I cannot remember a time when Muhammad Ali was not my hero. His career was nearly at an end when I started to follow sports as a small boy in the late 1970s, but he remained the biggest star in sports. Indeed, at the time he was by far the most famous person on the planet. He was a fixture on talk shows, sports pages, even Saturday morning cartoons.
His charisma was larger-than-life and overwhelming. Like millions of children my age, I was obsessed with him. I would have been drawn to sports like boxing and wrestling anyway. It was just the type of boy that I was. And for a child fascinated by combat sports, it was inevitable that Ali would hold such a dominant place in my developing consciousness.
This past weekend, even as I have joined the countless people around the world who have mourned the Champ’s passing, I have also felt incredibly grateful to have lived at a time when Ali walked the earth. I have felt fortunate that he was around to shape my consciousness. Early in my life, he presented to me an outstanding example of both the physical and moral courage that a man should aspire to. In the ring, he showed a sense of will that can only be described as mythological. Outside the ring, he was willing to risk his entire career in order to stand up to social injustice and a war that he viewed as immoral. In our era when sports stars are unwilling to say anything that might even risk their ability to sell sneakers, Ali remains a towering figure of righteousness.
In my sixth grade language arts class, my teacher had us write letters to famous people, to ask them if our class could conduct phone interviews with them. I knew from the first day of classes that I would be writing to Ali.
One morning during first period, the school secretary came over the intercom, requesting that I come to the office, to receive a phone call. For a second my stomach sank, as I imagined some tragedy. But then the secretary finished her sentence. “…from Muhammad Ali.”
When I picked up the phone, that voice familiar to the entire world said “This is Muhammad Ali, the greatest fighter of all time.” I could barely speak. I think I simply said “I know.”
Two days later Ali got up at six a.m., west coast time, in order to spend an hour being interviewed by my class. For that length of time, Ali gave our entire class the entire “Ali routine,” exactly as he would have behaved for an audience of millions.
When I started the call, he told me “I heard about you, you’re that ugly fella.” He asked one of my classmates “You done any boxing?” When the kid said that he’d done a little, Ali asked him “What’d you box, oranges or apples?” Another classmate asked him who he considered the greatest fighter ever. Ali responded by snoring loudly for 20 seconds. When my teacher was closing the call, Ali pretended to expect payment. “When am I getting my check for this?” He said farewell in typical Ali style, with a poem. The ending couplet was “I like your class and admire your style/but your pay is so cheap, don’t call me back for a while.”
This was over 30 years ago now. It was the fall after Ali lost to Trevor Berbick in his final bout, and not long before the first announcements emerged about the serious health issues he would face for the remainder of his life. As a middle age man who has been lucky and blessed in his life, this still remains one of my greatest memories.
And ultimately, that is one of the qualities that made Ali so great–the fact that he understood how much of an impact he was able to have on others, and for that reason, constantly went out of his way to give his time to the countless strangers who adored him.
There will never be another person like him. The world is a much smaller place without him.