Lawrence Toppman

My encounter with Muhammad Ali

The “Tale of the Tape” compared two champions in 1971, a few months before I crossed paths with Muhammad Ali.
The “Tale of the Tape” compared two champions in 1971, a few months before I crossed paths with Muhammad Ali.

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.

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.”

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