50 years later: Muhammad Ali makes history

Nineteen sixty-four grows in significance, for me, with every passing anniversary. Tuesday the 25th being the 50th anniversary of Muhammad Ali becoming The Greatest.
On Feb.25, 1964, the 22-year-old boxer defeated fearsome heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Mighty Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round. Cassius Clay, as Ali was known at the time, was a 7-1 underdog.
For many of us, Ali has been the champ ever since.
It was cool in recent days to see the photos of Ali–just a week before this fight–clowning with The Beatles. The Fab Four, in Florida to perform their second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, went to Ali’s training camp for the photo op. What a month of February that was in ’64 with these pop culture icons converging in the same place at the same time.
People sometimes ask me, after 30 years covering television, to single out the most famous celebrity I ever met. Hands down the answer is Muhammad Ali. It happened, strangely enough, in Florida. I was invited to a Television Hall of Fame induction. This was 20 years ago, in 1994.
Howard Cosell was being inducted, and Ali, as well as Sugar Ray Leonard, was there to pay homage to one of TV’s greatest sportscasters.
I approached Ali a fan, shook his hand, and told him how, back in Toronto in 1974, I listened to a blow-by-blow description of the famous fight against George Foreman, known as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” This was the fight where Ali used the rope-a-dope technique to lean back on the ropes, cover himself with his arms and wear out his opponent. On the radio, it sounded like Ali was getting killed by Foreman, then the knockout king of boxing.
I had an art project due the next day at school and, while listening to the fight, was banging away at a sculpture with a chisel with every punch Ali seemed to be absorbing. Foreman wore himself out and by the eighth round Ali dropped his opponent.
I took that sculpture to art class the next day and got one of my best marks ever.
I got to tell that story to Muhammad Ali. He smiled, bent down, released  an attache case he had been holding. He was already showing clear signs of Parkinson’s.
He stood up again and held his hands in front of my face, palms up. He then began to pull a large, multi-coloured hanky out of one hand.
He was doing a magic trick. For me!
Ali then stuffed the entire, tablecloth-sized sheet into his other hand. He opened his fist, and the hanky was gone.
Ali smiled again, and then removed the fake thumb on his hand, revealing the hidden scarf.
One of the photographers at the Hall of Fame event snapped a couple of shots of the two of us and later, very kindly, sent me the slides. It’s great to have those photos, but I’ll never forget that magic moment.

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