Our common denominator: Death. So long Muhammad Ali: The Greatest. Op-Ed.
I have been on the road doing comedy since Sunday, May 29th. It came as a surprise Friday evening when I learned after my late show that Muhammad Ali had passed.
With each death of an iconic person, we not only lose them, we also close the door on a valuable chapter in history. Though we will always have the memories, nothing can prepare us for the morbid agony that death brings. We take for granted these walking monuments will live forever.
During Muhammad’s reign, black sports figures like, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdur-Jabbar, and Wilt Chamberlain just to name a few, were more than just athletes. Instead of being rewarded with exorbitant shoe deals for their greatness, they all had the unenviable task to imbue a segregated, severely mistreated generation of minorities.
I have always looked up to our prominent civil rights leaders. Like some of us in this day and age, I wish I could have met and talk with influential people of the civil rights movement. Don’t you?
Well, around April of 2001 a good friend of mine, Yahya McClain, was dating Laila Ali, Muhammad Ali’s daughter. Yahya, a boxing champion himself awhile back in the Cruiserweight division, knew how bad I wanted to meet Muhammad Ali.
Late one night, I got a call from Yahya saying if I wanted to meet Muhammad come to a hotel in Beverly Hills–the name escapes me. Eager to fulfill this dream, I put on some clothes and grab a favorite book of mine–Malcolm X: The Great Photographs–which had several pictures of Malcolm and Muhammad together. I drove at break-neck speed to reach the hotel because it was late and Yahya said Muhammad was going to bed soon.
When I reached the hotel, sure enough Muhammad was about to retire for the evening. But having known how bad I wanted to meet him–Yahya explained my desperation–he decided to stay up and talk to me.
Upon meeting Muhammad in person, my first impression wasn’t what I expected at all. For someone who made his reputation from a vociferous vernacular–granted Parkinson’s disease had robbed him of a lot of his facilities–he was very subdued and quiet.
For a moment, I stood in reverence. He immediately notice the book I was holding. Without hesitation, he reached for it. After our introduction, he took a seat and began to flip through the pages. I could see a deep adoration on his face as he glanced at several pictures of Malcolm X.
In a soft voice, he reminisced about the days they were close before Malcolm split from the Nation of Islam in 1964. He told me how Malcolm had brought him into the NOI.
Muhammad expressed deep sorrow for the way his relationship with Malcolm had ended. There was no closure and he regretted it. He also paid homage to Elijah Muhammad who led the Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death in 1975.
Although Muhammad converted to Sunni Islam in 1975, and then later embraced the teachings of Sufism in 2005, there was a certain amount of gratitude towards Elijah for changing his life and way of thinking during a time when blacks were made to feel inferior to whites. This was a history teaching session for me from the “Greatest.” With each flip of the page, he displayed a new facial declaration. As I reminisce, it’s an indescribable feeling. I’m becoming emotional with the recollection.
We never talked about his big fights–which showed me his greatest achievements weren’t in the ring. It’s what he did outside the ring that had the greatest impact on people and society.
Muhammad kissed and signed places in the book that moved him the most. We spent about an hour together talking and going through the book that night. And for that moment, time stood still. It was as if we stepped into a time machine and journeyed back together.
It’s still hard to believe I had an in-depth conversation with such a polarizing figure who played a vital role in changing the racial fabric of this nation. To God be the glory for this memory that forever impacted my life. I can’t believe he’s gone.
Here is the photo we took that night which will live with me forever.
God displays his works through people. Our love for God and an adherence to do his will should bring out the greatest in us all. Congratulations on a life and job well done Muhammad. Now, sleep well until Jesus’ triumphant return.
By Doug Williams