I can’t be sure of the exact date in 1971 when Muhammad Ali and I shared a plane. At the time, we lived 12 miles apart in South Jersey, he in this house in Cherry Hill and I in a tiny bungalow in Lumberton. (My folks still live there.)
I had spent the summer as an exchange student in Peru. He had just defeated Jimmy Ellis on his long climb back to the heavyweight boxing title after a loss to Joe Frazier in “The Fight of the Century.” (He would go on to beat Frazier in rematches in 1974 and 1975.)
A summer day in August found us both at Miami International Airport, waiting to fly to Philadelphia. I looked up and there, about 30 feet away, was the most famous athlete – maybe the most famous man – in the world.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
He looked like a football player to this shrimp of a high school senior: 6-foot-4, with the chest and reach of a Viking warrior. He clowned good-naturedly with kids, feigning fear and discomfort as they swung wildly in his direction. One or two of them were close to my size, and I thought, “I wonder if...”
I wandered closer, and I could hear that high, breathy voice, quoting or maybe inventing bits of poetry: “I fought in England! I’ll fight in Spain! There’ll be a fight in the cockpit if I can’t fly this plane!”
I had met professional athletes before: Wrestler Gorilla Monsoon lived in the town next to mine, and I had waited outside the visitors’ dressing room at Connie Mack Stadium to get autographs from future Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Juan Marichal.
But I had never seen a superstar so comfortable in his own skin, so relaxed and silly as he “sparred” with youngsters. He had just been suspended from boxing for three years for declaring himself a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and Frazier had recently dealt Ali his first loss in 32 fights. But here he was, goofing happily with fans.
Sadly, I was too shy to approach him. I was working up my nerve when boarding for first class began, and he disappeared onto the plane with a small entourage – two or three guys, if memory serves.
I turned to the guy next to me and asked, “Do you know who that is?”
He snorted in disbelief. “Everyone knows who that is,” he said. “That’s The Greatest.”