A Guideposts staffer shares a memorable encounter he had with former heavyweight champion and humanitarian Muhammad Ali that offered a brief glimpse of the man behind the legend.
Posted in , Jun 4, 2016
Early in his career, Muhammad Ali was seen as in many circles as something of a controversial figure; many saw him as boastful, while others disapproved of political stances he took.
I was in junior high in 1971 when Ali first fought Joe Frazier in the first of their three legendary bouts. Both men were undefeated, and both had a legitimate claim to the heavyweight title. This legendary bout was dubbed the Fight of the Century, and for good reason: It's not often when two highly ranked, undefeated heavyweights meet in a title bout.
Most of my friends and I were cheering for Joe Frazier, Ali's quiet, unassuming opponent. I didn't then have an affinity for Ali's brash style; I liked my athletes a bit more humble (I still do, truth be told). So I was thrilled when Joe Frazier won the fight by unanimous decision. Finally, I thought, the loudmouth has been silenced! I was so sure I knew this man, this braggart of the boxing ring. But of course, I didn't. I knew only his public persona, the cover of the book, so to speak. What mattered more was what was inside the book.
Of course, Ali hadn't been silenced at all. He came back from that loss to fight Frazier twice more, defeating him both times, and to live a life of courage and strength as he battled Parkinson's disease and worked tirelessly for any number of humanitarian causes.
I gained a greater understanding of Muhammad Ali the man more than two decades later when I worked at Mickey Mantle's restaurant on Central Park South in New York City. Mantle's attracted lots of celebrities, especially sports stars. Some came in as regular patrons for lunch or dinner, and others donated their time to the many charity events and fundraisers that were held there.
It was at one of those charity events that I encountered Muhammad Ali in the flesh. He was one of several celebs who was expected to be on hand that night, but he was the clear headliner, the person everyone was eager to meet. But he was running late, and there was concern that he wouldn't show at all.
Ali finally arrived, and with a couple of his handlers at his side, he made his way around the room, mingling with those who had paid a pretty penny to be there, with the proceeds going to that evening's worthy cause. Ali moved slowly and spoke quietly, but there was a twinkle in his eye and everyone who got to meet him was clearly very excited to have done so.
When he'd made the full circuit, it was thought that Ali would be leaving right away and I was tasked with helping to guide him through the crowded room so that he might more quickly make his exit. But before we reached the front door, Ali paused and said, "Let me meet the guys in the kitchen."
So we reversed field and escorted the former champ back to the restaurant's kitchen. The workers there were thrilled—they had each, one or two at a time, tried to catch a glimpse of Ali, peeking around the corner from the kitchen doorway, and now here he was, making his way toward them, a threshold that I don't think any other celebrity had ever crossed.
Ali stood in the kitchen, the entire staff gathered around him, and spoke quietly to them. I was on the fringe of the group and could not hear clearly all of what he said, but I did hear him say with a wink, "Now, just watch: I'm going to float..." And he did. That is, I'm sure that he didn't float in the air, not really—it was obviously a trick he'd learned somewhere along the way—but it sure seemed in that moment as if his feet had left the ground and he was levitating an inch or so above the tiles of that kitchen floor.
After a few moments, his feet back on the ground, he gave the group a small smile, said his goodbyes and made his way to the front door and out into the night.
It was an encounter I'll not soon forget—after all, how often do you get to see a former heavyweight champion float in the air? But what I remember most fondly is that this celebrated figure, who had already done his part by helping with the evening's charity event, also thought of the working guys back in the kitchen, the people who could never afford to attend a high-dollar event like that night's fundraiser, and asked to be taken back to meet them, so that he might brighten their evening just a little bit, too.
Though I had already come to more greatly appreciate Muhammad Ali in the years since his much-ballyhooed first fight with Joe Frazier, that night at Mantle's, I gained an even deeper respect and affection for the man, who proved himself truly a kind, generous and, yes, even humble soul.
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