Christmas Eve, 1990. It is a cold, wintry night and I am at the Holiday Inn, Bombay, knocking on the door to a suite, my heart in my mouth. At this hour, I ought to have been in church. Or at some Christmas dance. Instead, I am here. The door opens. A wizened old Black man, attired in a flowing kaftan, a skull cap on his head, looks at me inquiringly. His is not the most recognized face in the world. This is not the Greatest sportsman of all time. He is not Muhammad Ali. But I am a boxing aficionado. I recognize Jabir Herbert Muhammad, the Champ's manager.
"Who be you?" he asks comically.
In vain I appeal to the manager, I beg him, I try to impress upon him that I am Muhammad Ali's biggest fan in India...
I tell him who I am. And why I am here. He frowns. Muhammad Ali's stopover in Bombay is meant to be hush-hush. On his way home from Baghdad, where he had gone to convince Saddam Hussein to release the American hostages taken from Kuwait in the run-up to the Gulf war, Ali had decided he wanted to visit Mother Teresa in Calcutta. He landed in Bombay late evening. His flight to Calcutta is early next morning. Nobody is supposed to know he is here. But how do you keep the world's most famous and best-loved athlete a secret? The Holiday Inn's guest relations executive knows. And she tells me.
"Muhammad Ali ain't meeting nobody," Herbert says firmly. "The Champ's tired, he's asleep, we got an early morning flight to catch, man, I ain't gonna wake him up to give no press interview."
Allah is kind. For sitting beneath the hotel's Christmas tree as if waiting for me, is Muhammad Ali!
I feel like crying. In vain I appeal to the manager, I beg him, I try to impress upon him that I am Muhammad Ali's biggest fan in India, and meeting him even for a few minutes would be a dream come true; I plead that all I want is a look at the Champ, not an interview. But Herbert is resolute. He stands rock-like and solid between me and the door behind which is Muhammad Ali. Hopelessly close to tears, I remind him it's Christmas Eve, and if there's one wish I want to come true, it is this. His face softens. Reluctantly, he tells me, "We're leaving at 6 o'clock. If you wait in the lobby, Inshallah, your dream may come true."
Christmas morning, 5.45am.
There's a skeleton staff at the Holiday Inn at this hour. No guests. But Allah is kind. For sitting beneath the hotel's Christmas tree as if waiting for me, is Muhammad Ali! I stand still, catching my breath, not believing my eyes. Then I am all over him in a flash. Introducing myself, shaking his hand, feeling his bicep, shooting pictures. Startled, he looks at me with amused indulgence, not saying a word. My hands are trembling as I pull out my tattered, dog-eared copy of his autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story. His limbs twitch. He accepts it slowly. The book is falling apart, it's that old and well-thumbed. But his face lights up. Hesitatingly, his voice slurring, he asks me my name. Then painstakingly signs the autobiography for me with a shaking hand. His movements are slow because Parkinson's has set in; he's now 48, and he's been suffering for six years already. Seeing him like this breaks my heart.
Muhammad Ali suddenly stands up, all 6 feet 3 inches and 240 pounds of him. He hauls me to my feet. "C'mon, let's box," he mumbles...
But there must be a switch inside him, for Muhammad Ali suddenly stands up, all 6 feet 3 inches and 240 pounds of him. He hauls me to my feet. "C'mon, let's box," he mumbles, squaring his shoulders and holding up massive fists. He is enormous. And he towers over me. I am trained in the fighting arts and sports. But this is Muhammad Ali! Uncertainly, I put down my writing pad and pen. And he starts dancing the famous Ali Shuffle, snapping lightning fast jabs within an inch of my eyes, circling me in the lobby of the Holiday Inn like a fighter in the ring. Beneath his ageing frame, Muhammad Ali still has the ghost of what he must have been like in his prime, for he is incredibly light on his feet, his fists dart like a snake's tongue. The hotel's reception staff, doormen and security guards curiously gather to watch. He is a showman and loves an audience. He dodges me easily, stops jabbing, lowers his guard and pretends to blow hard at me and knock me over. Everybody roars with laughter and claps.
[H]e is incredibly light on his feet, his fists dart like a snake's tongue... He dodges me easily, stops jabbing... and pretends to blow hard at me and knock me over.
Bored with boxing, he proceeds to dazzle me with magic tricks performed by amazing sleight of hand, pulling out coins from my ears, making handkerchiefs disappear in thin air, then producing them out of his pocket. Quickly tiring of this, too, he sits down. And then we talk. His voice is low. It is said when a great man speaks, people strain their ears to listen. I do that. I am getting the interview of a lifetime. We discuss boxing. Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield are the contenders to Muhammad Ali's world heavyweight boxing title. "They're good fighters, but I'm the Greatest," he reminds me. He talks about Mother Teresa, who is so simple, so humble. "Gandhi was like that, Martin Luther King too," he says. He noticed the slums with naked children on his way from the airport. "I want to do something for them," he whispers, "Service to God is the way we pay for room in heaven." And Saddam Hussein. "I got him to free the hostages, but I cannot stop the war," he admits sadly.
He noticed the slums on his way from the airport. "I want to do something for them," he whispers, "Service to God is the way we pay for room in heaven."
All too soon it is time for Muhammad Ali to leave for the airport. The car is waiting for him in the hotel porch, Jabir Hebert Muhammad opening its door. I walk him to it. He leans on me heavily, weighing me down, an old retired and tired fighter. I can feel the tremors in his body, the drag of his feet, and understand how Parkinson's impairs muscular coordination. Just before getting into the car, he shakes my hand and puts one big arm around my shoulder. "Your dream come true?" he asks, a slow, shy smile breaking out on that pretty, unmarked, famous face of his. Without waiting for my reply, he throws one last playful punch at me and is gone.
Just like he did on Friday in Arizona... R.I.P. Champ, you will always be the Greatest. And thank you for the memories.
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