My Moment With Muhammad Ali
Cassius Clay was the first boxer that I ever followed as he rose up through the amateur ranks. I watched him win the Gold Medal in the 1960 Olympics and followed his career closely. Watching him on TV when I could and listening to his fights on the radio. I remember listening to the radio with my father and getting so excited when Clay beat Sonny Liston that I jumped up knocking my glass onto the floor and shattering it into pieces. My father wasn’t too happy about that part.
As one of Clay’s biggest fans, “Float like a butterfly, Sting like bee” was part of my everyday vocabulary. I even practiced the Ali Shuffle and got pretty good at it.
When he changed his name to Muhammad Ali and became a Black Muslim, I didn’t really understand what was going on or why there was such a backlash against him for doing that. All I knew at the time was that he was “The Greatest”.
However, I did have some mixed feelings when he refused to be drafted into the Army; especially because when that was going on, I was in the Army, serving in Viet Nam.
Over time I got over it though and ended up being sad that he was stripped of his title and denied the opportunity to box during that time. Just think what he could have accomplished.
In the early 1990’s, a charitable organization in Springfield, Massachusetts named after Rocky Marciano announced that they were going to have a charity banquet and Muhammad Ali would be the Guest of Honor.
I was giddy over the idea that I could go to that banquet and actually meet Muhammad Ali.
The night of the banquet was very exciting. There was a meal, there were speeches, many present and past boxing greats were there.
After the meal a long table was set up where Muhammad Ali and some of the other boxers sat so the attendees could file past them and meet them.
The line was so long and the crowd so big around Muhammad Ali that I decided that I would wait for the crowd to thin out a little before I got in the line. Instead, I searched out the other boxers who weren’t sitting at the table. It was like a dream just to be there among all these famous boxers. Imagine, I met Willie Pep, the boxer voted the best featherweight of the 20th century, and who my father always said was the best little boxer he ever saw fight.
But I was rudely awakened from my dream when I heard one of the banquet workers say, “Muhammad Ali is not feeling well. He’s going to leave.”
I was shocked to hear that I might miss my chance to meet Muhammad Ali. My first thought was, “Oh no he’s not! Muhammad Ali is not going anywhere until he meets Peter Regan!” (As you can see, just being in the same room as Muhammad Ali brought out the brashness in me.)
But I knew I had to act fast so I asked the banquet worker which direction would he be going out? How would he exit the building?
The banquet worker explained that they had brought a limo around to the back of the building. They were going to take Muhammad Ali through the kitchen and out the back door to the limo.
Quickly I asked, “Where’s the kitchen?”
He pointed to the door that Muhammad Ali would be going through and I jumped into action. I knew I had to act fast because he was already walking towards the kitchen door. Fortunately, the crowd was still around him and slowing him down.
I grabbed my friend and a chair and started running towards the kitchen door while trying to explain my plan to my friend. When we got to the kitchen door, I placed the chair next to it and told my friend to stand on it. I quickly explained how to work my camera and instructed her to watch when I and Muhammad Ali were close enough to be in the same photo, and then just keep taking pictures until the film runs out.
I then pushed and shoved (politely of course) my way into a position where Muhammad Ali could not go through that kitchen door unless he went through me.
Within seconds, I was face to face with Muhammad Ali!
I touched his arm. His muscles were still hard as a rock. We shook hands. I said, “It’s great to meet you.” He said something like, “Nice to meet you.” Then he handed me a small piece of paper with his autograph and what looked like some religious symbols on it. Then he said something I couldn’t quite hear. At the time I assumed that it was probably something religious or prayer-like because of what was written on the paper. He was very gracious and patient even though I knew he wasn’t feeling well at the time and I was blocking his way out of the building.
Then, just like that, he went through the kitchen door and was gone.
The only thing left to do was have the film developed to see if my friend was able to get some good pictures. I guarded that film like it was the crown jewels.
I’m happy to report that there are photos of the big moment although it does look a lot like some wild-eyed crazy man was attacking Muhammad Ali.
On second thought, while looking back at the photos for the first time in years, I wonder if when I couldn’t understand what he was saying, he was actually calling Security.
A Once-In-A-Lifetime brief moment that will remain a highlight in my memory forever.
Goodbye Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest”, R.I.P.