© Copyright 2016-2020, John Hessburg & The DICTION AERIE.™ All rights reserved.
On June 3, 2016, Muhammad Ali, beloved world boxing champion, died at age 74 after a hard-fought 32-year battle with Parkinson's Disease. His winsome wit & spirit touched millions of lives all around the world, including my father's and my own...
It's wild and warm, even mind-bending, how your life can get woven -- just for a random moment -- into the fabric of another's. And when that other life is a luminous being like the man once called Most Recognized Person in the World, and the Greatest Sportsman of the 20th Century, well, that contact resonates for decades.
There's something to this myth of Six Degrees of Separation. Let me share a story about surprises, jolts of joy that changed the life of a once-and-future little kid in small-town Minnesota...
One week in early February 1964, my Dad was on a business trip to New York City and he phoned Mom at suppertime to say he'd just had an astonishing encounter in a crowded mid-town jazz club where he'd gone with friends to see legendary drummer Gene Krupa. He said this was something he could hardly wait to come home and tell the four kids about. Paul, Mary Helen, Annie "the Neenie Bean" and I were gripped with excitement all week long, waiting, waiting...
Finally Dad returned and we were all over him like sweat on a summer T-shirt. "Dad, hey Dad what happened down there? C'mon and tell us!" My father is a polished raconteur and he held the dinner table in total thrall that evening. Dad said he'd been sitting at their table in the club, waiting for the show to start, when suddenly a tall muscular "Negro man" (yes that was the proper word in vogue back then), dressed in pressed shirt and slacks, leapt up the side of the stage and began chanting a prize-fighting poem to the startled audience -- something like this dukes-up doggerel...
"In Round One, gonna have mah fun.
By the end a' Round Two
He'll be black 'n blue!
Befo' Round Three, yessiree
Sonny's goin' down
Out COLD on da ground !"
Of course, who else -- it was brash young Cassius Clay, the prodigiously gifted boxer who'd won an Olympic Gold Medal at age 18 in 1960, then whupped many of the world's top heavyweights before he was 22. Cassius Clay had been all over the papers and TV for months, boasting in outrageous rhymes to anybody who'd listen, how he was going to demolish Sonny Liston in short order -- even though the glowering Liston, meaner, uglier than a mutt from Hades -- was considered the most dangerous heavyweight on Earth. Like most young boys across America I was dazzled to the marrow by this awesome specimen of an athlete, awed by his impudence, his endless confidence, his stick-it-to-da-Man defiance, and a chiseled granite build that made us mortal city boys look like waifs just rescued from some prison camp.
Cassius Clay, years before he fought the Draft Board and became Muhammad Ali, was the hero of nearly every guy with a pulse, anywhere in America -- literally among the most famous men of the 20th Century. And our Dad got to see him spouting one of his classic chanting pre-fight poems! I raced to the school bus the next morning and was celebrity du jour, just for telling that New York City jazz club story.
What makes it even cooler to four little kids in a sleepy semi-rural suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota was that our Dad had the brass huevos to push his way through that crowd to the stage, and he handed the Great Cassius Clay the folder of his airline ticket. Then Clay smiled, signed it promptly and handed the paper back to Dad, who brought it home and gave it to me. It is still, decades later, one of the few possessions I prize more than any pet, any bike, any skateboard or PF Flyers I ever owned.
So a few days later, the wondrous Cassius Clay -- smirking, mocking, bouncing & weaving like a pain-in-the-ass puppet around the once-feared Heavyweight Champion of the World -- cold-cocked Sonny Liston, knocking him flat with a controversial phantom punch in the first round of their title fight in Miami Beach. Clay used to run in place at a blinding pace one instant before delivering the knock-down blow. It was beautiful ballet... Just like that -- bam! -- the kid became the new world champ. It was Feb. 25, 1964 and our planet was electrified. The legend of Cassius Clay, slayer of dragons from Liston to the U.S. Selective Service during Vietnam days, was born amid blood and thunder. Talk about the glory days!
My brother Paul and I were knocked out ourselves, with sheer immeasurable hero worship. We thought that Cassius Clay was cooler than Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and the Lone Ranger -- all rolled into one. My kid sisters were amused by Dad's story, but wandered back to their tea sets and Easy-Bake Ovens, while Paul and I rambled down the sandy street gutters, floatin' like a butterfly, stingin' like a bee, imitating that deadly hypnotic "shuffle dance" Ali used before unleashing a KO punch. We were fully in awe of this handsome, powerful black man who defied anybody who got in his face -- the testosterone pipedream of every pre-teen male in the Land of the Free.
