Excerpted from "Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts" by Davis Miller. Copyright © 2016 by Davis Miller. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
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Check out Davis Miller's conversation with Only A Game’s Bill Littlefield.
My Dinner with Ali
March 31, 1988
I’d been waiting for years. When it finally happened, it wasn’t what I’d expected. But he’s been fooling many of us for most of our lives.
When I finally got to see him, it wasn’t at his farm in Michigan and I didn’t have an appointment. I simply drove past his mother’s house on Lambert Avenue in Louisville.
It was midafternoon on Good Friday, two days before Resurrection Day. A block-long ivory-colored Winnebago with Virginia plates was parked out front. Though he hadn’t been in town much lately, I knew it was his.
How was I sure? Because I knew his patterns and style. Since 1962, when he has traveled unhurried in this country, he’s preferred buses or recreational vehicles. And he owned a second farm in Virginia. The connections were obvious. Some people study faults in the earth’s crust or the habits of storms or of galaxies, hoping to make sense of the universe, of the world we live in, and of their own lives. Others meditate on the life and work of one social movement or man. Since I was eleven years old, I have been a Muhammad Ali scholar.
I parked my car behind his Winnebago and grabbed a few old magazines and a special stack of papers I’d been storing under the front seat, waiting for the meeting with Ali that, ever since my family and I’d moved to Louisville two years before, I’d been certain would come. Like everyone else, I wondered in what shape I’d find The Champ. I’d heard about his Parkinson’s disease and watched him stumble through the ropes when introduced at recent big fights. But when I thought of Ali, I remembered him as I’d seen him years before, when he was luminous.
I was in my early twenties then, hoping to become a world--champion kickboxer. And I was fortunate enough to get to spar with him. I later wrote a couple of stories about the experience, the ones I had with me today hoping that he’d sign.
Yes, in those days he had shone. There was an aura of light and confidence around him. He had told the world of his importance: “I am the center of the universe,” he howled throughout the mid-1970s, and we almost believed him. But recent magazine and newspaper articles had Ali sounding like a turtle spilled on to his back, limbs thrashing air.
It was his brother Rahaman who opened the door. He saw what I was holding under my arm, smiled an understanding smile, and said, “He’s out in the Winnebago. Go knock on the door. He’ll be happy to sign those for you.”
Rahaman looked pretty much the way I remembered him: tall as his brother, mahogany skin, and a mustache that suggested a cross between footballer Jim Brown and a black, aging Errol Flynn. There was no indication in his voice or on his face that I would find his brother less than healthy.
I crossed the yard, climbed the three steps on the side of the Winnebago, and prepared to knock. Ali opened the door before I got the chance. I’d forgotten how huge he was. His presence filled the doorway. He had to lean under the frame to see me.
I felt no nervousness. Ali’s face, in many ways, was as familiar to me as my father’s. His skin remained unmarked, his countenance had nearly perfect symmetry. Yet something was different: Ali was no longer the world’s prettiest man. This was only partly related to his illness; it was also because he was heavier than he needed to be. He remained handsome, even uncommonly so, but in the way of a youngish granddad who tells stories about how he could have been a movie star, if he’d wanted. Ali’s pulchritude used to challenge us; now he looked a bit more like us, and less like an avatar sent by Allah.
“Come on in,” he said and waved me past. His voice had a gurgle to it, as if he needed to clear his throat. He offered a massive hand. He did not so much shake hands as he lightly placed his in mine. His touch was as gentle as a girl’s. His palm was cool and not callused; his fingers were the long, tapered digits of a hypnotist; his fingernails were professionally manicured; his knuckles were large and slightly swollen, as if he recently had been punching the heavy bag.
He was dressed in white, all white: new leather tennis shoes, over-the-calf cotton socks, custom-tailored linen slacks, thick short-sleeved safari-style shirt crisp with starch. I told him I thought white was a better color for him than the black he often wore those days.
