Brushes with greatness

That time I met The Greatest

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(The first meeting between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston took place 55 years ago today. I’ve dug out this past posting to mark the anniversary).

In 1988, I took a round-trip train ride to New York City to visit my brother. On my return to Chicago, as I walked through the main room at Union Station, I was shocked to see the world’s most famous man.

Muhammad Ali was waiting for his luggage.

In the blink of an eye, so much went through my mind:

  • The first fight (as Cassius Clay) with Sonny Liston which ended with the “unbeatable” Liston giving up and refusing to leave his corner for the seventh round.
  • Ali’s refusing to be inducted into the military on religious grounds, causing him to be stripped of his title and denied the right to fight in the US, until he prevailed in the US Supreme Court.
  • The “Rope-a-Dope” strategy that brought him a victory over the heavily favored George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974
  • His three battles with Joe Frazier, including  the 1975 classic “Thrilla in Manila.”

This man had been a huge part of my life and here he was, with no security to keep fans at a distance.

It was just Muhammad Ali and his assistant, waiting for their luggage.

I wanted Ali to know that he was one of my heroes. That I admired his greatness in the ring and his courage for standing up to the government. I wanted to tell him that he’d entertained and enthralled me since I was a boy.

I had to meet him.

As I got within about four steps of him, I lost my nerve and veered off to one side.

I tried to pull myself together, and approached again. This time, I got within about three steps, then lost my nerve a second time.

I mean this was not some mere mortal. This was Ali!

I knew I’d hate myself forever if I didn’t try again. As I got within two steps, Ali, who I was sure hadn’t noticed me on the first two passes, suddenly looked up, made an intense face and drew his fist back as if to throw a punch.

Time stood still.

Then he smiled that world-famous smile and extended his hand.

He never said a word, but shaking the hand that shook the world was one of the great thrills of my life.

He was the greatest.

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McBarronBlog Bonus

Ali is the only person I’ve ever met who had met The Beatles. That 1964 get-together is remembered here.