Back in 2003 at an art fair in Miami, I was lucky enough to be invited to the book launch of ‘GOAT. A Tribute to Muhammad Ali’: The ‘GOAT’ standing for Greatest Of All Time.
I was beside myself with excitement at the possibility I might see the great man himself. As I sat in the Miami Beach Convention Centre (where Ali, then Cassius Clay, defeated Sonny Liston for his first Heavyweight Championship in 1964) listening to Will Smith compere from the boxing ring centre stage, we all waited with bated breath for my childhood hero to appear.
We knew he was very ill with Parkinson’s disease, but we hoped to catch a glimpse of him and that he might even be able to make it into the ring to say a couple of words.
In the early to mid 70’s, TV viewing in our house, deep in the countryside in Ireland, was limited. Saturday night was Morecambe and Wise, Fridays I think – Top of the Pops. Then of course there was the Eurovision which Ireland in those days often won, almost to our annoyance, as it meant we had to go to the huge expense of hosting it the following year.
There may have been Dallas at that point too, I don’t really remember, but what’s indelibly etched on my brain is that the only time I was allowed stay up really really late, as a child aged 8 or 9, was to watch Muhammad Ali fight; in fact positively encouraged to. Extraordinary to think of now in the 21st century for all sorts of reasons.
He captured our hearts in Ireland, not only for the boxing, but for his remarkable personality which shone through – unique and rare for any era. He became my hero at that point. His eloquence, intellect, wit and charm were surpassed by none. He was his own man who stood up for what he believed in and what’s more, made it known.
As we waited in the packed arena, Will Smith continued to list Ali’s incredible accolades but, after some time passed, it seemed that he might not appear. Disappointed, we headed out of the convention centre. “There’s an after party at the Raleigh hotel” an acquaintance told us. Still hoping we might get to see the former Cassius Clay, we made our way through the noisy and busy hotel foyer to wait for a lift to take us up to the penthouse floor where the party was to be held.
As we stood there, waiting, suddenly a hush went through the room. Silence. Slowly someone started to clap followed by a respectful ripple of applause which grew louder and louder. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and a tingle went down my spine as Muhammad Ali slowly approached the lift in front of me, feebly, using a walking stick to help him and holding onto the arm of his wife.
As he stood no more than a foot away from me, I looked at him, and tears came to my eyes as they do now writing this. Rooted to the spot the range of emotions that hit me was overwhelming: Love, respect, awe, disbelief, shock and, of course, all those childhood memories.
As he entered the lift and turned to face towards us, I thanked God for that moment that I knew I’d remember for the rest of my life.
Happy 70th Birthday Ali, and thank you for being you.