The Champ and I spent the better part of an hour, just the two of us, talking and drinking coffee in the stagehands’ room, my office, at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.
I called him Champ, even though he no longer had the belt, lost it, not in the boxing arena, but in the political area.He was on a lecture tour, Pro Civil Rights, Anti Viet Nam Involvement. Although the latter was the stated reason for taking away his right to be called World Champion, the former had earned him powerful enemies, just as it did for Martin Luther King. Overlooked by the main stream press, the Champ had a third point he stressed, namely Anti Violence. After his speech at Northrop, there was to be an interview and a Q&A with reporters from TIME. Finally what he was actually saying was more important than his celebrity status.
Today Americans accept his views; but in the late 60’s, these views were tinder for the fires that were spreading out across the land. But the Champ spoke his piece and stood his ground even though it was highly controversial and had cost him greatly. It wasn’t that he was wrong, it was just that he was ahead of his time. I had always felt strong about Civil Rights; but it really wasn’t until our status in Nam changed from advisory to full scale combative, that I took a better look and decided against us being there.
When the Champ and his welcoming committee walked backstage, he commented on the aroma of coffee coming from the open door of my room. One of the committee said he would run to Dinky Town and get him some coffee. I told the Champ that I would be glad to bring him a cup in his dressing room. He nixed both offers and instead said he wanted to go in the room, drink coffee and relax. When some of committee tried to follow us in, he held up hand. He told them to stay out, close the door, and see to it that nobody bothered him until he came out.
He commented that he realized they meant well, but he was getting tired of the constant ‘meaning well’ pressure of people. He said he was tired of the tour, tired of being away from home, his wife, and especially his little baby girl, Maryum, his first child. He slumped down in the chair, and when I handed him a cup of the fresh coffee, he raised the cup in thanks. I respected his need for silence.
In those days, boxing was followed much more than today. Early TV had free major matches weekly. And sitting across from me was a boxer I had followed since his Olympic days. I remembered listening to a radio as he did something nobody thought he would, take the title away from Sonny Liston. Oh, there was no way I would have called him the ‘Greatest’ at that time. His best was yet to come.
But, that day, I was more in awe of him as a great human being than a great athlete. It takes a brave person to stand up for one’s beliefs the way he did and at what cost.
When he finally did break his silence in the room, he spoke of being afraid his little girl, Maryum, wouldn’t even know her daddy, because he was away so much. She wasn’t even a year old yet, and he heard that the first year of a baby’s life was so important in their life. And she wouldn’t even know her daddy.
I assured him she would know her daddy, even though she wasn’t seeing much of him at this time. I told how I had worked two jobs for years, and now at Northrop, I was averaging over eighty hours a week, and my sons, only four at that time, always knew their daddy. He had nothing to worry about. He smiled and said he hoped so.
He opened his wallet and took out several pictures of his little Maryum and asked if I had any pictures of my sons. He looked at my pictures and wasn’t satisfied until he remembered their names and could match the name with the right boy.
We didn’t talk about his boxing career, about civil rights, and about his refusal to be drafted. We just talked. There was no chucking or jiving, no boasting and poetry on his part. His public image was set aside and he presented his personal side. Just two men, two fathers, talking, taking the time to know a little about each other.
He was interested in what went on at Northrop. I told him about the various attractions: lectures, music, dance, even a week each May of seven different Metropolitan operas on tour and how much work and how many stagehands it took to put them on. The Metropolitan Opera was familiar to him because of where the building was in relation to Madison Square Garden.
We did touch on boxing when I mentioned that recently Paul Newman had been at Northrop talking against our involvement in Viet Nam, the Champ told how much he liked Newman playing Rocky Graziano in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.
I related how I got so excited watching Sugar Ray Robinson defending his crown against Graziano on TV, that I knocked over and broke a lamp. He laughed and asked who I was rooting for, and I told him Sugar Ray, my favorite boxer. He said Sugar Ray was his favorite too.
The time flew by. He finished off his second cup of coffee, thanked me, and followed as I led him to his dressing room. Naturally, his committee followed also, ready at his beck and call for anything he might want, or anything they think he might want. As much as I admired the man that day, I wouldn’t have traded places with him. I could see one of the reasons he was tired and just wanted to go home and play with his baby.
My coffee with Ali took place almost a half century ago. I remember seeing his arm raised in victory many times. I remember seeing his arm raised as he lit the Olympic torch. And I remember he raised his cup in thanks for my coffee. I was so fortunate to have sat and had a quiet talk with the man now referred to as ‘The Greatest’.
There were event entering into this story and after; but I will save them for another time. Right now I am too sad because he is no longer with us.