Davis Miller has made a career writing about the life of Muhammed Ali. His most recent book, "Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts," offers a detailed and intimate portrait of the former heavyweight champion. Miller tells the more personal story of his friendship with Ali…In His Own Words:
Ali's Influence On Miller's Childhood
"When I first saw Muhammad Ali, I was 11 years old. My mom had died a few months before, and I was almost catatonically depressed. It was January, 1964, and I was sitting sadly in front of my father's little black and white television. Turned it on, flipped channels and suddenly there was this face and this voice in front of me who said, 'I'm young. I'm handsome. I'm fast, I'm pretty and can't possibly be beat.' It felt like the glory train had passed through me.
"I lived vicariously through Ali all through my teen years. Ali was my man. He was my alter ego. He was everything I wasn't. He was king of the world, and I was this skinny, scrawny, little, terribly depressed kid in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I was 4-foot-10 and weighed 63 pounds when I was a junior in high school, and my high school nickname was 'Fetus.' I imitated his voice terribly. I got really cocky with my mouth, which got me beaten up even more regularly than it would have otherwise. I learned to throw a jab like Ali. I could dance clockwise and counter-clockwise like him. It gave me some sort of solace in my otherwise bleak life.
Miller Faces His 'Daddy' In The Ring
"I met him first in 1975. He was then world heavyweight champion again. He was training to fight British champion Joe Bugner in a world title bout. By that time, I was fancying myself as a world-champion kickboxer. And my friend Bobby...who was Angelo Dundee's nephew, suggested that if I drive up to Ali's training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, he could get me in the ring with him. So I did it. I hopped in my old Camaro and drove those 600-plus miles. Ali at the time would have sparred with anyone — from 3-year-old tykes to their 97-year-0ld great grandmamas
"It was fun. I was trembling head to toe until the bell rang. And then he pointed at me and said, 'I could be your daddy if I was white.' And as soon as that happened I relaxed. I had seen him and studied everything he'd done, so when he went back into his rope-a-dope, and he sat there looking sleepy, I managed to catch the guy with a three-punch combination. The crowd oohed and aahed, and it woke Ali up. He hit me with a single jab, and I suddenly couldn't see, couldn't hear. Didn't know where I was. Spectators sounded like they were a galaxy far, far away, and my legs went to soup. He draped his arm around me and said, 'You're fast, and you sure can hit — to be so little.' He led me, looking freshly electrocuted from the ring, and it was one of the highlights of my life.
"Some many years later — Easter weekend 1988 — [I] drove past a house that I knew to be Ali's mother's home on Lambert Ave. And there was this block-long, Ivory-colored Winnebago with license plates on it that read, "The Greatest." I probably drove a couple miles past the house, worked up my courage, turned around, went back, parked behind the Winnebago, went up and knocked on the door. Ali did not recognize me when he first leaned onto the frame of the door. Now, he was deeply Parkinsonian by then and so he didn't talk much. He gestured me in with his fingers, did magic tricks for me. He would pull a silk scarf from what seemed to be an empty hand. We got out in his mom's front yard and play boxed. It was on a corner lot, and cars stopped all around. People cranked down their windows and people waved and cheered. Kids rode past on bicycles, 'Hey Champ, hey Champ.'
"The way Ali treated Joe Frazier is, in many respects, shameful, particularly before the third Ali-Frazier fight, the Thrilla in Manilla. He had knocked out George Foreman in Zaire, almost exactly one year before in October 1974. And it went terribly to Ali's head. He'd always had that gargantuan, bordering on obscene, ego. And it just got out of control. And he acted horribly. I've seen him weep when he's watched footage of himself calling Joe Frazier a gorilla. He apologized to Joe to his face. Joe never forgave him. I think over the years Ali outgrew all of that.
I've seen him weep when he's watched footage of himself calling Joe Frazier a gorilla.Davis Miller
He has offered to give me basically every thing in his house at one time or another. He's offered me a "Muhammad Ali, Athlete of the Century" award. And it's not because we're friends. He does that with almost anyone. He treats you as if you were a cousin or his long-lost brother. He'd invite you to have a meal with him, play with his kids or grandkids if they were there. He'd invite you to spend the night and just hang out until you've wanted to leave. I've asked him why he's so very generous. The thing he said to me is that, 'I've treated so many people so bad. I gotta make up for it,'
"He says that the way he'd like to be remembered is as an enormously generous person. He's still reviled by some people, but hundreds of millions, if not billions of people, love him. No matter who Ali says he is and isn't, and no matter who you and I say he is and isn't, he falls outside of our concepts of who we believe him to be. And he takes pleasure in that. He notices that, and likes to sort of pick up the carpet of the universe and give it a sweet, friendly shake and peer underneath and see what's there and be this little cosmic brat that says, 'I don't have to be who you want me to be.'"
Bill’s Thoughts On 'Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts'
Davis Miller has enjoyed unusual access to Muhammad Ali.
In one sense, the access began when Miller, who’d trained as a kickboxer, got an opportunity to spar with the champ in 1975.
[sidebar title="An Excerpt From 'Approaching Ali'" align="right"]Read an excerpt from "Approaching Ali" by Davis Miller.[/sidebar]
But in a larger sense, their connection began in Miller’s childhood, when he began seeing Ali as an ideal. Miller was small, scrawny, and often ridiculed. Ali, by his own admission, was young, strong, and beautiful.
Over the course of several decades, Miller has maintained a friendship with Ali. He’s also made a career of writing about the champ, and that has been just fine with Ali, at least according to Miller.
There have been many books about Muhammad Ali, and there will be more, but perhaps nobody is more qualified to write about Ali’s post-boxing life than Miller.
This segment aired on December 12, 2015.