What I remember most is this epic right hand. Soft and leathery, itself like a worn out boxing glove, but massive with a quietly imposing size and weight. This hand knocked out Liston and Foreman. It brutalized Joe Frazier’s face on three occasions. It stood pat in defiance of the Vietnam War. This was the most accomplished human hand I ever shook.
In the days since Muhammad Ali’s death, I’ve read and heard a lot of stories like mine. Stories about brief but uniquely personal interactions with The Greatest. I’ll tell you, it’s true. All of it. Even decades after he left boxing, and years after Parkinson’s had tensed its insidious grip, Ali was deeply engaged in an apparent mission to meet and know everybody. He was the greatest extrovert of all times. This man made his mark by beating up the baddest men on the planet. He fought segregation, a stodgy culture that wouldn’t call him by his chosen name, and he went head to head with the U.S. Government. Is there any more disarming sweetness than the idea that he also wanted everybody to be his friend? Well, he did. Trust me. I saw.
I met Ali in the winter of 1997, just months after he became undisputed champion of the Summer Olympics by lighting the torch. We met via miracle. For reasons I still don’t remotely understand, the Boston Globe sent a letter to my high school newspaper, the gist of which said Ali was coming to Boston for a quasi-book tour/meet-and-greet with youths at two city schools. The letter said my newspaper advisor could select one reporter to cover this event.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t even live in Boston. I lived an hour south of Boston just across the Rhode Island border. Only a few school papers got this letter, maybe half a dozen, and it passed a lot of worthy mailboxes on the way to mine. Compounding the miracle is that Claudia Eagan, the greatest high school newspaper advisor of all time,((check her stats, they’re sick)) selected me to go to Boston to cover this event.
Over the course of a rainy, snowy day, I saw Ali interact with everybody. Not meet everybody. We’re not talking about assembly-line handshakes. He engaged meaningfully with so many people. The man stood there signing autographs and shaking hands outside of Hennigan elementary school in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Crummy weather. Places to be. A whole bus full of people waiting to move on to the next school. Ali gleefully engaged with a horde of neighborhood residents who came to greet him — one at a time. A homeless woman pushing a cart past the school abandoned her belongings and rushed to meet The Champ. He embraced her with a warm hug. Ali’s people eventually had to drag him onto the bus, leaving himself and the crowd disappointed.
We ate lunch at a private school just north of Boston.((St. Mary’s in Lynn, Mass.)) Somehow, in a room with controlled access before a planned press conference, I found a moment when Ali was not otherwise engaged and I sidled up to shake his hand. In what I now recall as a cringeworthy moment, I pulled out my tape recorder and asked a famous person to say “Hi” to my dad on tape. I told him that my father, Ira, won a bet with my grandmother over the Thrilla In Manilla. She had to bake him a pie. He was a huge fan, I said.
Now, it would be reasonable for any right-thinking celebrity to view this sort of request as out of bounds. It’s an imposing pressure to have to perform for a stranger on tape. I just didn’t know this when I was 17. Apparently no one told Ali, either. He didn’t see that pressure. He didn’t see the annoyance. He saw a chance to make friends. “Hello, Ira,” he said into the recorder. “You sound like a good guy. I hope I get to meet you some day.”
I don’t doubt for a second that Muhammad Ali wanted to meet my father. He wanted to meet everybody. He shook hands with the enthusiasm of a politician trying to close the last few points in the polls. But he wasn’t running for office. The office of The Greatest comes with a lifetime term, and then some.
No, this was a man who genuinely believed that everyone mattered. I’m certain of this because of an interaction I had with his young, adopted son, Asaad,((reports on Asaad’s exact age seem to vary, but as best I can tell, he was around 6 at the time, which is in line with what I remember)) at Ali’s hotel in Boston at the end of the day. Standing outside of an elevator, Asaad looked up at me with a glimmer of recognition.
“Hey,” said the child of the one of the world’s most famous people. “You’re the guy from that party.”
“That party” was yet another meet and greet, this one at Northeastern University, where his father stood and shook hands with another few dozen people. His son didn’t register me as part of a cattle call, though he easily could have. He saw what his father seemed to see everywhere he went. Another connection to make. Another friend in waiting.
Dave Brown is a writer and Boston Business Lawyer who now lives in Jamaica Plain, a place where no crowd has ever formed to shake his hand or request his autograph, even though he spends hours on the street willing to accommodate such requests.