He motioned for me to sit, but didn’t speak. His mouth was tense at the corners; it looked like a kid’s who has been forced by a parent or teacher to keep it closed. He slowly lowered himself into a chair beside the window. I took a seat across from him and laid my magazines on the table between us. He immediately picked them up, produced a pen, and began signing. He asked, “What’s your name?” and I told him.
He continued to write without looking up. His eyes were not glazed, as I’d read, but they looked tired. A wet cough rattled in his throat. His left hand trembled almost continuously. In the silence around us, I felt a need to tell him some of the things I’d been wanting to say for years.
“Champ, you changed my life,” I said. It’s true. “When I was a kid, I was messed up, couldn’t even talk to people. No kind of life at all.”
He raised his eyes from an old healthy image of himself on a magazine cover. “You made me believe I could do anything,” I said.
He was watching me while I talked, not judging, just watching. I picked up a magazine from the stack in front of him. “This is a story I wrote for Sports Illustrated when I was in college,” I said. “It’s about the ways you’ve influenced my life.”
“What’s your name?” he asked again, this time looking right at me. I told him. He nodded. “I’ll finish signing these in a while,” he said. He put his pen on the table. “Read me your story.”
“You have a good face,” he said when I was through. “I like your face. Kind.”
He’d listened seriously as I’d read, laughing at funny lines and when I’d tried to imitate his voice. He had not looked bored. It was a lot more than I could have expected.
“You ever seen any magic?” he asked. “You like magic?”
“Not in years,” I said.
He stood and walked to the back of his RV, moving mechanically. It was my great-grandfather’s walk. He motioned for me to follow. There was a sad yet lovely, noble, and intimate quality to his movements.
He did about ten tricks. The one that interested me most required no props. It was a very simple deception. “Watch my feet,” he said, standing maybe eight feet away, his back to me and his arms perpendicular to his sides. Then, although he’d just had real trouble walking, he seemed to levitate about three inches off of the floor. He turned to me and in his thick, slow voice said, “I’m a baadd niggah,” and gave me the classic easy Ali smile.
I laughed and asked him to do it again; it was a good one. I thought I might like to try it myself, just as fifteen years earlier I had stood in front of the mirror in my dad’s hallway for hours, pushing my tapeworm of a left arm out at the reflection, wishing mightily that I could replicate Ali’s cobra jab. And I had found an old white cotton laundry bag, filled it with socks and rags, and hung it from a ceiling beam in the basement. I pulled on a pair of my dad’s old brown cotton work gloves and pushed my left hand into that twenty-pound marshmallow two hundred, three hundred, five hundred, one thousand times a day—concentrating on speed: dazzling, crackling speed, in pursuit of godly speed, trying to whip out punches so fast they’d be invisible to opponents. I got to where I could shoot six to eight crisp shots a second—“shoe shinin’,” Ali called it—and I strove to make my fists move more quickly than thought (like Ali’s); and then I’d try to spring up on my toes, as I had watched Ali do: I would try to fly like Ali, bounding away from the bag and to my left.
After the levitation trick, Ali grabbed an empty plastic milk jug from beside a sink. He asked me to examine it. “What if I make this jug rise up from the sink this high and sit there? Will you believe?”
“Not much of a believer these days, Champ,” I said.
“Well, what if I make it rise, sit this high off the ground, then turn in a circle?”
“I’m a hard man to convince,” I said.
“Well, what if I make it rise, float over here to the other side of the room, then go back to the sink, and sit itself back down. Then will you become . . . one of my believers?”
I laughed and said, “Then I’ll believe.”
“Watch,” he said, pointing at the plastic container and taking four steps back. I was trying to see both the milk jug and Ali. He waved his hands a couple of times in front of his body, said, “Arise, ghost, arise,” in a foggy-sounding voice. The plastic container did not move from the counter.
“April Fool’s,” said Ali. We both chuckled and he walked over and slipped his long arm around my shoulders.
