Two times a year, the TCA press tour brings reporters face-to-face with many celebrities. Winter 2012 featured cocktails with Jon Hamm and the cast of Mad Men plus sessions and one-one-ones with Russell Brand, Charlie Sheen, Tony Bennett, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, the Idol judges, Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, Ricky Gervais, Betty White, Kiefer Sutherland, Tony Bennett, Christina Aguilera, Morgan Freeman, Larry Hagman, Zooey Deschanel and many, many others.
When people ask, as they occasionally do, who is the biggest star you’ve ever met, I only ever have one answer: Muhammad Ali.
The Champ turns 70 today, a fact driven home by the airing of many of his greatest fights on ESPN Classic over the weekend. I caught his epic battle with George Foreman Sunday for the umpteenth time and I’m always surprised by how Ali didn’t just lay on the ropes for six rounds as often reported but kept hammering Foreman with straight rights and combinations, pretty much in every round.
I met Ali 20 years ago at a TV Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Florida. I honestly don’t remember why I was there or how I came by the tux, but I’ll never forget coming face-to-face with The Champ.
Ali was there to help salute Howard Cosell, then gravely ill and not in the room. Parkinson’s had already limited Ali’s vocal abilities, but he was all there otherwise. I found him in the crowded reception prior to the ceremony, respectfully approached and held out my hand. He shook it and listened as I told him something I always wanted to say to him if I ever got the chance.
I was a Toronto high school student when Ali fought Foreman in October of 1974 and the fight was not on free TV. The only access I had to it was on radio, and even then it was a blow-by-blow account after each round. I remember former Champ Floyd Patterson was in on the broadcast and that, a decade after Ali changed his name, Patterson still bitterly referred to Ali as Clay.
I had a project due for art class the next morning–turn a block of clay into a sculpture. I didn’t want to miss the fight, so I listened to the radio as I chipped away at the clay.
The “Rumble in the Jungle,” which was held outdoors in Zaire,Africa, sounded hopeless for Ali. He was a big underdog to then-champion Foreman, who was taller, eight years younger and a fearsome puncher. Foreman destroyed Joe Frazier, knocking him down six times over two rounds.
The radio reports sounded grim. Foreman was wailing away with hay makers, Ali was on the ropes. Patterson was positively gleeful.
As I told Ali, I was chipping away at this block of clay with a hammer and a chisel throughout the fight. Ali landed a right, chip. Foreman landed an uppercut, whack.
By the seventh, even Patterson could see Ali’s rope-a-dope as well as the African heat had taken the punch out of Foreman. Ali knocked him out in the eighth.
The kicker, as I told Ali, was that I took that piece of clay to school the next day and got the highest art mark I ever got.
Telling that to Ali was all the reward I ever wanted. Then something truly magical happened.
Ali, who seemed touched by this story, bent down to place a black brief case he was carrying on the floor. He struggled a bit to do this, and it was hard to see first hand how much his once magnificent motor skills had deteriorated.
Then he stood up, and, just to me, held out his hands, palms up. He made the “nothing up my sleeve” gesture. He placed his outstretched firsts together, and slowly pulled a large, rainbow-coloured scarf out of the grip of one hand. He held the scarf up, then slowly poked it back into the hand. He then opened both hands to show that the scarf had disappeared.
I really thought I was dreaming. Then he got that playful look you used to see on TV when he was about to punk Cosell. He grabbed the thumb of his left hand AND PULLED IT OFF. He held it up to show me the scarf inside the fake thumb.
Some heroes when you meet them are made of clay. None were ever more magical, for me, than Muhammad Ali. Happy birthday, champ.

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