Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Today is the Greatest: Celebrating the 70th Birthday of Muhammad Ali (and remembering when he mocked me)

On March 14, 1992, I was insulted by the Greatest.

Quite justifiably.

I'll never forget it, and today, the 70th birthday of Muhammad Ali, I couldn't help but remember it.

That date might not be exact, but it seems right. I think it was the Saturday of a weekend trip to Las Vegas with my friend Todd. I was living in Los Angeles at the time; Todd had come out from Chicago and we drove to Vegas. It was my first time there, and possibly Todd's.

We stayed in a low-rent, now long-defunct hotel/casino called the Continental, but on Saturday morning we were wandering through the MGM Grand (or perhaps it wasn't the "Grand" yet). I think we were in a gift shop when we noticed a bit of a hubbub, something of a throng in motion.

Upon which Todd, who's almost a foot taller than me and thus quicker to notice the nucleus of the commotion, said, "There's Muhammad Ali." (Ostensibly he was in Vegas due to a title fight taking place that night; I can't recall nor find online who was fighting.)

Although I had grown up a bit too late to see Ali fight in his prime, I was well aware of--and awed by--his legend. In 1992, the Champ was already quite significantly stricken by the effects of Parkinson's Syndrome, but I think that only added to the reverence I had for him. I don't think there are very many celebrities, then or now, that I would be more excited to encounter. Or to photograph.

Unfortunately, as I made my way to the middle of the throng and stood in front of him, I fumbled with my point-and-shoot (well before the age of digital) and missed my chance for a shot of Ali. But, as he was handing out pamphlets about Islam--including one to me--he paused to allow me to snap the photo above.

And though I knew his motor skills weren't what they used to be--when they arguably, at least in a boxing ring, were greater than anyone's, ever--I asked him for an autograph.

Upon which, Muhammad Ali, whose legendary--and often biting--verbosity, but not his acuity, had been stolen by disease, looked right at me and pointed at the pamphlet, as if to say, albeit gently, "Hey you moron, I already signed these." And being a bit dull, I think I still needed Todd to interpret what Ali was telling me.

While I have never actually read the pamphlet, I treasure it to this day.

Later that afternoon, in a shop in downtown Las Vegas, I had a caricature drawn depicting my encounter with Ali. But neither of us was particularly well represented, and I no longer know where this drawing is. 

Somewhat amazingly, it has now been nearly 20 years since I met, and was deservedly mocked, by the Great Ali, who was born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942 in Louisville. I read that when he attended the funeral of his legendary foe Joe Frazier, who passed away in November, Ali was rather frail, but I'm hoping he's still relatively well and able to celebrate his 70th birthday in style.

For far beyond my own encounter with him, I truly believe his self-proclaimed title of "The Greatest" is largely accurate. Not just in terms of what he did in the ring, but out of it as well. I greatly valued my visit to the excellent Ali Center in Louisville in 2006, and high among the many things to admire about Ali--who also had his faults--was that he gave up three years of his boxing career, in the prime of it, when he was an undefeated world champion, because he refused to register for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. (When Wikipedia comes back up, you may wish to check out his entry as a starting point to learning more.)

You can also find a number of fine tributes and clips of his often hilarious loquaciousness on YouTube. In addition to commemorating his birthday by watching a fine DVD documentary called Muhammad Ali - Through the Eyes of the World (When We Were Kings is also essential), I enjoyed seeing the videos below of two of his greatest fights in their entirety.

Happy Birthday, Muhammad. I hope it's the greatest. And thanks for the autograph. 

The first clip is of him knocking out Cleveland Williams in 1966 in what many consider his best performance, with his hand and foot speed being astonishing, almost balletic. I find it strange, and a bit galling, that although he had officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964, the announcer here, two years later, is still calling him Cassius Clay.

And this is Ali's stunning 1974 victory over George Foreman, who was the undefeated champion at the time. You might want to skip the introductions and get right to the fight, but it's here in full. I was surprised by how well Ali did throughout the fight, in which I believed he was being more thoroughly beaten, even as he employed his famed "Rope-a-Dope" strategy. He didn't have the flash he did in '66, but what he does may be even more impressive.

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