When I saw on TV the news of the passing of Muhammad Ali, two overwhelming emotions engulfed me: sadness and relief. It was the end for a fantastic champion who transcended boxing and sport, but the magnificent athlete and showman I’d admired as a kid, whose health had gradually and alarmingly deteriorated through the effects of Parkinson’s disease over the decades, was finally out of pain. He showed immense bravery in the ring and arguably even more so fighting his illness in the second half of his 74 years.
Having monitored every nuance of Ali’s life and career since the ‘60s, it was saddening to see his physical demise when he fought for at least five years too long, finally retiring in 1981, at age 39, after a pummeling from the clubbing fists of Trevor Berbick, who in Ali’s prime probably wouldn’t have lasted more than a few rounds.
So when I met Ali for the first time in 1986, the thrill of shaking his hand was tempered with the knowledge that he could no longer speak with the same articulation as in his prime years. It was at the Tim Witherspoon training camp in Braintree, Essex, a few miles east of London. Witherspoon, the world heavyweight champ, was there to fight the British hero Frank Bruno. It was a bright summer day and Witherspoon was sparring in the open-air ring as Ali looked on, but I wasn’t interested in watching Witherspoon. My eyes were transfixed on “The Greatest,” who was sitting at a ringside table serenely watching the action.
Ali strained to whisper: “What’s your name?” I gave him a copy of the iconic photo of himself as a 12-year-old kid posing with his boxing gloves. It took him what seemed an eternity to write: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth. Best wishes Ron, Muhammad Ali.” We shook again and I left, filled with a mixture of excitement and sadness.
The next time we met was when I was an assistant producer for the Trans World Sport TV program. I had to film and interview him. It was in 1989 at the London Arena. Ali was with Joe Frazier and George Foreman on the Champions Forever world tour to promote their recently released video. Ali seemed to be more energized then, but still moved disturbingly slowly and could barely raise his voice above a whisper. Foreman did the majority of the talking, Frazier chipped in some sound bites, and the only thing Ali, sitting in the middle, said was inaudible on the mic. It was not used in my piece.
A year or two later he was in London again and at a function where he did not speak, but even with his shaking hands he was able to perform sleight-of-hand tricks. The showman’s spirit in him was still there, and onlookers were amazed he still had the ability to perform the tricks. Even under those circumstances, Ali refused to succumb to the sort of illness that would fell the average person.
There was a tribute night at a plush hotel for him some months later when I met him again, getting a handshake as his wife Lonnie and caregivers shuffled him along to the stage to receive an award. Lonnie spoke on his behalf.
The last time I met him was on a meet-and-greet in Brixton, south London, in the mid-’90s. He came to the offices of The Voice newspaper where I worked, and even in his frail state still had an aura about him. Everyone was captivated although, again, Lonnie spoke on his behalf.
The award-winning journalist Kevin Mitchell (The Guardian and Observer), wrote a book about people who had met Ali and what it meant to them. I was featured in it, along with a picture of Ali towering above me. Sadly, I can’t find the book. I will purchase another and definitely won’t lose it this time.
Muhammad Ali’s legacy is so strong, a whole generation of fans was influenced by him. I boxed for a while but quickly realized that I would never be an amateur champ, much less a pro. My attempt at an Ali shuffle was more like a waltz. I became a boxing journalist instead. Less painful.
There are many things Ali stood for outside of boxing that influenced me, particularly his stance on civil rights and opposition to senseless wars.
The times I met him are now locked in a precious memory vein to be treasured forever.
Ron Shillingford is a former sports editor at the Cayman Compass.