Sunday 18 February 2018

My flight of fancy with The Greatest - recalling a meeting with Muhammad Ali

Ulick O'Connor remembers talking poetry, life and politics with Muhammad Ali on a long-distance flight... and a touching act of kindness

The Greatest: Tributes to Muhammad Ali.
The Greatest: Tributes to Muhammad Ali.
Cassius Clay

I was coming back to New York after an appearance on The Johnny Carson Show in 1975 when I got on the plane and recognised someone. It was Muhammad Ali, whom I had met in Dublin and New York. He said he would come down to my seat after the plane took off. He wanted to talk poetry and recite some new poems he had written.

He settled himself comfortably on the vacant seat beside me and recited, declaiming it in a sing-song Southern accent, looking ahead, but watching carefully out of the corner of his eye to see how I was reacting. I gave him an encouraging nod.

The same road that connects

two souls together

When stretched becomes a

path to God.

And ...

When the ears of the heart

Can sense the ears of other hearts

Words become unnecessary.

"Words are like gold to me," he said. "Guess it's from my Irish great grandfather, Abe O'Grady".

I had thought the lines surprisingly cool. But changing the subject, I asked him how he felt about the way he had been treated because he refused to be drafted into the US Army.

"I'll tell you something," Ali said, "I just went and did my own thing.

''My agent, Dick Fulton, sent me on lecture tours all over the United States. I got in a Volkswagen and travelled thousands of miles on my own."

Wasn't it dangerous to be by himself in the deep South dodging the draft?

"I could be shot tomorrow if it's the will of Allah," said Ali.

"A true Muslim doesn't fear, neither does he grieve. I was happier than I've ever been in that little car all by my black self - laughing, singing and tap-dancing wherever I went.

''Fulton sent me down there in the middle of all those riots, but nothing happened. I was one black the State didn't get, who didn't sell out. I was no Uncle Tom."

Just before the plane landed, I got an insight into the champ's sense of public relations. As he recited his verse, some little boys in the seats in front were gazing back goggle-eyed.

Ali held up his hand majestically. The bard's flow was not to be interfered with.

Finally, one little boy, greatly daring, shoved the microphone of a tape recorder under Ali's mouth.

For a second, I thought the champ would explode.

He jumped up.

"I'm going to hit you so hard you'll never get up. I'm gonna knock you right out of the plane, you great idiot. I'm gonna do to you what I did to Joe Frazier."

It was only when I saw a delighted grin on the kid's face, that I realised what Ali had done.

He was giving the kid the thrill of his life by telling him on tape that a heavyweight champion of the world would knock him out.

As we walked from the plane at Kennedy Airport, everyone recognised Ali. Some reached out to touch him.

"It's hard to be humble when you're as good as I am," Ali said as we walked past the fence. "I'm good-looking, I can sing, dance, talk. I can box better than anyone else."

He looked at me sideways, the same boyish glint of mischief he would use when he was being outrageous.

There was a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce to meet him outside. Ali offered me a ride to town.

Next morning, I am watching Ali giving an interview to the world press for two hours. He was witty, amusing and eloquent.

He had agreed to meet me when the press conference was over.

True to his word, he was upstairs in his room five minutes afterwards.

I was sitting beside him and observing that in his bare feet (he had taken off his shoes), he still gave an impression of perfect form - except for an incongruous twisted toenail on his right foot.

I reminded him of the talks we had in 1972 in Dublin, where he had stayed for a few weeks' training for his fight against Al Blue Lewis, which was staged in Croke Park.

It was a frightful affair, so slow that in the sixth round a perfectly tuned Dublin heckler's voice was heard throughout the stadium: "Hit him, you have the wind behind you".

As we talked, the door opened and two enormous guys came in with a tiny little black lady between them. She wished to speak to Mr Ali. It seemed her daughter had had a car accident a year ago and was now paralysed, unable to move or speak.

Could Mr Ali say a few words to her on the telephone?

Yes, he would speak to her. Would someone dial the number? The woman put her hand into his to explain that, as her daughter could not speak, she would have to reply to Mr Ali by giving two taps for 'yes' on the phone and one for 'no'. The heavyweight champion of the world leaned back like a resting Atlas, and spoke for 15 minutes about God and hope and love, to the stricken girl, while she replied by tapping her pen against the mouthpiece.

As he led the woman to the door, I noticed that she was so small that when he put his arm round her shoulders, they only reached the tip of his fingers. When he came in, The Butterfly was back once more in dancing mood. But I knew that nothing I would learn about him could tell me more than what I'd just witnessed.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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