A MEMORY OF MUHAMMED ALI
I was fortunate to have met Muhammed Ali twice.
The first time was in the Miami airport when I was a student. I noticed a huge hullabaloo in the baggage claim area, and spotted the distinctive Eraserhead grey frizz of Don King’s afro. My mate and I went over to investigate.
Don King was in terry cloth slippers looking like a bum, literally, and there perched on the baggage carousel surround by a mob was Ali, signing autographs. Most people gave him large dollar bills to sign….20s and 100s and the like. He signed and signed, hardly looking up. I waited in the massed queue (not really a queue, more like a rugby scrum) and passed him the only bill I had, which was a one-dollar bill.
He stopped and looked up.
“A Dollar?” he said.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m a student. If I use a twenty I’ll have to spend it. Now I’ll keep it forever.”
He shook his head, smiled, and signed.
The second time was in the early 1990s when he was on a book tour in London on Old Broad Street in a bookstore. I bought the book, and tried to approach him, hoping he would sign my dollar bill, which I always carried in my wallet. By this time he was shaking like a leaf from Parkinson’s. His minders were not letting anyone near him. I said: “Do you think Muhammed would sign this dollar bill? He signed it for me in 1978 when I was a student.” The minder shook his head.
All of a sudden Ali, who heard this exchange, mumbled something, and gestured for me to come over. His face was all puffy, and it was impossible to decipher what he said, apart from “Come…come” in a very slurred speech.
I was in my mid thirties at this point, but I felt like a schoolboy. I showed him the dollar, and he scrawled his signature on it. You could make out the M and not much else. It only took a second.
There was something magical about the man. The energy which flowed off of him was like standing next to a heater. I will never forget it.
When I found out he died, I cried. The first time for a public figure that I can remember.
The dollar was subsequently stolen along with my wallet, and no doubt spent by someone for whom it meant nothing.
No matter. I shall always have the memory.
The word great is bandied about way too much. But he was a great man.