He autographed the stories and wrote a note on a page of my book-length manuscript I’d asked him to take a look at. “To Davis Miller, The Greatest Fan of All Times,” he wrote. “From Muhammad Ali, King of Boxing.”
I felt my stories were finally complete, now that he’d confirmed their existence. He handed me the magazines and asked me into his mother’s house. We left the Winnebago. I unlocked my car and leaned across the front seat, carefully placing the magazines and manuscript on the passenger’s side, not wanting to take a chance of damaging them or leaving them behind. Abruptly, there was a chirping, insect-sounding noise in my ear. I jumped back, swatted the air, turned around. It had been Ali’s hand. He was standing right behind me, still the practical joker.
“How’d you do that?” I wanted to know. It was a question I’d find myself asking several times that day.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he raised both fists to shoulder height and motioned me out into the yard. We walked about five paces, I put up my hands, and he tossed a slow jab at me. I blocked and countered with my own. Many fighters throw punches at each other or at the air or at whatever happens to be around. It’s the way we play, even decades after having last stepped between the ropes of a prize ring. Now, approaching ten years after his retirement, Ali must still have tossed a hundred lefts a day. He and I had both thrown our shots a full half foot away from the other, but my adrenal gland was pumping at high gear from being around Ali and my jab had come out fast—it had made the air sing. He slid back a half step and took a serious look at me. I figured I was going to get it now. A couple of kids were riding past on bicycles; they recognized Ali and stopped.
“He doesn’t understand I’m the greatest boxer of all times,” he yelled to the kids. He pulled his watch from his arm, stuck it in his pants pocket. I slipped mine off, too. He’d get down to business now. He got up on his skates, danced to his left a little, loosening his legs. A couple of minutes before, climbing down the steps of his RV, he’d moved so awkwardly he’d almost lost his balance. I’d wanted to give him a hand, but knew not to. I’d remembered seeing old Joe Louis “escorted” in that fashion by lesser mortals, and I couldn’t do that to Muhammad Ali. But now that Ali was on his toes and boxing, he was moving fairly fluidly.
He flung another jab in my direction, a second, a third. He wasn’t one-fourth as fast as he had been in 1975, when I’d sparred with him, but his eyes were alert, shining like black electric marbles, and he saw everything and was real relaxed. That’s one reason old fighters keep making comebacks: we are more alive when boxing than at almost any other time. The grass around us was green and was getting high; it would soon need its first cutting. A blue jay squawked from a big oak to the left. Six robins roamed the yard. The afternoon light was tawny. New leaves looked wet with the sun. I instinctively blocked and/or slid to the side of all three of Ali’s punches, then immediately felt guilty about it, like being fourteen years old and knowing for the first time that you can beat your dad at ping-pong. I wished I could’ve stopped myself from slipping Ali’s jabs, but I couldn’t. Reflexive training runs faster and deeper than thought. I zipped a jab to his nose, one to his body, vaulted a straight right up to his chin, and was dead certain all three would have scored—and scored clean. A couple of cars stopped in front of the house. His mom’s was on a corner lot. Three more were parked on the side.
“Check out the left,” a young-sounding voice said from somewhere. The owner of the voice was talking about my jab, not Ali’s.
“He’s in with the triple greatest of all times,” Ali was shouting. “Gowna let him tire himself out. He’ll get tired soon.”
I didn’t, but pretended to, anyway. “You’re right, Champ,” I told him, dropping my hands to my sides. “I’m thirty-five. Can’t go like I used to.”
I raised my right hand to my chest, acting out of breath. I looked at Ali; his hand was in the exact same position. We were both smiling, but he was sizing me up.
“He got scared,” Ali shouted, conclusively.
Onlookers laughed from their bicycles and car windows. Someone blew his horn and another yelled, “Hey, Champ.”
“Come on in the house,” Ali said softly in my ear.
We walked toward the door, Ali in the lead, moving woodenly through new grass, while all around us people rolled up car windows and started their engines.