Putting Down the Gloves

Bruce Lee_Muhammad Ali_Putting Down the Gloves
Gordon Parks/AP

What a rarity in these days of disheartening public leaders and duplicitous candidates: A man who fought for what he believed in. A man who won respect with his body and used it to bring attention to matters of the soul.

On the elliptical trainer this morning, watching the young Ali mouth off in a TV biography, seeing the mischief in his handsome face, I got hit by a sucker punch and had to grab the towel and wipe my eyes.

Sure, his day was 50 years ago, but does that matter? Certain people become part of your core; they make you who you are. I didn’t know Ali other than as the persona I saw in the media, but like everyone else in the world, you didn’t have to think too hard: You knew this was a good man. Spontaneous. Outrageous. He delighted us and thrilled us and he did the hard job of making us consider our values.

I met him once. This was the early 90s. My friend and I were approaching the NYC gate at O’Hare. The gate was nearly empty and across from it, in a row of molded plastic seats against the wall, a big dark man sat by himself. “It’s Ali,” whispered my friend. Staring, I couldn’t tell who it was because his elbows rested on his knees and his head hung down like he was in a deep sleep. I didn’t think we should disturb him, but my friend, more gregarious than I, was already advancing on him. He touched Ali on the shoulder. “Hello, Champ,” he said gently.

From TV you had no sense of what a big guy Ali was. I’m 6’2” and even with him hunched over I could see he was at least a head taller, with broad shoulders and large arms. He raised his head and looked at us with the slow, rolling tremble of his later years. Then he put out his hand. We shook. All kinds of thoughts go through your mind at such a moment: What was he doing here, where was he going, and if he was with someone, how could they leave him all alone? We wondered if we should ask if he needed some help or anything. But the look in his eye told us not to. This was not the Ali we expected. We went back to the gate.

It was a shock meeting him that day. This was before it was widely understood that he had Parkinson’s. When the plane closed its doors, to our surprise, he was not on it.