Now imagine this a couple decades later, how Six Degrees of Separation became just one...
One sunny summer afternoon, back at work in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newsroom where I worked as a roving news reporter, I strode across the hallway, grabbed the door handle to the men's room and -- wham! -- the door was flung open with considerable force by... you guessed it... Muhammad Ali himself, apparently there for an interview with our sports editor. It was the early 1980s; and his "slave name" of Cassius Clay was long gone, daddy. We both were moving so abruptly I nearly collided with his massive chest, so instinctively I held my hand, palm out, to brace for impact. We halted in the nick of time; and I felt this wave of frisson washing over me...
Ali's eyes lit up with impish glee when he saw my jaw drop halfway to the floor. I stood there, grinning stupidly like some small-town rube at the Ascot Races, nearly paralyzed with shock. Then with perfect comic timing, Ali put his hands on his hips, cocked his head sideways in mock disapproval and he asked me in a singsong voice -- all for the benefit of dozens now lined up in the newsroom windows, watching in astonishment --
"Whatsa mattah, man, you nevah seen one of us befo' ?"
I looked down for a sec', half chagrined, half steamrolled with delight. And then I started grinning. We both began to laugh out loud and I reached to shake the hand of the World Champion who'd been my idol so many years ago. He was a big broad man, at that time at least 6-foot-3 and maybe 250 lbs -- a bit porkier than his prime. Ali's face seemed puffier in the cheeks than the classic news photos I'd remembered from middle school days. His huge extended mitt -- unusually warm and a little bit shaky -- just enveloped my right hand. My throat was so dry I sounded like Don Knotts choking on soda crackers; and all I could croak out were two raspy nearly inaudible words...
I must have sounded like an Epsilon-Minus Semi-Moron from Huxley's Brave New World. But Ali had seen plenty of people wobble in his presence before and he was kind. The former three-time world heavy-weight champion then looked at me and said softly, "Gotta go man, ah'm late." I nodded, still smiling like a Cheshire Cat, still too dumbfounded to speak.
And Muhammad Ali, a huge man in myth and in person, walked away down the hall to his interview, and I noticed something odd, troubling. He was half-shuffling one foot, dragging it just a bit, and his gait seemed, well, it was off-kilter. I told my City Editor who said this, lowering his gaze in sadness.
"Yeah, Ali was just diagnosed with Parkinson's. He was in town on a talk show tour and that's what this interview is all about."
"Aw man," I said to my City Editor & walked back to my desk, sitting there numbly, chin in hand for 10 minutes, still sorting through that reality face plant that had just swept through the Seattle P-I building like some stiff breeze off Puget Sound.
Now, I'm not one to go all daft and dizzy over celebrities. Never have. Normally I just let them roll right on by, give them ample space. You get inured to the glib gloss of fame in the news business. While writing news features for the Seattle P-I, I'd landed the first one-on-one sitdown with then super-reclusive Bill Gates, and I'd met a couple U.S. presidents on the fly. So you just flow with the day, let it all glide along, and maybe get smacked by grand surprises some days... no dire conniptions necessary.
But that random encounter with Muhammad Ali -- for decades of his celebrated life among the most beloved humans of the modern era -- will forever be etched into the back of my brain. His spirit is strong and life-positive, his gaze so riveting, the raw effervescence of his personality is so compelling... he is the single most charismatic human being I have ever met.
Or ever will meet.
I say IS not was, because the man still lives, and he lives as we remember him best. Nothing on this planet ever can erase the power of his exultant spirit; and how it’s moved so many millions to keep on keeping on despite crushing physical disabilities. That day in July 1996 when Ali's trembling hand held that torch atop the tower, and lit the Olympic Flame in Atlanta, I let tears of empathy and joy spill out, thrilled to see him standing tall and proud again.
And now when I see recent photos of Ali -- eyes dimmer and brow creased deeply, cheeks sunken by that cruel illness called Parkinson's Disease, hunched over in his wheelchair, devoid of voice and mirth -- I think: if sportwriters today could have had that chance brush with Muhammad Ali that I was blessed to enjoy one afternoon in Seattle, I'll wager not a one could type out this once-classic sports page phrase -- "The Ali Shuffle" -- without first wiping their own eyes once.
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