Always The Greatest

I may not watch his funeral on Friday, but if I can get a good enough signal, I may listen to it on the radio.

When Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston, it produced the iconic picture of Ali standing over Liston, which Neil Leifer called the greatest of his career. I didn't watch the fight, or even see the picture on Sports Illustrated until many years later. Instead, I listened to it on the radio with a house full of friends and family -- all of them pulling for Liston. I was the only one who went to bed happy that night.

Most in my family and community had a much different view of the man they still insisted on calling Cassius Clay when he beat Sonny Liston is 1965. Then they did not have to deal with a "new", "unknown" or "different" religion. However, once he converted to Islam, few in my rural part of Mississippi could bring themselves to support him. And then when he refused to be drafted and fight in the war, most of my best friends said he should be thrown out of the country.

I was almost nine years old when this famous fight took place. I thought he was just what he said -- "the greatest". I would run around the house repeating his predictions when he would knock out his opponent. "We" -- not Ali, but he and I together -- got 11 straight poetic predictions correct. My screams of pride would infuriate my brother, and everyone in the house as they sat around the radio and listened through the static. I would cheer and dance and scream while those old enough would curse.

Now that I look back on the time it is amazing I did not get killed. Or at least thrashed in the alley, or on the field by some school mates or family. I had the fools courage to aggravate those closest to me because I was too young -- or too stupid -- to know the fearlessness it took Ali to make his principled stand.

I watched Ken Norton break his jaw and listened to the "Thrilla in Manilla" as I drove across country. The best: George Foreman and the Rumble in the Jungle. My prediction of Ali winning against Foreman goes to show that the heart knows what the brain won't believe -- and how most decisions are made on emotion and not on fact. I cannot remember anyone predicting an Ali victory. And when he did, I shouted, "The Greatest, The Greatest, The Greatest of all Times" in an imitation rivaled only by Billy Crystal.

With these memories running through my mind, on the Saturday morning of August 8, 2003, I woke my daughter, Carmen Rae (a very good athlete in her own right) and asked her if she wanted to have dinner with Muhammad Ali. While she woke, her groggy response was, "what time do we leave?" Ali's daughter, Laila Ali was defending her IWBF and IBA Female Super Middleweight Titles against Christy Martin in Biloxi, Miss. that night.

We arrived at the coliseum late that afternoon to where Ali and others were lounging and getting ready to eat. When I held his hand, all those memories flooded my minded and all at once I saw in my mind's eye, the flashing speed of his fists, the ballet movement of his feet and could hear the boisterous voice that made people love him or dislike him. But my eyes this time saw a real human being that I had just as much respect for as when I saw him fight. I introduced him to my daughter and while he could only whisper, he sat her down for 30 minutes beside him and they ate and talked the entire time. He made a heart on a card and signed it for her. It is stilled framed.

That night was the first and last time I met The Greatest, Muhammad Ali. For both Carmen Rae and myself, it was a memory that will forever be seared in both our minds. Ali showed us all the courage it takes to stand by your convictions. He is the reason I draw the mantle of charity around all those who had an issue with that very problematic war. He taught me as a child, long before I ever met him the selflessness it takes to stand against those around you and believe in what's right. From his fight predictions to his opposition to the war, to the way he forced Americans to see the face of racism, Ali was never wrong. He was just ahead of his time.