Several years ago, Diane Larsen, the “Cruise Lady” — for whom I accompany at least one international tour every year — told me a wonderful story with a Las Vegas connection. It regards an opportunity that she and her son had to visit with the legendary Muhammad Ali, and will perhaps show him in a very different light than you’ve ever seen him in before:
One of the most memorable experiences of my life was with Muhammad Ali. The tender and very personal experience I had with him was 24 years ago [now, closer to 27 — dcp] and yet I have treasured it.
After my first husband’s death, I inherited a 6-foot poster of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that was taken off the building where their fight was held in Zaire, Africa. There were only three of those postures on the building so it is possibly the only one still in existence.
My husband Dick had idolized Muhammad Ali and always closely followed his life and his career. To be completely honest, I didn’t really follow boxing, but I still did not like Muhammad Ali. His boasting about “I am the greatest!” drove me crazy. If I ever brought up how I disliked Ali’s comments or style, it would really upset Dick. At the time, I was in my twenties and I just found Ali too publicly self-centered and boastful. Now that I have had many more years of life experience, I understand a lot more about Muhammad Ali’s unique style of promotion.
After Dick died, I contemplated what to do with this huge poster and I decided that I would try to get both of those heavy-weight champions to autograph it. I had an 11-year old son, “KC,” and I wanted him to appreciate his father’s love for boxing and especially for Muhammad Ali. I took on this task as a challenge from some of my employees at that time and also because I decided it would be a great adventure.
KC and I managed to meet George Foreman in Las Vegas and spend an hour with him. He signed the poster, a pair of red boxing gloves, and many other things (13 signatures in all). That experience of meeting George Foreman was filmed and is another wonderful memory. George Foreman told me at that time that if I managed to get Muhammad Ali to sign the poster too, it would be the only document ever signed by both of them. I told him that we were scheduled to meet Muhammad Ali the next week in Los Angeles.
KC and I flew to Los Angeles to meet Muhammad Ali at his hotel to sign the poster. He was there for a book signing and his security team had prepared for us to meet him in his hotel suite. My college friend Nanci and her 10-year old son were with us to help take pictures and film the signing. The four of us waited anxiously in the lobby when, finally, a security person came up to us and escorted us to Muhammad Ali’s suite.
I have grown up a lot in the last 25 years and so some of this memory makes me a little embarrassed as I recall the details, but in my desire to be honest with every detail, I will relate it exactly as it happened.
We went up to the door and Muhammad Ali opened it and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I was shocked that he personally answered the door and, because I wanted to film the “encounter” and we weren’t filming yet, I was caught off guard. This is the part that makes me cringe — I found myself quickly saying, “I didn’t expect you to answer the door and I had hoped to film this meeting with you. Could we start over so we can film this?” Looking back, I cannot believe I had the audacity to say that, but that is what I said.
He graciously nodded his head, closed the door, reopened the door, and gave me a kiss on the cheek again. The four of us then entered his beautiful hotel room and met his wife and some of his children. I especially remember meeting his daughter, Laila, who was a teenager at the time. She eventually became a boxer herself.
In his living room we set out several things which I had planned to have him sign. He appeared to me to be slightly medicated because his speech was somewhat slow. The fact that he was dealing with Parkinson’s disease was not publicly known at that point in time. I explained how much it meant to me that he would meet with us and allow my son KC to meet his deceased father’s hero.
As I talked with him, I became aware that something was tickling my right ear (he was sitting to my left on the couch). At first I didn’t know what it was, but it eventually became clear that he had been secretly reaching behind me to tickle my ear and make me confused and yet be funny. When I figured it out, it was funny and yet also interesting to me that he would want to show his playful side to basically four strangers who came to meet him. Remember, I originally didn’t even like him. I was there to create an amazing memory for my son and not because I was an adoring fan of his.
First he signed a pair of red boxing gloves. Unlike George Foreman’s flamboyant signature that was almost like calligraphy, Muhammad Ali’s signature was slow and careful. I felt like he was trying very hard to make his signature very readable, which it was. He then signed his book and eventually signed the huge poster. We filmed all of this. I explained that George Foreman had said that this poster would be the only document that they had ever both signed. At that point Ali started to playfully punch George Foreman’s picture on the poster. Although he was being funny, I held my breath, hoping that he wouldn’t tear through the poster. Of course, he didn’t.
At this point, a little maturity on my part kicked in and I didn’t have the heart to ask him to sign anything else. It seemed to take so much effort on his part to write his name and I felt like I had asked so much of him already. It was the next few moments that I will never forget.
He started to playfully spar with KC, which was surprising to me. I just didn’t expect Muhammad Ali to playfully punch back and forth with my son. Anyway, at one point Muhammad Ali punched my son (playfully, not seriously) in the jaw. He encouraged my son to punch him back on his jaw, which my son did. Ali punched my son again, a little bit harder than before, and then waited for KC to punch him. KC then punched him a little bit harder also. Muhammad Ali then fell backwards to the floor. There was silence. We all stood there and no one moved. There was no way that KC’s punch would really knock him down but there was Muhammad Ali on the floor.
It seemed like 5 minutes went by and yet, it was probably only 30 seconds. Muhammad Ali got up and bent down to look KC in the eye and then pointed his right finger to his face and said, “Now you can tell your friends that you knocked down Muhammad Ali!”
At that moment Muhammad Ali to me truly was “the greatest.” I loved him for what he had just done. No news people were around to see, but he had just given a young boy a memory that he (and I) would never forget. Muhammad Ali, loved and honored around the world, had just taken a few minutes of his time to create an extraordinary memory. He had shown in a very private way what a loving, kind, and tender person he was. After getting one more kiss on my cheek, we left.
I cried when he died, and for twenty-four years now I knew I would.
Posted from Las Vegas, Nevada