I first became a serious Muhammad Ali watcher in January 1964. He’d just turned 22, and was luminous as he prepared to meet Sonny Liston for what was then the biggest prize in sport -- the boxing heavyweight championship of the world.
I remember sitting in front of my father’s little black-and-white television as Ali’s voice roared from the huge world outside and through the TV’s tiny, rattling speaker. “I’m young and handsome and fast and pretty and can’t possibly be beat,” the voice said, and as I listened, I felt the glory train pass through me.
Over the next four decades, many of my life-defining events were connected to Ali, who turns 65 today.
In 1974, with Ali as stylistic mentor, I became a junior-lightweight kick boxer. In 1977, my girlfriend Lynn and I unsuccessfully tried to get married in Madison Square Garden at the Ali-Earnie Shavers fight. Then, in 1981, I sold my first story to a big national magazine; that piece concerned Ali’s influence on my life. Yet, in 1986, frustrated by not being able to sell other (unrelated) stories I had written, I took a job as manager of a video-store chain in Ali’s home state of Kentucky. By that time in my life, I seldom thought about him. He’d been a childhood obsession.
My first day in Louisville, on a driving tour with the company president, he pointed at a ranch-style house and said, “Muhammad Ali’s mom lives there.” From then on, whenever I passed by, my eyes zeroed in on the house. The Friday before Easter in 1988, a white motor home with license plates that read “THE GREATEST” was parked out front.
I worked up courage, went to the door, knocked. Ali opened the door, looking as big as God. He leaned under the frame to see me, waved me in, did magic tricks, invited me to stay for dinner.
For years after that, I saw a lot of Ali. I spent hundreds of hours with him and wrote stories about our friendship. My first book, “The Tao of Muhammad Ali,” was a nonfiction novel about the ways my life intersected with his. Because of my childhood idol I could finally make a living doing the exact thing I most wanted to do: Ali made me a full-time writer.
Which brings me to the first time I met Ali face to face. It was July 1975. At the suggestion of my friend Bobby, who was Ali trainer Angelo Dundee’s nephew, I’d driven 700 miles to Deer Lake, Pa., where Ali was preparing for a world title defense against British champion Joe Bugner.
Tugging on blood-red Everlast trunks I’d bought for the occasion, I heard him through the dressing room walls, exhorting spectators who’d each paid $1 to watch him train. “I’ll prove to the world that I am not only the greatest boxer of all times,” he said, “I am the greatest martial artist.”
His was the most elemental voice I’d heard; it sounded huge, melodic, eternal. Listening to him made me so nervous I shook a little and felt I needed to urinate. The old guy strapping a pair of red leather gloves on my arms looked at me and laughed. “He won’t hurt a little white boy like you,” he said.
I was 22 years old, fierce and hard-bodied as a hornet, and no longer thought of myself as “little” or a “white boy.” The old guy was stooped, his face long, his eyes yellow with age. “Naw, he won’t hurt you,” he said again. “Not too bad anyways.”
Ali was standing in the center of the ring when I stepped through the ropes. Insect-looking splotches of dried blood dotted the porous canvas under my feet. As I stared up at him, he came into focus and everything else blurred. His skin was unmarked and without wrinkles, and he glowed in a way that could not be seen in photographs or on television.
He introduced me to the crowd as a “great karate master,” an accolade I didn’t merit. Then he opened his mouth steam shovel-wide, pointed his gloved left fist at me and, in a voice directed to no one in particular, but to the world in general, he shouted, “You must be a fool to get in the ring with me. When I’m through, you gonna think you been whupped by Bruce Lee.
“Are you scared? Are you scared? -- Just think who you’re with. How’s it feel, knowing you’re in the ring with the greatest of all times?”
The bell rang and he danced to my right around the 20-foot square of taut canvas. Suddenly, I was no longer nervous. My thighs were strong and full of spring, there was looseness in my movement.
He bounced from side to side in front of me; I felt every step he took shoot into my feet and up my legs. I bent to the right, tossed a jab toward his belt line, straightened, snapped a long, tentative front-kick to his head. I figured it was the first kick he’d ever had thrown at him, but he pulled away as easily as if he’d been dodging feet his entire life.
He stopped dancing and stood flat-footed in front of me, studying my movements. I tried to lever in a jab from way outside. His eyes were bright, his face beaming and round and open. He waited until my punch was half an inch from his nose and pulled his head straight back. I punched nothing but air and dreams.
He turned square toward me, teased by sticking out a long, white-coated tongue, stepped back to the ropes, took a seat on the second strand where his head was only a little higher than mine, and beckoned me in with a brisk wave of gloves.
I slid inside his arms three half-steps; he was so close I felt his breath on my shoulder. I dug a round kick into his right kidney, felt his flesh conform to the shape of my shin, saw the opening I was hoping for, faked a jab and rocketed from my crouch, blasting a spinning back-fist jaband left-hook combination into the center of his jaw. The punches felt so good I smiled. People in the crowd sounded impressed.
He opened his eyes fried-egg-wide in feigned disbelief. For the next two seconds, I deserved his serious attention. For two long seconds we were inseparably bound, whirling in a galaxy of electricity, each seeing nothing but the other. For two week-long seconds I was flying. Then he came off the ropes and squashed me with one flyswatter jab.
I saw the punch coming: a piece of red cinnamon candy exactly the size of a gloved fist. I tried to slip it and couldn’t -- it was that fast. The back of my head bounced off my shoulders. A chorus of white light went off behind my eyes. A metal taste clouded my mouth, then there was a second, heavier thump as he caught me with a left hook I didn’t see. The spectators sounded way, way off. I tried to regain control of my body and couldn’t; my legs went to soup beneath me.
He knew I was hurt and he stepped back. Then his eyes went kind, he slid an arm around my shoulders, we exchanged hugs, and it was over.
But I’d accomplished something I’d never, yet always, believed I’d have an opportunity to do.
I had boxed with Muhammad Ali.
As we left the ring together, my childhood hero and the world’s greatest pugilist spoke in a way few men had ever talked to me -- softly, gently, almost purring. “You’re not as dumb as you look,” he said. It was one of his canned lines, my personal favorite.
“You’re fast,” he continued. “And you sure can hit to be sssooo little.”
He may as well have said he was adopting me.
I began to quake. My insides danced. But I stayed composed long enough to say the one thing I hoped would impress him most. With confidence I’d learned from watching him on TV and hearing him on the radio countless times, I said simply, “I know.”
All these years later people around the world continue to admire Muhammad Ali -- not only for the obvious reasons: the extraordinary beauty with which he boxed for 25 years, his glowing, self-proclaimed “prettiness,” his huge charm and presence, his contagious and distinctive humor, his brave stand against the Vietnam War, but also because of the great, tender dignity with which he carried himself through his afflicted middle years.
“I’m more human now,” Ali has often told me, spreading the fingers of his shaking left hand. “That’s what makes people care. They believe I’m like them and that’s good.”
Each of us is changed by the work we do. When I’ve asked Ali if he regrets that his health has been compromised by boxing, he has said, “A man goes to war, fights for his country, comes back with one leg. He either thinks it was worth it or it wasn’t. It depends on what he values. I look at all my world fame, the people I’ve helped, all the things I’ve done, spiritual and nonspiritual. I add it all up and I’d do it all over again.”
Davis Miller is the author of the books “The Tao of Muhammad Ali” and “The Zen of Muhammad Ali.”