Unquestionably, Muhammad Ali was the greatest of all time for me and millions worldwide. I wasn’t lucky enough to witness any of his fights given the generation gap, but I always wished I could see him in person. Then my luck changed in the year 2000, and how! I was in Detroit, Michigan, at The Palace of Auburn Hills, a sports and entertainment centre. I think it was the fight between Mike Tyson and Andrew Golota. It was getting big press; and there I was when I heard the big news: Muhammad Ali was in the dressing room. I knew I just had to meet him. I requested the organisers to let me meet him, and after much pleading, I could.
At that point, there were three world champions in boxing from Kentucky: Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Ellis and myself. I began to introduce myself to Ali who cut me short saying, “I know who you are.” That felt so good, Muhammad Ali knew me. The greatest boxing legend knew me! What followed was a display of good old sportsmanship from Ali’s side. “Go on, show me your jab,” he said. Star-struck, I desisted when he reached out as if to spar with me and I reacted with my signature jab. He gave me credit for it calling me “champ.” I was impressed that he got me to do what he wanted. Oh yes, he still had a fight left in him. If he wanted something, he got it. I looked at him thinking of the flamboyance a big guy like him brought to the brutal sport of boxing and I was blown away.
Even today, that meeting is etched in my memory. For all the bad press and tabloid gossip about him, to me he came across as honest and jovial. To give due recognition to me, who was much his junior, showed his humility. But that wasn’t why I respected him. When I became aware of how he stood up for what he believed in, refused to enlist for the Vietnam war, and sacrificed the prime years of his career in the process, it spoke of great personal integrity. I was inspired by how he lived his life during those years. He continued to train, lived a clean life, stuck devoutly to his faith and modelled a disciplined life for all to see.
I think Ali was more the man we saw “outside the ring.” It reflects in his humanitarian work, his role as a messenger of peace, and in his amazing family. I know his daughter Laila Ali through her ex-husband who was my friend. What an amazing woman, fighter and daughter. She was just like him, and I could tell he had done well and right by his family, too. Makes me think of my boys who are nine, six, and three years old.
I often wish I had the chance to be mentored by the great Ali, or like Sugar Ray Lenoard Jr allowed myself to follow in Ali’s footsteps. My career track would be so different. But I continue to hold dear the very things that made Ali so great, that works for me. I was surprised and sad to hear of his passing. I always thought, like Superman, Muhammad Ali would always be there.
The day I met him was one of the greatest moments in my life. I had the pleasure of meeting not only a great world champion, but an angel who had touched millions of lives. Ali was a man who helped make the world what it is. Even as I walked away from our first meeting, I remember thinking the same thought I do today: Muhammad Ali knew the secret to a full and happy life, personally and professionally. And that is most inspiring.
Adams is a former world champion in boxing. As told to Farwa Imam Ali/San Francisco