
That fall, I hung an Ali poster in my freshman dorm room and began to explore a fledgling boxing fandom based on Arturo Gatti’s guts, Oscar De La Hoya’s charm and Roy Jones’ swagger. I stayed in that year on Halloween specifically to watch Prince Naseem’s Thriller-inspired entrance on my 19-inch television; Larry Merchant called his act “a cross of Michael Jackson and a belly dancer,” but I kind of dug it.
My love of boxing blossomed from there, and when I read Thomas Hauser’s excellent Ali biography after college, I finally understood just how important he was. His physical genius offered him a significant platform, and he was one of the few to take full advantage of it, sacrificing precious years of his athletic prime for the sake of his political convictions and racial identity.
The fact that he augmented his social impact with such a unique, colorful personality only added to our collective love affair with him. There are countless examples, but my favorite is an anecdote from Ric Flair’s book, when he described joining Ali on a goodwill tour of North Korea:
“Because of the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, it was difficult to understand Muhammad Ali when he spoke. But at one function, we were sitting at a big round table with a bunch of North Korean luminaries when one of the guys started rambling on about the moral superiority of North Korea, and how they could take out the United States or Japan any time they wanted.
“Suddenly, Ali piped up, clear as a bell, ‘No wonder we hate these motherfuckers.’”
That comment was perfect, though the man himself was far from it. Hauser laid bare that Ali was a serial philanderer, while detailing how he used his overwhelming sartorial advantage to savagely denigrate his opponents, most notably a hapless Joe Frazier.
As with Michael Jordan, history would probably not be as kind to him now; witness Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, neither of whom were a match for Twitter and TMZ. But Ali forged his legacy in a more forgiving era, and we’re all better for it.
Much like Jordan’s noble but laborious attempt to become a baseball player, the futility of Ali’s final fights and the grace with which he handled the resulting toll at least made him more relatable. In certain ways, though, it loomed like a storm cloud that the sport he elevated inevitably cost him his magnificent voice and grace of motion.
As the great Ralph Wiley said of Sugar Ray Robinson, another legendary boxer who faced similar difficulties later in life, “This is the greatest fist fighter of all time. If this is what happens to him… this is what happens to them all.”
The morning Ali died, I sat on the bed holding my 9-month-old son and watching CNN as a parade of luminaries talked about what he had meant to them.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about what my life was like when I shook his hand — I was about to leave home for the first time, heading 500 miles south for school, no idea what I was doing in so many regards. Meeting Ali was something big I could focus on besides how scared I was.
I’ve come a long way since then, and though I hadn’t actively thought about Ali often, it was always comforting that he was out there somewhere, that beautiful mind whirring along. And though I’m not sure how or when this would have happened, I’m disappointed I’ll never get the chance to introduce Ali to my son.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t introduce my son to Ali. I recently bought him his own copy of Hauser’s bio — his first grown-up book — and I plan to read it to him until he’s ready to do it himself.
As for a poster for his dorm room, I still have a little time to buy him one.
Or better yet, to locate mine.