Millions of people around the world were saddened last week to learn of the passing of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. While news reports surfaced earlier in the week of his failing health, the announcement that he died was still a hard blow.
Though I have never seen him box nor do I follow the sport, I certainly knew who Muhammad Ali was through his media interviews, good deeds and charity work. So it was a surprise that I had the chance to meet “The Great One,” at the LA Convention Center in March of 1994.
I had always wanted to run a marathon and for several months I trained at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena with a friend. The weekend of the LA Marathon was very festive and the LA Convention Center was host to a Runners Expo where in addition to picking up one’s number and official marathon T-shirt, there were vendors selling everything from lightweight running shorts to socks and high-tech sneakers. My friend had flown in for the weekend and we headed down to the Convention Center to get my marathon swag.
We decided to check out the Running Expo. Walking up and down the crowded aisles I noticed a line of people standing around a table which looked kind of interesting. As I got closer and peered over shoulders, I saw Muhammad Ali signing books for fans. The line had been cut off, as ‘The Champ’ could only sign so many books before leaving. I knew at that moment that I had to get his autograph despite the fact there were no books left for him to sign. I pushed myself towards the table and all 5’2” of me was immediately grabbed by two gigantic bodyguards, who appeared to have no necks or sense of humor. As they were about to drag me away, Ali leaned over to his closest handler and whispered something in his ear. He then pointed at me and motioned for me to come forward. The two bodyguards let go of their vice grip as I moved towards the table.
In a sputter of excitement, I remember saying to Ali that I was a fan. By that point, my friend stepped up behind me and handed me the marathon poster, which I rolled out in front of him. Always gracious, he asked me to spell my name, which I did. As he signed his name, he drew a small heart by his signature. Then he did something incredible. He pointed to his cheek, signaling for a kiss. I leaned over the table and gently kissed him on the cheek. He clutched his fist to his heart like I had knocked him out! And then, he smiled at me, with a smile that lit up the room. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life.
While I don’t remember much about running all 26.2 miles through the streets of downtown LA, I do recall that when my feet and body wanted to quit, I thought of Ali, and everything he battled in his life. I knew if he didn’t quit, neither would I.
The poster is now framed and sits in my office as a reminder of not only my physical accomplishment but of my amazing encounter with Muhammad Ali. For me, he will always be The Greatest.
Ali’s memorial service is set for Friday, June 9, in Louisville, KY, with dignitaries like former President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal and journalist Bryant Gumbel scheduled to give eulogies. While millions of people mourn the loss, perhaps we should remember him not as a frail man whose body was ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, but rather the young brash boxer who changed the face of the sport forever. We should celebrate a life of an incredible man who used his strength and power for the betterment of all people. And if every day, we think of him and do one simple act of kindness for another, imagine just how wonderful the world would be? God bless you, Muhammad Ali. And thank you for making our world a better place.
The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey, Muhammad Ali (Simon & Schuster, 2013)
So Muhammad Ali begins this spiritual memoir, his description of the values that have shaped and sustained him and that continue to guide his life. In The Soul of a Butterfly the great champion takes readers on a spiritual journey through the seasons of life, from childhood to the present, and shares the beliefs that have served him well. Ali’s reflections on topics ranging from moral courage to belief in God to respect for those who differ from us will inspire and enlighten all who read them. Written with the assistance of his daughter Hana, The Soul of a Butterfly is a compassionate and heartfelt book that will provide comfort for our troubled times.