“Float like a butterfly,
“Sting like a bee –
“Time waits for no one,
“Not even Ali.
“Holmes was good…
“And Tyson’s the latest—
“But Ali will be
“Forever the greatest.”
written & given to Muhammad Ali
Coral Gables, Florida
June 10, 2016
The great Ali was buried today, a man of the planet, home for good in Louisville. Everyone who met Ali or was lucky enough to spend time with him has a story. This is from the first of three meetings.
I was good friends with Muhammad’s trainer, the late Angelo Dundee, but didn’t meet The Champ until Ali was nearly 50, nine years removed from his final fight. Angie called me that morning at my South Florida home and said Muhammad was in town for a book signing in Coral Gables and suggested I go see him.
This is a good time, I thought, better than when he was faster than lightning with fist and wit. Midlife changes us all.
Concerned about the size of the crowd the world’s most famous man would surely draw, I wrote something quickly and jumped in the car, arriving more than an hour early.
Hundreds were patiently, respectfully waiting.
The line snaked outside the store, around the block, and kept going. Ali was scheduled to sign books for 90 minutes but the line was far longer. Chances were slim I’d meet Ali but I decided to stay and wait anyway.
The line inched forward. Slowly. Too slowly. Everyone stole glances at his or her watch, wondering how close he or she would be when time ran out. The only way we’d all get to see Ali is if we ran past his table, high-fiving him as we passed.
When one of the store’s employees came outside to address all of us still waiting on the sidewalk, we feared the worst. Such is celebrity. Wave hi, wave goodbye.
But the clerk fooled us.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll all get in.”
And we did. Ali’s 90 minutes turned into four hours. Angelo’s assistant, Betty Mitchell, cancelled and rebooked four successive airline reservations.
The reason, she told me later, was that Muhammad said, “If all these people want to meet Ali, then Ali wants to meet all these people.”
When my turn came, it was obvious that time had begun to catch up with Ali and Parkinson’s had him on the ropes. When Ali took his medicine, as he had that day to control the shakes so he could sign his name, his famous voice was muted.
I handed Ali a clear plastic sleeve with a poem I scripted inside. He read the poem slowly, and finally looked up. Muhammad said something so softly that I could not hear his words.
Looking right at me, Ali mumbled it again—two more times. As desperately as I wanted to hear his message, I couldn’t. I looked helplessly at one of his associates and then back at Ali.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
Muhammad waved me close. I leaned in but Ali kept waving me closer. He leaned in too and whispered in my ear.
“I love it!”
Ali’s shaky hand slid the poem in his shirt pocket. He squeezed my hand in thanks.
This was the magic of Ali. The Pied Piper of Happiness. The most famous man on earth, who changed the world for the better, yet still found time to prop up every man, woman, and child he met along the way.
I would see Ali two more times, once after flying from Denver to Fort Lauderdale to help honor Angelo, with whom I’d grown quite close. It was a long evening, and a fun event, capped by an invitation from Muhammad and his wonderful wife Lonnie to come join them back in the hotel room with a small group of friends for small talk, ice cream, and magic tricks.
I asked Angelo one time about Muhammad’s secret, about how a guy that big, that famous, that extraordinary, somehow seemed to touch everyone he met.
Angie repeated to me what Muhammad had once told him: Ali’s recipe.
“Treat people like kings and kings like people, and you’ll get along with everybody.”
Words to live by. Thanks, Champ. As always, you could say a lot by saying a little.
P.S. I’m glad you liked the poem. It was an easy one to write.
Barb Farro saysJune 10, 2016 at 11:43 pm
Great story; thanks for sharing it! My life changing moment was when my parents moved us to Annapolis, Md. in 1967 and Severna Park in 1968. The experiences I’ve had and people I met during the next several years define me to this day, 44 years later. A man I attended high school with shares amazing historical stories with me. Thank you!
Ocean Palmer saysJune 11, 2016 at 9:52 am
I am just as sure the people you met along the way feel the exact same way — about how lucky they are to have joined your circle of life.
Remember the Ali legacy: Being nice is free. Pass it on!
Mac saysJune 11, 2016 at 1:47 pm
Johnny G. saysJune 11, 2016 at 5:27 pm
Great Story Theo! He seemed like a man that truly lived by rules that ufortunatley today are forgotten. I always had respect for him. One of my favorites memories was listening to his fight with Zora Foley on the radio in a car with my dad when I was in high school on a long trip from Long Beach to Sacramento. My dad and I really bonded listening to that fight and I still remember that as one of the best times I had with my dad as a kid.
Ocean Palmer saysJune 11, 2016 at 5:41 pm
Great story, Johnny G. Funny how Muhammad could bring together a father and son, even if he did over radio waves. Never met anyone like him. All the greats I’ve met in business, the arts, and sports….and he towered above all.