Muhammad Ali and the Pinnacle of Confidence
There he was, as I saw him several times: the world’s most famous person, by himself, comfortable keeping his own Company.
By Bob Greene
‘What do you think of that?” Muhammad Ali asked. We were in adjacent seats on an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C., as the plane made its landing approach.
Ali was gesturing out the window. I thought he was referring to the nighttime sight of the illuminated monuments. I said I thought they looked very pretty.
But that is not what he was talking about. He was looking at the houses in suburban Virginia and Maryland:
“Look at all those lights on all those houses. . . . Do you know I could walk up to any one of those houses, and knock on the door, and they would know me? It’s a funny feeling to look down on the world and know that every person knows me. Sometimes I think about hitchhiking around the world, with no money, and just knocking on a different door every time I needed a meal or a place to sleep. I could do it.”
Probably so. We first met and had our first conversations when he was 26 and I was 21. This flight was a decade and a half later: In 1983 Esquire magazine, to commemorate its 50th anniversary, was devoting an issue to the 50 men and women judged to have most influenced the world in the previous half-century. I’d been asked by the magazine to travel with Ali on this three-day trip to Washington.
Still in school, I had been working as a summer reporter at the Columbus Citizen-Journal in Ohio when I was told to cover a visit to town by Ali. I was intimidated by the assignment, but the number of people initially accompanying him and running interference turned out to be zero.
I’d see it again over the years: In the early 1970s, in Chicago, he was preparing for a fight against a boxer named Jimmy Ellis. There was a weathered little gym called the Johnny Coulon Physical Training Club, underneath the elevated-train tracks on 63rd Street on the South Side. Ali came to the place alone, climbed the three shadowy flights of stairs and, in solitude except for a person timing him, punched away at the heavy bags, his grunts of exertion and the slapping of his fists against the leather the only sounds in the room. In the 1990s, outside a hotel in downtown Chicago, I noticed him standing by himself, trying to hail a cab; when I asked him what he was doing there, he softly said, “I have to get to the airport.”
Unremarkable for anyone else, but not what you would necessarily expect for a man of his renown.
The pinnacle of confidence is being just fine keeping your own company. And, for all the tales of Ali’s vaunted ego, he courageously put self-consciousness aside when his health began to fail. He could have hidden, hoping to preserve the world’s image of him in his prime; instead he looked the public right in the eye. By the time of that trip to Washington, his voice had already become shaky and slurred. Everyone he encountered knew it, and so did he, and he couldn’t do a thing about it. He didn’t let it stop him for a moment. He spoke to every person who approached him.
The last time I saw him was at dinner a few years back at a Chicago steakhouse. There were family members and friends at the table. Ali said not a word the entire evening; he drew a picture of a mountain on a piece of paper in front of him. Because of his tremors he needed help eating his meal, but he graciously nodded hello to each stranger who walked by. When he rose to leave, the other diners in the restaurant, some with tears streaming down their cheeks, spontaneously burst into applause.
He seemed to understand, especially near the end, that, heavyweight championships aside, the greatest victory in this life is simply being able to wake up each morning to a new sunrise. Shortly before that trip to Washington all those years ago, I had phoned him at his home in California to arrange the logistics. Partly kidding but mostly serious, he had said: “You just want to put me on the cover. I’m the most famous man in the world.”
I said that there would be no photographs on the cover of the magazine: just type. And that there would be people in the issue as famous as he was. He scoffed at the idea, and asked who. Oh, I said, John F. Kennedy. Franklin Delano Ro-osevelt. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“They’re all dead,” Ali said, teasing a bit. And reveling, as ever, in the sheer, joyous fact of being alive.
Mr. Greene’s books include “ Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights” (Harper Perennial, 2001).