Story #1: I wasn’t there but a friend ran into Muhammad Ali at a New Jersey Turnpike gas-and-food stop in the winter of ’68. This of course was during Ali’s exile years (i.e., after the boxing commissars had taken away his heavyweight championship title after he’d refused to serve in the military due to religious objections over fighting in the Vietnam War). He was travelling in a large tour bus, and a fair amount of ice and sludge had apparently accumulated on the sides, and Ali had borrowed a water hose from the gas-station guy and was hosing it down and scraping the ice off with one of those long-handled scrapers. It was freezing and windy, but my friend had to shake his hand — “Hey, champ!” Ali stopped hosing, smiled, offered his hand and a kind word. Nothing special but “a moment.”
Story #2: In the fall of ’96 I was moderating a Woodland Hills AMC film class called “Hot-Shot Movies”, and one of my picks was Leon Gast‘s When We Were Kings, the brilliant doc about the 1974 Ali vs Forman “Rumble in the Jungle” championship bout which won the Oscar the following year for Best Feature-Length Documentary. I was introducing the film when a middle-aged, red-haired woman raised her hand and said, “Why have you chosen this film? Why do we have to sit here and watch it?” Translation: “I bought a ticket to your film series for doses of classy escapism, but not to see a film about that black Muslim blowhard who disgraced himself by refusing to fight in Vietnam.” I chose it, I said, because the film is full of spirit and love and celebration, and because it ends in glorious triumph. And because it may be the best sports-related doc I’ve ever seen.
Story #3: One of the greatest (if not the greatest) Spirit Awards moment happened a few months later at the March ’97 Spirit Awards gathering under the big tent in Santa Monica. Ali showed up to support When We Were Kings, and when he was introduced everyone stood on their feet and let go with repeated chants of “Ali Bomaye!!” In my Wonder Bread ignorance I wasn’t pronouncing it right and was shouting “Ali Boom-bai-yay!” but that’s okay — it was the emotion that counted.
Story #4: When I learned of Ali’s death last night I scoured my DVD collection to find my “Ali’s Greatest Fights” DVD (actually called “Muhammad Ali — The Greatest Collection“, and realized it was gone. I went right to Amazon to buy a replacement, and discovered that it’s selling for nearly $150 — jacked up, I was assuming, in the wake of Ali’s passing. Bastard pirates.
For 25 or 30 years Ali had been in declining health due to Parkinson’s disease, which began to hit him in the mid ’80s. It was devastating to contemplate a guy who’d been so physically dazzling and with such a lithe and beautiful mind…it was tragic to see him gradually turn into a withered, slow-moving old man who had trouble speaking. Aging can be torture. Now he floats again.
From Norman Mailer‘s “The Fight“: “There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth. If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would still inspire love and hate. For he is the Prince of Heaven — so says the silence around his body when he is luminous.”